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In Search of Uncommon Schools: Charter School Reform in Historical Perspective (Part 1) - Revisiting the Ideology of the Common School

by Amy Stuart Wells - November 02, 2000

A look at the ideology of the common school that Horace Mann and other reformers advocated in the 19th century

Amy Stewart Wells:

I’m greatly honored to be this year’s Julius and Rosa Sachs Lecturer at Teachers College, and to share with you my ongoing struggle to understand an educational reform movement that I’ve been studying fairly consistently now for the last 6 years. I’m referring to charter school reform which began in Minnesota in 1991 and since has spread to 31 states and jurisdictions across the country and spawned a total of 2000 charter schools serving more than half a million students. As most of you probably know, charter schools receive public money but operate with fewer regulations, and in theory anyway, less oversight from state and local education officials.

I began studying charter schools in Los Angeles in the winter of 1994, one year after the California charter school legislation was enacted. I was drawn to this reform because at the time, several public schools located in the very white and wealthy corner of the city of Los Angeles were attempting to convert to charter school status.

I was lured into charter school research by the same set of concerns that led me to study the intersection of race, education, and policy several years earlier as a student of Bob Crain’s here at Teachers College. As a sociologist in education, I wanted to know whether or not this was a reform movement that would lead to greater racial and social class segregation. I wanted to know whose interests were served by charter schools and, like many other charter school skeptics, I wanted to know whether this was a movement designed to allow mostly white and wealthy parents and students to flee racially mixed public schools and districts. I wanted to know whether this reform movement of the 1990’s was just another in a long line of efforts to allow white and/or relatively well off families, in particular, to run away from the pretense of the common public school.

What I learned over these last six years of working with graduate students to conduct nearly 1000 interviews and nearly 100 site visits to more than 20 charter schools across the country is that charter school reform is sometimes and in some places what I feared it would be. But I’ve also learned that it’s something far more complex.

What I know now is that charter school reform is a microcosm of the different political and social forces currently chipping away at the ideal of the common public school. In other words, charter school reform demonstrates to all of us just how fragile and perhaps inconceivable the common school philosophy is in a highly diverse, economically unequal society.

Given these lessons that I have learned from charter school educators and supporters, I would like to begin today’s lecture by revisiting the ideology of the common school that Horace Mann and other reformers advocated in the 19th century. I will then examine some of the historical evidence suggesting that resistance to the content of the common school has always been strong. And it may be getting even stronger with the increasing economic social and political inequalities inherent in global capitalism and postindustrial economies. I will also present preliminary findings from my work and other charter school studies that suggest that these autonomous schools of choice are even more segregated along racial and social class lines than our already very separate and unequal public educational system. Furthermore, interview data suggests that in many instances charter school operators and educators seek to be not only distinct, or uncommon in terms of whom they enroll, they also often seek to escape any efforts to make them common in terms of the curriculum and philosophy they espouse.

I believe that the search for uncommon schools is, as it is manifest historically as well as in the current charter school movement, is a particularly important theme to touch on at this moment in the history of American education. Public opinion polls show that support for tuition vouchers is strong and may be growing most quickly in poor quote unquote inner city communities. Liberals and progressives who oppose voucher policies on the grounds that they will rob the already struggling public schools in these communities of their highest achieving students and their most involved parents, seem to be offering few alternatives in response to low-income parents’ high level of frustration with public schools.

Howard Fuller, the African-American former superintendent of Milwaukee and current voucher supporter, was asked at a conference on school choice last spring whether he was concerned about the kids left behind in public schools in places like Milwaukee that now have voucher programs in several charter schools. Fuller turned the question back around and asked why we, as a society, do not worry about the kids left behind, did not worry about the kids left behind when all the white and wealthy parents were taking their kids out of public schools or moving to the suburbs. I think that Fuller poses an important question for those of us who do still believe in some of the goals and purposes of the common school. And for those of us who are honest about the fact that such common schools never really existed in great numbers.

I personally do not believe that voucher programs as they are currently constructed by policy-makers and wealthy supporters of the ballot initiatives in states like California, are the solution to the profound frustration with the public schools in low-income communities. Nor do I think that charter school laws in their current form will help many poor students and students of color in the long run for reasons I will touch on today and discuss more fully in the two subsequent lectures. But I do believe that examining charter schools within the historical context and paying close attention to the multiple reasons why people engage in this reform will help to shed light on how far we as a society have digressed from the vision of public educational system that would be the great equalizer. In addition, it could be that we are on the verge of a renewed commitment, or at least a revitalized debate, on the role of public education in our society. For instance, a small but growing number of scholars, activists, and policy-makers are voicing their frustration with both the existing separate and unequal public system and the never ending set of proposals to solve such inequality only through competitive market-based reforms such as vouchers. There is, for instance, the thoughtful new book edited by Larry Cuban and your own Dorothy Shipps, dedicated to David Tyack, titled Reconstructing the Common Good in Education.

