It's Past Time for a Fundamental Review of Our Nation's Public Education

Posted by Harris Miller on May 13, 2021 at 11:39 AM

The concept for high schools as we know them in the US was developed just before the pandemic. No, not the Covid 19 pandemic. The flu pandemic of 1918-1919. Yes, it has been well over a century since there was a deep dive into what secondary school should be in this country and how to effectively coordinate that with post-secondary education and workforce preparation.

It is time, and past time, for another fundamental review. And there is no better guide for such a review than Michelle Miller-Adams new book, The Path to Free College.

In 1918, a distinguished group of scholars recommended that public school education conclude after 12 years. They laid out in some detail what they believed needed to be included in secondary education. While several states already had gone to a 12 year model at that time, many still used the 8 year model developed in the 19th century when we were still an agrarian economy.

 The 1918 report was developed in the context of two revolutions: 1) moving from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial economy and 2) the admission of hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants, primarily from Europe. Today, we are in the midst of two other significant revolutions: 1) transitioning from an industrial economy to a technology economy, and 2) dramatic increases in globalization.

In their foundational work on the evolution of American Education, Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin identify three “transformations” of American education. They defined the first transformation as the “creation of publicly funded common schools and their spread throughout much of America.” They called the second transformation of American Education the “high school movement,” which led to the establishment of free public high schools in every community in the country. It was swifter than the first educational transformation and enabled America to begin its third transformation—to mass higher education.”

In the first half of the 20th century, this new paradigm for secondary education worked something of a miracle, creating the opportunity of a better future for millions of young adults about to enter the nation’s workforce. But as successful as the second transformation was, free, universal public high schools did a better job of enabling widely shared economic opportunity 100 years ago than it does today. Katz and Goldin’s book, The Race Between Education and Technology, concludes by lamenting that the third transformation remains unfinished because college is not yet the mass institution that high school became in the 20th century.

Now is the time to once again use the power of public education to create hand-holds and foot-holds on the ladder of upward mobility, helping more Americans gain value-added skills, find career directions and achieve economic prosperity. It is time to prepare the workforce for the new economy and for the challenges of globalization. It is time to reduce economic inequality by broadening education to people regardless of who they are and where they live. Rural America and many cities find their residents missing out on the economic opportunities our country offers because of educational limitations.

More than half of our fifty states and dozens of localities have already taken steps to implement such a policy, which Miller-Adams book describes in detail, by establishing some form of free post-secondary education, whether it be a technical program, a community college degree, or, in a few cases, a free four year degree,

Now President Biden has proposed the federal government adopt a system of free community college for all in order to establish a universal pre-K through 14 year movement. As he put it, “12 years is no longer enough to compete in the world of the 21st century.” Some believe the effort should go farther establishing that high school ends after 14 grades, thereby eliminating a barrier between secondary and post-secondary education.

Whatever the governance structure that emerges, Michelle Miller-Adams’s book and President Biden’s American Family Plan proposal have made it clear that there is no time to waste in starting down the path of creating a universal, comprehensive Pre-K through Community College educational system in America.

We can't do this alone!

Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.

We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.

If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.