Why does Freemasonry support public schools?

Feb 8, 2022 Education

Every year, the California Grand Lodge and the constituent Masonic lodges proclaim one month “Public Schools Month.” The sitting Grand Master delivers a proclamation every month to each member lodge at one or more of its monthly stated meetings. Its purpose was always to encourage lodges planning a program publicly supporting Public Schools, in a way that makes it clear to all the depth of Freemasonry’s commitment.

Each lodge had to make its own decisions about what to do, and was not allowed to participate in a state-wide Masonic project. This effort was a haphazard execution of a variety of activities by different lodges, each working in isolation. These programs included elaborate, energetic interactions with selected Public Schools and nothing.

There are many reasons why some lodges have done very little or not at all. Some lodges have had members who are not involved in lodge ritual or social events. Other lodges had poor leadership. Yet another lodge’s financial resources weren’t sufficient to provide enough support for even the most basic activities.

All of this changed for California Masons in 2011 and their lodges. Grand Master William J. Bray III was the one who led the way in implementing a statewide Masonic pledge to the state’s public Why does a school have to fundraise? systems. The energy to implement the programs was generated by his leadership, but the plan was developed by ordinary Masons who are involved in Freemasonry throughout the state.

A survey was conducted by the Grand Lodge Executive Committee and staff and sent to every member of each constituent lodge. This is the latest Grand Lodge Strategic Plan. The most popular response to that survey was: Masonry should be a force for reviving our Public Schools. Masons from all over the state agreed that public education must be saved, improved and demonstrated to their communities that they believe a system of free public education is vital to the survival of a free society.

It is important to understand how public schools became the dominant educational institution in America. This will help us to better understand why so many people from different political, religious, and cultural backgrounds support public schools. Horace Mann, the “Father” of the Common School Movement, is largely responsible for this. Mann was also a Mason. However, it would be wrong to conclude that Mann’s devotion to public school causes was because he was a Mason. It would be wrong to conclude that Freemasonry supports Public Schools because Horace Mann is a Mason. Masonry is a belief system that Mann found attractive enough to allow him to be initiated into it. Mann and Freemasonry shared the same respect for virtue, morality, and the advancement and improvement of the enlightened public.

Public Schools today are the main source of education for our children, from kindergarten to high school. This was not always the case. Parents with strong political support have staunchly opposed public school education. They refuse to give their children to teachers for moral education. Some children were home-schooled even in America’s early days. Private tutors were available for wealthy parents. Thomas Jefferson started a national dialogue soon after the American Revolution ended. This gained so much momentum that public schools became the norm.

Jefferson believed that a free society would be more stable if everyone had equal access to knowledge, knowledge which they could use in their daily lives. The nation was left without an education system after the Revolution and its citizens were left to their own devices. Jefferson, who has at different times advocated for both small and large government, suggested that tax dollars could be used to fund an educational system nationwide. His idea was rejected at the time, and it remained unfulfilled for almost a century.

In the 1840’s, there were a few public schools in the country that were financially supported by the communities that could afford them. Horace Mann, who was following Jefferson’s footsteps, started his own crusade. Mann’s story is too long to tell, but it suffices to say that Massachusetts wouldn’t have passed its first compulsory education laws in 1852 if Mann hadn’t acted with an energetic, single-minded commitment to what he believed to be necessary. The next year, New York followed suit and all American children had to attend at least elementary school by 1918. The pursuit of equality was what followed, a success shared by Freemasonry and America’s Founding Fathers.

Schools in the South and the North were separated at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson the United States Supreme Court ruled segregation legal. This decision would be overturned in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. The issue that was decided in 1954 was the idea that all men are equal before the Supreme Architects of the Universe. This was in regard to equal education access. It is not surprising that Earl Warren, a Mason, was the Chief Justice of 1954. All Public Schools were open from that point forward to all children from all backgrounds.

