“We’re gonna take the broom of reform and sweep this state clean.” – Homer Stokes (O Brother, Where Art Thou)
The South Carolina House will start debate this week on the S.C. Career Opportunity and Access for All Act (H.3759). This legislation, if enacted, will reform broad parts of our k-12 public school system. The bill is necessary for the current system to remain relevant. The bill does not address a new method of k-12 education as some would like. The bill is not innovative but reactive, as it has to be at this point. We are patching the past, not building the future. To understand what I mean, let’s review a short history.
South Carolina’s public school system derives from the Prussian education method developed during the early 19thcentury. By the 1830’s, Prussian students received a free education funded by the taxpayer. A well-paid professional class of trained teachers taught them. Local and national testing measured their progress. They were put into grades by age rather than aptitude. They studied in buildings furnished by the government and their school calendar was based on agricultural growing seasons. Sound familiar?
Horace Mann introduced the Prussian method to the United States in the 1840s. As the first Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, he toured the Prussian education establishment and was impressed with their efficiency. He returned home and applied their methods to the educational system in Massachusetts. He also added the notion that only females should be teachers and formed “normal schools” to train them. Mann issued a report of his findings that was widely distributed throughout the Northern United States and England.
The Prussian education method fit nicely with the burgeoning industrial revolution and soon spread throughout Northern schools. The method was not widely used in the South prior to Reconstruction. As the industrial age transformed the North during the late 1800s, public schools that used the Prussian method became known as “factory model schools.”
Meanwhile the South was growing cotton to feed the rising industrial machine; not just for the North but for England, Europe and Russia. One-fourth of the households in England depended upon cotton for their jobs. Cotton was the first international commodity fueling the new capitalist industrial age. By 1860 the South produced 78% of the world’s raw cotton supply and became the wealthiest section of the United States. If we were to study the worldwide economic impact of cotton along with the international diplomacy initiated by Southern politicians in Washington D. C. toward England and Spain, we might understand that the War of 1861 to 1865 was much more complex than just freeing slaves or defending states rights. The War was about wealth control and it caused an international economic crisis.
After the South’s defeat in 1865, economic chaos ensued until the end of Reconstruction. By the time things calmed down, England had figured out how to grow cotton in Egypt and India that was equal in quality to the South’s and our control of the world’s most valued commodity was lost. Real property values plummeted and remained down as the old cotton plantations were divided out to sharecroppers to farm or left dormant. The Southern economy remained depressed until the end of Word War Two.
During Reconstruction, the constitutions of each Southern state were rewritten at the armed request of the Federal occupiers. The South Carolina Constitution of 1868, modeled upon the Ohio state constitution, established a free public school system open to all children. The schools were funded by a statewide property tax. This funding method may have been fine for Ohio but with our property values depressed, free public education in South Carolina was financially handicapped from the start.
Always lagging behind most of the other Southern states, we have reformed our public school system numerous times in an effort to provide the level of broad education excellence promised by Horace Mann and the original Prussian model. The reforms always fall short no matter how much time and money the effort consumes. Some would say that we just have not spent enough. I say that we are repairing an ox-cart in a SpaceX world. The Prussian method is just worn out.
I applaud the Speaker of the House Jay Lucas for forming the necessary education study committees to gather much needed information about our school problems on a statewide basis and then writing the bill that will shore up the current system. We have to shore it up. It is the only option we have at the moment.
Our future requires a new method of k-12 education, one that cuts ties to the baggage of previous centuries. The new method must fundamentally shift away from the mass education of children to the education of each individual child. Genetics and neuroscience tell us that every child is unique. Why don’t we listen? Are we that enamored with the old factory model school? We must use 21stcentury knowledge to solve our education problems.
Speaker Lucas has shown great leadership and determination in addressing fundamental problems in our state. His leadership has improved the future of our state retirement system, raised revenue to maintain our roads and now the reformation of our current k-12 education system. After the S.C. Career Opportunity and Access for All Act becomes law, I encourage Speaker Lucas to form a new study committee to research new education methods that will be built on a foundation formed in 2020 instead of 1830.
(As an aside, the United States Congress based our Social Security system on the original government sponsored old age pension plan established in Germany in 1889. Otto von Bismarck who was Germany’s Chancellor and a Prussian designed the German system. The Social Security Administration pays homage to Bismarck in their history. Rome may have been the model for America’s republic but Prussia was the originator of some of our most problematic bureaucracy today.)