Before the Civil War, the idea of public education was still controversial. Conservatives argued that education was the responsibility of parents not the government. The result was that rich families sent their kids to private schools, or hired tutors, and poor families sent their kids to work. And guess what? The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Liberals argued that a better educated populous would help everybody.
When Kansas became a state, the idea of free education was written into the state constitution. Settlers flocked to Kansas with the promise of hundreds of free public schools within walking distance of everyone. People have been moving to Kansas because of the outstanding education system, including state sponsored colleges and universities, ever since.
Along with education comes things like better health, lower crime, higher per-capita income and better quality of life in general.
The subjects that are taught have often been controversial. Industry was generally opposed to universal education until they realized that teaching people to read and follow instructions and show up on time would be helpful for productivity.
Since World War II we having been moving away from the industrial economy toward a knowledge based economy. Those whose education consisted of learning to show up and follow directions are being left behind. The number of well-paying jobs that require only high school are getting to be few. The result, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Creativity is the new “must have” skill. Schools must be teaching people to think clearly, learn how to solve problems, and most importantly, giving them a desire for life-long learning. This generally happens only at the college level or at the best high schools.
The next step the government needs to take is to move to provide free or affordable college level education for all. Community colleges and state universities are already in a position to make this happen. But there is a problem. People who have gone into debt or worked hard to pay for a college education are not going to be open to suddenly making this free to others. The legacy idea of having to pay for an expensive education will take much political effort to overcome and is probably not possible in one generation.
It took many years for the idea of free elementary and high schools to be accepted and then only happened on a state by state basis. If Kansas really wanted to give the state economy a boost, offering free college tuition to all residents would be the best thing we could do. Reducing funding to schools would be the absolute worse thing.
An underlying question that begs to be answered is “What is the purpose of college?” Is it to teach a marketable skill such as medicine, engineering, or accounting? Is it to make contacts and build relationships that will be helpful and fulfilling all through life? Is it just a prestige thing that you can point to open doors? Or maybe it is to open our minds to art and literature that will enhance our entire life.
I think it is all of those things. I've always contended that the main purpose of higher education is to show us what we don't know. This gives us a desire to learn more, and the more we learn the more we realize what we don't know. A common characteristic of uneducated people is that they think they know it all.
In today's culture, to be successful we need to have a desire and ability to be continuous learners, be flexible problem solvers, have the ability to work with others, and be able to relate to a wide variety of people and situations. This might happen in 12 years, but with our current education system, at least 16 years is required.