There is also a forthcoming book by Richard Kallenberg of the Century Foundation titled All Together Now, which proposes an ambitious plan to desegregate schools by social class to a control choice system that will leave all public schools at least 75% middle class. Such policies, Kallenberg argues, would create at long last a system of truly common schools.

While the Kallenberg book makes a persuasive argument for integration of students by income, and the elimination of schools with high concentrations of poor students, I believe that we need to re-examine some of the deep seeded cultural themes and issues that have worked against such efforts for more than 150 years.

As I look back at the common school, and at least the theory of it, according to the philosophy driving the 19th century common school reform movement, the American common school was supposed to accomplish somewhat contradictory goals. These goals included creating an intelligent electorate, molding an ethnically and racially diverse population into a coherent American society, providing opportunities for America’s working-class, producing a disciplined industrial work force, and preventing racial and social class conflicts and strife (see Parkerson and Parkerson, 1998). Yet perhaps the overarching emphasis of the common school movement was on inculcating all students, especially the children of immigrants and the poor, with having doses of what Carl Kaestle (1984) refers to as White Pan-Protestant morality. Part of this strategy, it seems, was to make common schools common places, where children of the rich and poor could meet and break down the barriers between the classes. In part, it would do this by assimilating children of the poor to act more like the supposedly upstanding middle-class students.

Still it appears as though for at least some of the common school reformers there were other reasons why common schools should educate students of different backgrounds together. As Cremin (1957, pp. 8-9) noted, Horace Mann’s vision was that schools be common not only in the traditional European sense of the school of the common people, but in a new sense of a school common to all people. That it would be open to all provided by the state as part of the birthright of every child, rich and poor alike, receiving children of all creeds, classes, and backgrounds. And in the warm association of childhood, Mann saw the opportunity to kindle a spirit of amity and respect, which the conflicts of adult life could never destroy. In social harmony he located the primary goal of popular education.

Similarly Mann reportedly argued that the seeds of excellence are implanted equally in the minds of ignorant peasants and in the mind of the most profound philosopher, thus calling for an educational system that demanded equity for both peasant and philosopher. Yet as we know the common schools of that era for the most part excluded anyone who was not liked, in fact, Mann himself, for all his talk of equality of peasants and philosophers, also wrote that the almost universal opinion is that in "intellect, the blacks are inferior to the whites; while in sentiment and affection, the whites are inferior to the blacks" (cited in Hilliard, 1984, p. 266).

Furthermore, we can easily see the contradictions from the very beginning of the common school, that the common schools could both be sites of the assimilation and democratic institutions dedicated to creating more equality across various classes of white students only. On the other hand, one could argue that these dual purposes were not contradictory at all, that true assimilation to the White Pan-Protestant culture could not be accomplished if the more moral children were in separate schools.

Thus, common schools for all children were to bring students of different social classes together under one school roof to encourage their association with one another. This, in turn, would lead to greater assimilation of the young into a set of shared beliefs and understandings that reflected the dominant Protestant culture of the time.

Thus, it appeared that of all the arguments in favor of common public schools, two overlapping and intertwined themes of association and assimilation were most powerful. Interestingly enough, when we examined both recent reforms such as charter schools and the history of American education in general, we see that these two themes of broader association and cultural assimilation are the two themes that have been most consistently - and in the case of association, most successfully - resisted.


Cremin, L.A. (1957). The Republic and the School. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cuban, Larry and Dorothy Shipps (eds.) (2000). Reconstructing the Common Good in Education. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hilliard, A.G. III (1984). Democratizing the common school in a multicultural society. Education and Urban Society, 16, 262-273.

Kaestle, C.F. (1984). Moral education and common schools in America: A historian’s view. Journal of Moral Education, 13, 101-111.

Kahlenberg, R. (forthcoming). All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class School Through Public School Choice. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Parkerson, D.H. and J. Parkerson (1998). The Emergence of the Common School in the U.S. Countryside. Lewiston: The Edward Mellen Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 02, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10630, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 9:58:16 AM

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