Each year the California Grand Lodge and its constituent Masonic lodges throughout the state proclaim one month to be “Public Schools Month.” A proclamation is routinely delivered by the sitting Grand Master, read aloud in each constituent lodge during one or more monthly stated meetings. Its purpose has always been to encourage lodges to plan a program publicly supporting Public Schools in a way that reveals for all to see the depth of Freemasonry’s commitment.
Until 2011, each constituent lodge was generally left to decide for itself what to do without the benefit of also embracing a statewide Masonic project in which it could become involved. That effort has been a rather haphazard implementation of a series of different activities by different lodges working independently of each other. The programs ranged from elaborate and energetic interaction with selected Public Schools to nothing at all.
There are many various reasons why certain lodges have done little or nothing. In some lodges the members have not been particularly active outside of lodge ritual or lodge social events. In other lodges the past leadership simply did not provide adequate vision. And in yet other lodges financial resources were inadequate to do much more than struggle to support the bare minimum of activities.
But all of that changed in 2011 for California Masons and their lodges. Grand Master William J. Bray III led the way to implementing a statewide Masonic commitment to the state’s public schools. Although it was his leadership that provided the energy for implementing the programs, the plan came from ordinary Masons who work in the trenches of Freemasonry throughout the state.
The most recent Grand Lodge Strategic Plan is the product of a survey taken by its Executive Committee and staff delivered to each and every member of a constituent lodge. Woven into the fabric of that plan was the overwhelmingly most popular response: Masonry should become a force for profoundly invigorating our Public Schools. Masons up and down the state concluded that it was important to save public education, make it better than ever before, and prove to our communities that Masons believe that a successful system of free public education is essential to the continuation of a free society.
To better understand why such a diverse group of men and women from differing political, religious and cultural backgrounds stand linked arm-in-arm in support of public schools, it is instructive to first learn how and why public schools came to dominate America’s educational system. A great deal of credit for that goes to Horace Mann – the “Father of the Common School Movement” – who also happened to be a Mason. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Mann’s dedication to the public school cause was due to his being a Mason. It would also be a mistake to infer that Freemasonry supports Public Schools simply because Horace Mann was a Mason. The truth of the matter is that Masonry embraces values that Mann found appealing enough to be initiated into the Craft. Freemasonry and Mann shared the same reverence for virtue, morality and the advancement of an enlightened public.
Today, Public Schools are the primary source for educating our children from kindergarten through high school. That was not always so, for from the beginning of this country until the present day advancing the cause of Public School education has been strongly opposed by parents with powerful political backing who have steadfastly resisted turning their children over to teachers for their moral education. Even in America’s early years some children were home-schooled. If their parents were wealthy enough others were taught by private tutors. However, soon after the American Revolution was concluded, Thomas Jefferson initiated a nationwide dialogue that gained such tremendous momentum that Public Schools eventually became the norm rather than the exception.
Jefferson argued that a free and independent society would be stronger if all of its citizens received equal access to knowledge – knowledge which each could then apply in their daily lives. At the end of the Revolution the nation found itself without any educational system and the people were left to fend for themselves. To remedy the matter, Jefferson – who at various times argued with equal vigor for small and large government – suggested that tax dollars be used to fund a nationwide educational system. His suggestion was ignored at the time and his idea languished for nearly a century.
By the 1840’s a few Public Schools had popped up around the country financially supported by communities that could afford them. At about this time Horace Mann began his own crusade, picking up where Jefferson had left off. Mann’s life story cannot be told here, but suffice to state that if he had not acted with energetic, single-minded dedication to what he believed was necessary, Massachusetts would not have passed the first compulsory education laws in 1852. New York followed the following year and by 1918 all American children were required to at least attend elementary school. What followed was the nothing less than the successful pursuit of something shared in common by Freemasonry and America’s Founding Fathers: equality.
At the turn of the 20th century schools in the South, as well as many in the north were segregated. In 1896, in a case entitled Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal – a decision that would be overturned decades later in the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. What was at issue in 1954 and decided once and for all time was the ideal that all men are created equal under the eyes of the Supreme Architect of the Universe – at least when it comes to the question of equal access to education. It certainly comes as no surprise that the Chief Justice in 1954 was Earl Warren who, like Horace Mann, was a Mason. From that year forward all Public Schools have been open to children of all ethnic backgrounds.
