Did you know that before British and U.S. governments created public schools, parents still placed a high value on education? That children got a better education each passing year? That schools were cheaper? That 95% of teenagers were literate? That teenagers were more literate without public schools than they are now, with them? Truth.
I recently discovered a fascinating article on The Spread of Education Before Compulsion: Britain and America in the Nineteenth Century from the Freeman.
A few, choice, excerpts. First, the experience in Britain.
Contrary to popular belief, the supply of schooling in Britain between 1800 and 1840 was relatively substantial prior to any government intervention, although it depended almost completely on private funds. At this time, moreover, the largest contributors to education revenues were working parents and the second largest was the Church. Of course, there was less education per child than today, just as there was less of everything else, because the national income was so much smaller. I have calculated, nevertheless, that the percentage of the net national income spent on day-schooling of children of all ages in England in 1833 was approximately 1 percent. By 1920, when schooling had become "free" and compulsory by special statute, the proportion had fallen to 0.7 percent.
The evidence also shows that working parents were purchasing increasing amounts of education for their children as their incomes were rising from 1818 onwards, and this, to repeat, at a time before education was "free" and compulsory by statute. Compulsion came in 1880, and state schooling did not become free until 1891.
... It is not surprising that with such evidence of literacy growth of young people, the levels had become even more substantial by 1870. On my calculations for 1880, when national compulsion was enacted, over 95 percent of fifteen-year-olds were literate. This should be compared to the fact that over a century later 40 percent of 21-year-olds in the United Kingdom admit to difficulties with writing and spelling.
Second, the experience in the U.S.
Sheldon Richman quotes data showing that from 1650 to 1795, American male literacy climbed from 60 to 90 percent. Between 1800 and 1840 literacy in the North rose from 75 percent to between 91 and 97 percent. In the South the rate grew from about 55 percent to 81 percent. Richman also quotes evidence indicating that literacy in Massachusetts was 98 percent on the eve of legislated compulsion and is about 91 percent today.
Finally, Carl F. Kaestle observes: "The best generalization possible is that New York, like other American towns of the Revolutionary period, had a high literacy rate relative to other places in the world, and that literacy did not depend primarily upon the schools."
And, the conclusion.
If, on the other hand, the term "universal" is intended more loosely to mean something like, "most," "nearly everybody," or "over 90 percent," then we lack firm evidence to show that education was not already universal prior to intervention. The eventual establishment, meanwhile, of laws to provide a schooling that was both compulsory and free, was accompanied by major increases in costs. These included not only unprecedented expenses of growing bureaucracy but also the substantial costs of reduced liberty of families eventually caught in a choice-restricted monopoly system serving the interests not of the demanders but of the rent-seeking suppliers. Both sides of the Atlantic, meanwhile, shared this same fate.
We educated our children before we had universal, "free", public schools. We educated our children before the rise of strong national and state teachers' unions. We could have it again.