Boston Latin School – Considered the first American Public School (1635) National Geographic Society and Wikimedia


“Golf is a good walk spoiled” is an observation attributed to but apparently not uttered by Mark Twain. Aside from a good walk, a similar effect of something being spoiled is felt when you finish reading a great book about the history of Ohio and then read a jarring quote in a newspaper article, a word choice frequently used to demean one of the state’s treasured assets.

That’s the feeling I had when I completed David McCullough’s latest book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West and then read an article in the Columbus Dispatch detailing the efforts of a statewide coalition that is challenging the diversion of public funds to support private and religious schools as part of the state’s voucher program.

First, a look about a great book that was not quite spoiled.

Ohio was the first state formed out of the vast Northwest Territory, and the Ordinance crafted by the Continental Congress that established this vast new addition to the young nation, wrote McCullough, “would establish how the states were to be laid out.”

Our nation’s founders, including John Adams, saw the establishment of common schools as a key for settling this vast new territory. McCullough writes:

“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” That such emphasis be put on education in the vast new territory before even one permanent settlement had been established was extraordinary. But of even greater importance was the fact that outside of New England there was then no such thing in the United States as a system of state-supported schools of any kind, and even in New England students were poorly taught, housed, and hardly supervised in the least. Before the year was out, in a contract between the Ohio Company and the Board of Treasury, it would be specified that a section in each township be reserved for common schools …”  

At a time when our young nation was a vast wilderness west of the Allegheny Mountains, there were visionaries who thought that the core of every community, be it called a hamlet, village, borough, township, town or city, should be a school provided for in a basic founding document, as the Northwest Ordinance was crafted, that would be owned by the citizens and provided governance through the actions of community representatives.

The name given for these entities was the common school, or, more familiarly, the public school. Those interchangeable names have been with us since the days of the Northwest Ordinance and John Adams. Add to that other visionaries like Horace Mann, considered by historians as our first secretary of education.

Centennial Public Schools – Utica, Nebraska


So if the terms public school and common school are agreed-upon descriptors and have been around since the beginning of the Republic, what has changed? What exactly was it that spoiled the enjoyment from reading David McCullough’s book?

That’s the second part of where we started, the part that spoiled a great read.

In the Columbus Dispatch story, voters were informed of the continuing work of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding to ensure that the state meets its constitutional requirement to provide for a thorough and efficient system of public schools. Under the leadership of William Phillis, a former deputy state superintendent of schools, the Coalition has united public school districts to challenge the expansion of the EdChoice school voucher program, which is diverting scarce state funds from the constitutionally-mandated public, or common schools, as they are also identified in statute.

This is how the lede of the Dispatch story described the proposed lawsuit:

The same coalition that successfully sued the state a generation ago over an unconstitutional school-funding system now is putting together a new lawsuit challenging the legality of Ohio’s school voucher program.

That first lawsuit, DeRolph v. State of Ohio, was decided by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1997. The Ohio E & A and its partner school districts argued that the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to provide the proper level of funding through reliance on property taxes and therefore failed “to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools.”

In its ruling nearly 25 years ago, the Court carefully explored the Ohio Constitution, which has its basis in the Northwest Ordinance. The court used the commonly agreed upon language to describe public education as a system of common schools supported by public funds.

And if there is something called settled law, you might also think that when it comes to identifying public institutions as common schools or public schools, there might also  be agreed upon or settled language.

But when it comes to right-wing groups that have an agenda, think again. As the Dispatch story continued:

“It’s an all-time low for government school activists to try to rip low-income and special-needs students out of their schools right now,” said Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values.

All time low? Perhaps the average Ohio citizen doesn’t recognize the term “government school,” a phrase that is deliberately used as a pejorative by the right to inflame the anti-government  and militia types of the world who find a conspiracy at every turn and are hell-bent on destroying the role of government and the public schools that are part of our system of self-governance.

How interesting that Mr. Baer heads an organization with community values in its title when he shows no respect for the very institutions that the founders deemed to be the common element in every hamlet, a community asset of great value which represents the essence of democracy and citizen participation.

But Mr. Baer, himself an activist in an organization which has its own specific agenda, is engaging in projection through his own activism by using a pejorative to inflame extreme anti-government types.

But activist Aaron Baer didn’t stop with the placement of his all-time low in projecting with pejoratives. In fact, he crafted a trifecta when he crammed the super-charged terms all-time low, activists, and government schools into the same sentence.

He continued with this broadside:

This lawsuit adds insult to injury. Every Ohio leader should condemn this brazen attack on children and families. Furthermore, every Ohio family should call their local public school district and call on them to condemn this lawsuit, and not to join in this attack on families.

Yeah, right. The leader of an organization which has community values in its title demeans every community’s public schools and directs an activist group whose purpose is to divert public funds for private purposes. But wait there’s more. To borrow some of his pejorative language, he brazenly suggests that community members contact their local school districts and have them condemn a lawsuit designed to help public schools counteract the diversion of public funds for private purposes.

Yeah. Right.

1932 Cartoon – Walter J. Enright


“Somewhere along the way, the term “government schools” entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system,” the New York Times posited in an article from a few years back. And when the public hears the hackneyed dog whistle government school, they instantly know that the person or organization which uses this phrase more than likely has a brazen, activist agenda: let’s promote something called school choice and use public funds for our private purposes. Never mind that visionaries, in the process that created Ohio in the first place, saw public schools as the foundation of communities in the settlement of the West.

For those who support the public’s schools and feel that government is an essential instrument of our democracy, I urge them to answer those espousing the public funds for private purposes agenda to take this advice from a 2016 Plunderbund article entitled Watch Your Language: Emotional Trigger Words, Pejoratives and Charter Schools.

So if someone uses the word government as a pejorative, can’t others use the likes of Enron, Arthur Andersen, Adelphia Communications, Lehmann Brothers … and White Hat – icons of non-transparent and unaccountable corporate America – in the same fashion?

If the anti-public education crowd insists on using the term government schools, I propose that hereon, good citizens use the term corporate schools rather than charter or community schools. While we’re at it, how about privatization rather than school choice?

We need agreed-upon descriptors to counter those who use the term government schools as their mantra and battle cry.

After all, it’s about language. Proponents of public education need to get more effective in how to use language effectively.

And we haven’t even talked about extremist and ultra-conservative religious schools that don’t teach science and other secular subjects and would scream to high heaven (snicker) in fighting any oversight and accountability that might come with that socialist gov’mint money. In this time of crisis, of death and societal upheaval, what sense does it make in not teaching science? How interesting that private and religious schools love to have it both ways.

Call it EdChoice or any other term, but the result is the same. Give us that government money but don’t you dare talk about accountability and oversight to ensure the proper public purpose with the expenditure of public funds.

Yes, it is all about language. Common schools are public schools, and they are embedded into our state constitutions. Those terms are also part of our settled language. Private schools and religious schools are not part of our constitution. No public conversation should be about using public funds to promote school choice. Pardon me, but that notion is not settled. Using your own money to select a private or religious school and making your own parental choice is a settled notion.

But it is all about following the constitution, fidelity to the very ideals of the Northwest Ordinance, and about our community values. Those values include democracy and the public schools that are the foundation of every community. It’s also about our money – not mine and yours – and not about public funds for private purposes. And all of these principles, my fellow citizens, are our community values.

Thank you, David McCullough, for being such a great teacher. Now I’ll go for that walk.


Other Suggested Reading on This Topic:

What’s In A Name? A Look At Ohio’s Public And Charter School Names