"FREEDOM of education, being an essential of civil and religious liberty . . . must not be interfered with under any pretext whatever," the party's national platform declared. "We are opposed to state interference with parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children as an infringement of the fundamental . . . doctrine that the largest individual liberty consistent with the rights of others insures the highest type of American citizenship and the best government."
That ringing endorsement of parental supremacy in education was adopted by the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1892, which just goes to show what was possible before the Democratic Party was taken hostage by the teachers unions. (Wondrous to relate, the platform also warned that "the tendency to centralize all power at the federal capital has become a menace," blasted barriers to free trade as "robbery of the great majority of the American people for the benefit of the few," and pledged "relentless opposition to the Republican policy of profligate expenditure.")
Today, on education as on so much else, the Democrats sing from a different hymnal. When the party's presidential candidates debated at Dartmouth College recently, they were asked about a controversial incident in Lexington, Mass., where a second-grade teacher, to the dismay of several parents, had read her young students a story celebrating same-sex marriage. Were the candidates "comfortable" with that?
"Yes, absolutely," former senator John Edwards promptly replied. "I want my children . . . to be exposed to all the information . . . even in second grade . . . because I don't want to impose my view. Nobody made me God. I don't get to decide on behalf of my family or my children. . . . I don't get to impose on them what it is that I believe is right." None of the other candidates disagreed, even though most of them say they oppose same-sex marriage.
Thus in a little over 100 years, the Democratic Party - and much of the Republican Party - has been transformed from a champion of "parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children" to a party whose leaders believe that parents "don't get to impose" their views and values on what their kids are taught in school. Do American parents see anything wrong with that? Apparently not: The majority of them dutifully enroll their children in government-operated schools, where the only views and values permitted are the ones prescribed by the state.
But controversies like the one in Lexington are reminders that Big Brother's ideas about what and how children should be taught are not always those of mom and dad.
Americans differ on same-sex marriage and evolution, on the importance of sports and the value of phonics, on the right to bear arms and the reverence due the Confederate flag. Some parents are committed secularists; others are devout believers. Some place great emphasis on math and science; others stress history and foreign languages. Americans hold disparate opinions on everything from the truth of the Bible to the meaning of the First Amendment, from the usefulness of rote memorization to the significance of music and art. With parents so often in loud disagreement, why should children be locked into a one-size-fits-all, government-knows-best model of education?
Nobody would want the government to run 90 percent of the nation's entertainment industry. Nobody thinks that 90 percent of all housing should be owned by the state. Yet the government's control of 90 percent of the nation's schools leaves most Americans strangely unconcerned.
But we should be concerned. Not just because the quality of government schooling is so often poor or its costs so high. Not just because public schools are constantly roiled by political storms. Not just because schools backed by the power of the state are not accountable to parents and can ride roughshod over their concerns. And not just because the public-school monopoly, like most monopolies, resists change, innovation, and excellence.
All of that is true, but a more fundamental truth is this: In a society founded on political and economic liberty, government schools have no place. Free men and women do not entrust to the state the molding of their children's minds and character. As we wouldn't trust the state to feed our kids, or to clothe them, or to get them to bed on time, neither should we trust the state to teach them.
What 19th-century Democrats understood, 21st-century Americans need to relearn: Education is too important to be left to the government.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.