Today George H. Smith begins a new essay series with a discusion of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about education and his plan for a decentralized system of public schools in the state of Virginia. Smith writes that contrary to the beliefs of some historians that would link Jefferson to Enlightenment advocates of state schooling like Benjamin Rush, Samuel Knox, and Noah Webster or to the common school movement of the 1830s, Jefferson favored schooling on a more local level:
The key to local school districts, according to Jefferson, is that they give parents direct and ultimate control over how their children are educated. To suppose that schools will he better managed by “any authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward…is a belief against all experience.” A government can no more manage schools than it can manage “our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores.” Elementary education should be the concern of local communities under the supervision of parents; it should not be controlled by the federal or state governments.
Extreme decentralization was thus the centerpiece of Jefferson’s plan for public schools, and he warned of the potential consequences should this feature be ignored:
“What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or the aristocrats of a Venetian Senate.”