One of the great progressive arguments that has survived until today is that without universal state-funded public schools, the majority of children would not receive an education and would instead suffer in ignorance and poverty. It’s an argument that has obviously been pretty successful in the West over the last century. Education in Western countries has across the board become a function of the state, to be paid for at tax-payer expense. The push towards state-run public education in the U.S. has likewise been relentless, so much so that even most “conservatives” wouldn’t dare question the status-quo public-school apparatus. Karl Marx, who made the demand for universal public education clear in his manifesto, would be pleased.

However, I was reminded the other day (by a state education functionary no less) that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Cántabros and Asturianos founded local private schools for the education of poor children. During that era many young men from northern Spain emigrated to the Americas (mainly Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay) in search of opportunity and work. While not all prospered, many achieved great financial success in the New World and later returned to their native Spain in old age. On their return, they were dubbed the indianos for having made their life in America. The specific example that I was reminded of was that of a man named Doctor Velasco from Laredo. Velasco made his wealth in Uruguay as a prestigious surgeon and returned to his native town to found a school for the children of working-class fisherman who otherwise could not have afforded it. The building still stands honorably in town.

The example of Doctor Velasco is quite interesting to me when so much of the common wisdom says that it’s in society’s interest for the state to assume the role of educator. Clearly, here is an example of how even the poorest in a small fishing town received education without the state. Yet today in Spain, the faith put in the centralized state-run approach to education is incredible. And yet while the universal public education system has no doubt produced a more educated society, education itself has clearly not improved the society as a whole. An unemployment rate of over 20%, total decline of marriage and family, and youth delinquency are serious and obvious problems.

And in the United States, more money is spent by the government every year on education, yet the overall competence of students is clearly declining. The failure of public schools, especially those in urban areas, is alarming and well documented. I argue that civil society will do a much better job at providing education, from churches to even secular benefactors. The example of Doctor Velasco is a great inspiration.