Masons across America were at the forefront of the movement for enlightenment between 1896 and 1954 with their clarion call to support Public Schools. It’s not surprising nor ironic that the Ancient & Accepted Scots Rite for Southern Jurisdiction of America, whose are at Charleston, North Carolina, first ventured into community service was to support Public Schools. We are grateful to George F. Moore, the Grand Commander of the Southern Jurisdiction, for his uncompromising leadership during that endeavor.

Moore, a prolific writer, auditioned for his Masonic position before being elected Grand Commander in 1914 in the Supreme Council. His efforts, which were made before World War I began, were widely appreciated. This included New York, where Moore and organizations like the Scottish Rite helped to pass its compulsory education laws in 1918. The Scottish Rite was known across America as the greatest promoter of literacy throughout the country through the support of Public Schools in the years following Moore’s election as Grand Commander.

California Masons were active in supporting Public Schools. Charles A. Adams, Grand Masters of Masons in California, made Public Schools a Masonic Project for the first time in 1920. In response to World War I’s increasing demands on human resources, thousands of teachers were forced from their classrooms. They were required to serve other important tasks, such as assisting in combat overseas, tending to farms to produce the food needed to sustain a nation in crisis, and operating factories that would supply war materiel to ever-increasing demands. Grand Master Adams was horrified to see the fallout. California saw approximately 600 schools close across the state – an unusual number for that period.

While Freemasonry has always resisted taking sides in the worlds of public politics, Grand Master Adams carefully considered the benefits and drawbacks of engaging in such activities for the benefit of Public Schools. Masonry was fundamentally about instilling in its members the importance and value of learning. It was designed to instill the importance of learning the liberal arts and sciences such as logic, logic, arithmetic and music on candidates for Masonic degrees. The idea of establishing public schools throughout the country was conceived by our first president, who is also a prominent member of Freemasonry. George Washington wrote this letter to John Adams, his Vice President.

“Wise, intelligent, and judicious education that is supported and patronized by communities will bring together the sons from the rich and the children of the poor; it will cultivate natural genius and elevate the soul; it will excite laudable envy to excel in knowledge and piety; and it will reward its patrons by shedding its benign influence upon the public mind.”

Grand Master Adams had additional Masonic precedent to refer to before deciding what to do. De Witt Clinton was Grand Master of Masons and Governor of New York. He is now known as the “Father” of New York Public Schools. Benjamin Franklin, Grand Master of Masons in Pennsylvania while he was serving, openly supported the adoption of Public Schools.

With this history and precedent, Grand Master Adams decided that California Masons should support the strengthening of the Public Schools system in California. He was well aware that Masonry held a long-held belief that public education is essential for maintaining a free society. Masonic virtues encouraged a concept that went beyond the accumulation of knowledge. Equal access to knowledge promotes freedom, strengthens the middle-class, and without these democratic principles, the Republic’s fundamental principles will fade away. It was based on these reasons that Grand Master Adams issued the Masonic Public Schools Week Proclamation on August 30, 1920.

Masonry’s support for public schools did not stop there. This support has been continued in Masonic jurisdictions throughout the years, but perhaps the most significant example of this was the ongoing nationwide work of the Scottish Rite. Brook Hays, a Thirty Third degree Scottish Rite Mason, and Arkansas congressman, sacrificed his political career to support Public Schools by emulating the example set by Grand Commanders Moore & Cowles.

Hays, a lay-preacher who was also a former president of Southern Baptist Convention took a stand against many Southern Baptist cronies and led the public charge against Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who opposed equal public education for all races. Dwight D. Eisenhower, president of the Arkansas National Guard, ordered Hays’ persistence and courage to take action. They advanced to that state under his command and restored obedience to the new law of Kansas, Brown. This binds all of America and Freemasonry forever to a commitment for free education for all.

Public Schools were being attacked by religious groups in 1985, when Fred Kleinknecht was elected Grand Commander of The Scottish Rite. Two Masonic values were being attacked: freedom of religion, and the right to free public education for all. Kleinknecht was determined not to abandon the work of Henry Clausen to separate religion from the state. This is the only way to stop the tyranny and corruption of theocratic doctrines. The religious fundamentalists that eventually turned their ire against Masonry would continue to be a problem for Grand Commander Kleinknecht throughout his tenure. This ire has not abated.