Between 1896 and 1954, Masons throughout America led the charge for the advancement of enlightenment with its clarion call for the support of Public Schools. It is neither ironic nor wholly surprising that the first time the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, whose see is at Charleston, North Carolina, ventured out into the world of community service was to further the cause of Public Schools. Much gratitude is owed to the Grand Commander at the time, George F. Moore, for his uncompromising leadership in that venture.
Before being elected Grand Commander in 1914 by the Supreme Council, Moore – a prolific writer – auditioned his Masonic position in favor of Public Schools in such publications as The New Age – a predecessor to today’s Scottish Rite Journal. His attempts, made before the onset of World War I, were well received everywhere – including in New York which was prompted by men such as Moore, as well as organizations such as the Scottish Rite to pass it’s compulsory education laws in 1918. In the years after Moore had passed his elected position as Grand Commander on to John Cowles, the Scottish Rite became known throughout America as the great promoter of nationwide literacy through the auspices of Public Schools.
California Masons were no less active in their support of Public Schools. In 1920 Charles A. Adams, Grand Master of Masons in California made Public Schools a Masonic project for the first time. The demands for manpower made upon the populace by World War I led to the flight of thousands of teachers from their classrooms. More important jobs awaited them: combat overseas, attending to farmlands to grow the food necessary to sustain a struggling nation, and manufacturing factories that had to fulfill ever increasing demands for the production and delivery of war materiel. Grand Master Adams witnessed the accompanying fallout with great alarm. Approximately 600 schools were closed throughout California – an extraordinary number for that time.
Although Freemasonry has consistently refrained from engaging in or taking sides in the world of public politics, Grand Master Adams prudently weighed the advantages and disadvantages of doing so on behalf of Public Schools. At its core, Masonry had always inculcated in its members the importance of pursuing knowledge. Its ritual sought to impress upon candidates for Masonic degrees the importance of studying the liberal arts and sciences, such as grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry. And the very idea about the establishment of Public Schools throughout the nation seemingly originated with our first President – and one of Freemasonry’s most prominent members. In a letter to his Vice President, John Adams, George Washington wrote:
“Wise and judicious modes of education, patronized and supported by communities, will draw together the sons of the rich and the poor, among whom it makes no distinction; it will cultivate natural genius, elevate the soul, excite laudable emulation to excel in knowledge, piety, and benevolence; and finally it will reward its patrons and benefactors by shedding its benign influence on the public mind.”
There was additional Masonic precedence for Grand Master Adams to draw upon before deciding what to do. De Witt Clinton, who served as Grand Master of Masons in New York, as well as Governor of that state, embraced the cause of Public Schools so emphatically that he is known today as the “Father of New York Public Schools.” While serving as Grand Master of Masons in Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin openly endorsed the adoption of Public Schools in that state.
With that history and precedent to support him, Grand Master Adams determined that California Masons should take a public stance in support of strengthening the Public Schools system in this state. He knew that Masonry had a long-standing belief that public education was essential to sustaining a free society. Indeed, Masonic virtues promoted a concept that went far beyond encouraging the mere accumulation of knowledge: equal access to knowledge promotes freedom and strengthens the middle class without which democratic principles fundamental to this Republic will wither away and eventually disappear. On those grounds it was easy for Grand Master Adams on August 30, 1920 to issue the first Masonic Public Schools Week Proclamation.
The history of Masonry’s support of Public Schools did not end there. That support has continued since then in every Masonic jurisdiction, but was perhaps most profoundly demonstrated by the continuing nationwide work by the Scottish Rite. For example, seizing upon the examples set by Grand Commanders Moore and Cowles – that freedom is the most significant blessing any man can enjoy – Brook Hays, a Thirty-Third degree Scottish Rite Mason and Arkansas congressman literally sacrificed his political career for Public Schools.
A lay-preacher and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Hays also took a stand against many of his Southern Baptist cronies by leading the public charge against Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus who opposed providing public education equally to all races. Owing to Hays’ courage and persistence, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the Arkansas National Guard to go into action. By his command they advanced into that state and restored obedience to the new law of the land – Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas – and thereby forever linked all of America and Freemasonry to a commitment to a free public education for all people.
