There were many catalysts for the development of free secondary education for all in the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century most high schools had entrance requirements that kept attendance down to less than 5% of the population, but even in these conditions most children were expected to work to support their family after they completed (at the latest) junior high. By the 1940s child labor laws had been passed, mandatory attendance laws and open enrollment had been instituted so that by the 1950s most students were continuing their education through their 12th year. Most educational policies passed since this time have attempted to minimize the dropout rate which has been linked (correctly or otherwise) with economic success, and inversely so. Once students were required to attend, lawmakers decided that it was important for them to produce certain results to show that the government’s  money was being invested wisely, much like a business. Standards based education was instituted with the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and by 2006 a majority of students in the United Stated had to pass certain tests in order to get out of high school with a diploma. It took the American education system 100 years to get from preventing kids from getting in to high school to preventing kids from getting out. While an issue worthy of attention, it is not the issue at hand.

It is now 2010. We live in a world of redistricting, school closures, possible revocation of teacher tenure, and yet another call to return to math and science education in addition to the overwhelming reading focus we now hold in our elementary schools. Teachers are being held responsible for a student performance problem that is deeply sociological and rooted in the home, and what goes on there is none of your damn business btw. Racial and class issues run deep in the prediction of student performance, and the isolation of inner city and rural schools only seems to be getting worse. Programs within the curriculum are being cut and re-prioritized and said programs can no longer rely on advocacy efforts in the face of financial hardship. Tax cuts in individual states create deficits which in turn are being balanced by cuts to public services, education not being immune.

When you add together financial crisis, poor student performance, standards based education and evaluation, a teacher shortage (a subject for another time), and a politically confused nation, you get a public school system in danger. Upper middle class and higher income families will have the resources to educate their children in the private sector should anything go wrong. But what of the other children? The overwhelmingly black and minority population in the inner city schools? The poor, white rural families who may not be able to get their child to the newly consolidated school and busing gets them home too late to help around the house?

It is completely possible that a large amount of students may be unable to attend public school before long. This could be due to any number of things: too few teachers, school closings, increased drop out rate due to more stringent testing requirements, you name it. What will our government do then? Should we simply allow these children to stay at home until they come of age to work (read: go out and find something to do i.e. cause trouble)? Without the schools to hold all the children who are mandated to attend, at what point will education policies begin to turn back the hands of time? The pendulum seems to be swinging dangerously back to a time when our children were beginning to work between the ages of 9 and 14 instead of between ages 15 and 18. The questions is where they might fit in. Our workforce is no longer a factory based system. I wonder about our farming industry that currently employs a large amount of “illegal” immigrants and migrant workers. I suppose those students could go pick some cotton or press grapes or shuck corn…

This would require adjustments in mandatory attendance laws and the child labor laws that have been in place for 50+ years. Despite this, looking at the current political climate I honestly would not be surprised if we made it there. With bargaining rights in danger of being taken away in Wisconsin and other retroactive legislation coming around the country, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if some politician finds a way to strip public education and child protections and use beautiful language to take them away. Something like “In an effort to expand the options of our youth they may now enroll in a fine private institution OR opt to make money in our great capitalist system by entering the workforce earlier than our previously oppressive government might have liked them to.” Sounds nice right?

Come on kids, pick your job and learn your trade. You don’t need that oppressive college option. Don’t let the gub’mint tell you what you should do and learn and where you should go. Your social class can do that for you.

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