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The Conservative Foundation of Virginia’s Public Education System

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson drafted “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” In this bill—a revolutionary idea for its time—Jefferson outlined the framework for a free public education system: specified the manner by which each county was to be subdivided into school districts, authorized these school districts to be allocated money from the county treasury to pay teachers and to maintain schoolhouses, determined who was eligible to attend these schools (all free boys and girls), developed a curriculum that each school would teach its pupils, and established an overseer system to ensure that each school was following the prescribed curriculum.

This bill was twice presented to the Virginia House of Delegates by James Madison. It never passed.

Seven years later, Jefferson, then the American Minister to France, had not quit the fight for a nearly universal public education system in Virginia. Writing to his mentor, George Wythe, a reflective Jefferson argued that an educated public was critical to the survival of self-government in the fledgling United States:

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness. …Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance [sic.].

Halting attempts to realize Jefferson’s vision for a broadly educated Virginia citizenry continued throughout the 19th Century, but a truly free, universal, public education system would not be established in the Commonwealth until the Reconstruction-ending “Underwood Constitution” of 1870. This system would be tweaked again in subsequent constitutions and by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education (Prince Edward County, Virginia was involved in a school segregation suit that was incorporated within the broader suit in Brown).

The array of educational options available to young Virginians today—public schools, private schools, charter schools, and home schools—has grown in number and affordability compared to 1779 (or even 1870 or 1954) when a formal education was an expensive privilege unobtainable to all except the wealthy members of Virginia’s gentry. We, as Republicans who revere Mr. Jefferson’s passion for liberty, should also share his zeal for maintaining, supporting, and constantly improving a high-quality public education system.

Our system, imperfect though it may be at times, remains the envy of families in many parts of the world who would love for their children to have an opportunity to receive a quality education regardless of the children’s race or sex, or the family’s socioeconomic standing and political connections. An overwhelming majority of our Commonwealth’s families choose to enroll their children in the public school system so we owe them a world-class education that will prepare them for a career and a life in the 21st Century. Finally, as Mr. Jefferson envisioned in 1779, so it is today: the wide dissemination of knowledge remains essential to self-government, the key to “the preservation of freedom and happiness,” and a bulwark against tyranny. That alone is reason enough to pick-up the torch and continue to wage Mr. Jefferson’s “crusade against ignorance.”


Note: This is the first in a series of op-eds on the topic of public education in Virginia.  Before delving into more issues, including policy, finance, and federalism, I wanted to establish a foundation for future discussion that one can be both a philosophical conservative and an ardent supporter of public education.