Kleinknecht’s position was not helped by the fact that Clausen, Grand Commander, had taken a strong public stance against prayer within Public Schools. Clausen’s position was seen as emblematic of everything wrong with Masonry by those who fervently pressed for prayer inclusion in Public Schools. It has led to a relentless and unrelenting attempt to discredit the Craft’s members. It’s not surprising that some powerful forces have increased their attack on Public Schools, posing a threat to the foundation of human freedom.

Today, our Public Schools are managed at the state level by departments and local school districts. Public officials can also be elected or appointed to run them locally. There are roughly 15,000 of these school districts across the country, according to one estimate. Many are run and supervised by local governments. There is very little federal oversight and curricula can vary from one state to the next. This has led some to suggest that more coordination or centralization could eliminate the disparities in student performance between states.

Masons should not only focus on literacy rates at elementary school, but also understand why critics of Public Schools place blames on teachers and the system, while giving little credit to students who do well. Particularly relevant is the maxim “follow your money”.

First, tax dollars paid by taxpaying citizens fund public schools. Nobody likes to pay taxes. Many people blame the system for inefficiencies when they are required to pay more.

The majority of Public Schools’ costs are covered by property taxes. While some funds are brought into the system by parents and private fundraising, federal, state, and local governments as well, the majority of funding comes from taxes. California saw a “taxpayer revolt” that was supported by a well-funded political campaign, which led to “The People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation” being passed. Although the law’s benefits and disadvantages can be debated forever, one fact is certain about Public Schools: Since the 1960’s, when California schools were highly ranked among the nation’s Public Schools (and still are), there has been a steady decline in public school quality since The People’s Initiative was passed. Today, 48th place is held by California’s Public Schools students in many student achievement surveys.

Masonry isn’t about arguing for or against higher taxes or taking part in the emotionally charged debate. The challenge is to understand the forces that work in favor and against Public Schools. It is not about whether or not to support Public Schools. Instead, it is about how Masonry can best do so. Masons must engage in a thoughtful discussion about Public Schools without getting caught up in the politics that are always at our fingertips. The best place to have that conversation is perhaps the Craft forum, which is free from political ambition.

The California Grand Lodge will “kick off” its strategic plan to make a significant difference in public education on April 1. Celebrations will be held at several Public School sites across the state to show that Masonry is committed to the improvement of Public Schools. Because a productive and educated middle class is essential to the survival of a free society, Masonry intends to do this. The freedoms that were first granted by the Founding Fathers will be held inviolate by enlightened citizens.

California Masons have much work to do. Without something to follow, a kick-off celebration is nothing more than a show. It’s not an effort to make a significant difference. The potential for success is high with public school advisory councils that draw on the skills and resources of Masons within their geographic boundaries. They are made up of a mixture of ages to discuss and determine how to implement the Grand Lodge’s strategic plan. Masonry works best when it can coordinate its lodges to make it a force for good. This is where the advisory councils come in.

Public school advisory councils offer a unique opportunity for California Masons. They allow members to find something meaningful with whom to make a personal pledge. Masons will learn about the opportunities to be part of changing society as they move through the stages of initiation from the First to Third Degree. The Craft has a unique opportunity to support Public Schools fraternally through its fraternal support. This gives Masons a chance to use Masonic values to help implement Masonic principles that will ensure freedom and equality for all, regardless of their station in life.

Heisner is also a California attorney who has been practicing since 1973. He is currently a trial specialist and partner in a San Diego law office where he focuses on complex business litigation, trade secrets litigation, real estate, and probate litigation. Formerly, he was an Assistant District Attorney. Deputy District Attorney. Special Assistant United States Attorney. Heisner was a criminal prosecutor and investigated and prosecuted organized crimes, public corruption, and major fraud cases.

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