In 1985 when Fred Kleinknecht was elected to serve as Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, Public Schools were under assault by various religious organizations bent upon wresting control of education from the hands of a secular public. Two Masonic values were under attack: the freedom of religion and the right of all people to a free public education. Kleinknecht was determined to continue the work of his predecessor, Henry Clausen, to keep religion separate from the state – the one and only certain way to prevent the tyranny of theocratic doctrine. Grand Commander Kleinknecht would forever be dogged during his tenure by religious fundamentalists who eventually turned their ire directly against Masonry – an ire that to this day has not entirely abated.
It didn’t help Kleinknecht’s position in the eyes of his persistent detractors that Clausen had previously taken a firm public stance against prayer in Public Schools while serving as Grand Commander. To those fervently pressing for inclusion of prayer in Public Schools, Clausen’s stance was viewed as emblematic of all that is wrong with Masonry. The result has been a continuous and unrelenting effort to discredit the Craft and its members. It is no surprise that the assault by some powerful forces upon Public Schools has also increased and poses a threat to a bedrock of human freedom.
Today our Public Schools are operated at the state level by departments of education, and locally by school districts, as well as publicly elected or appointed officials. By one estimate there are approximately 15,000 such school districts operating throughout the nation. Most are supervised and run by individual counties. Because there is little federal oversight, curricula differs from state to state – a fact that has prompted some to opine that greater coordination or centralization would even out the existing disparities among the states in student performance.
While literacy rates among students at all levels in elementary school are perhaps the most important issue for Masons to focus upon, it is equally important to understand why some outspoken critics of Public Schools blame poor performance upon the system and its teachers, but give little credit to either when students perform well. The maxim “follow the money” is particularly relevant.
First, Public Schools are funded by tax monies paid by taxpaying citizens. No one likes paying taxes and when they are asked to pay more than they have in the past, many people point fingers of blame at supposed inefficiencies within the system.
Property taxes pay for most of the cost of Public Schools. Although some monies flow into the system from parents, private fundraising, as well as federal, state and local governments, it remains those taxes which comprise the lion’s share of funding. In California, a so-called “taxpayer revolt” and well-financed political campaign led to the passage of something referred to as “The People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation.” While the benefits and harm of that law can forever be debated, one fact about Public Schools is beyond debate: since the 1960’s when California schools were highly ranked among the nation’s Public Schools, there has been a steady decline since The People’s Initiative was made law. Today the state’s Public School students now rank 48th out of 50 states in many surveys about student achievement.
For Masonry the challenge is not about endorsing or opposing higher taxes, or even to adopt a position in that emotionally-charged debate. Rather, the challenge is to fully comprehend the forces at work for and against Public Schools. Our discussion is not about whether to support Public Schools – it is about how best Masonry can do so. Consequently it is essential for Masons to engage in a dispassionate discussion about Public Schools without getting drawn into the politics that never seem far away. Perhaps the forum our Craft provides, devoid of political ambition, is the best forum within which that discussion can take place.
On April 1, 2011, the California Grand Lodge will “kick-off” its strategic plan to make a profound difference in public education. Celebrations up and down the state will take place at various Public School sites intended to communicate clearly and very publicly that Masonry intends to work for the advancement of Public Schools. It intends to do so because a productive, educated middle class is fundamental to the perpetuation of a free society. Enlightened people will not easily relinquish the freedoms first established by the Founding Fathers.
There is important work remaining to be done by California Masons. A kick-off celebration without something of substance to follow is little more than a show – not an effort to make a profound difference. Public school advisory councils drawing upon the talents and resources of Masons within their geographical boundaries consisting of a mix of age groups to discuss and decide upon ways to implement the Grand Lodge’s strategic plan hold out much promise for success. Masonry is at its best when it coordinates its lodges into a force for good. The advisory councils can be such a force.
Equally important, public school advisory councils provide an opportunity to California Masons that might not otherwise exist: the opportunity to engage members who are searching for something meaningful with which to make a personal commitment. As they progress through the various stages of initiation, from the First to the Third Degree, Masons anticipate learning about how they can be a part of something that changes society – and changes it positively. Our fraternal support of Public Schools offers the Craft a wonderful, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put Masons to work to implement Masonic values dedicated to the hope that freedom will always prevail and that the pursuit of knowledge will forever be available to the rich and the poor, the high and the low – to all regardless of station in life.