Every state has some form of vocational education, which is often called career and technical education. But this vital public service suffers from too many providers and not enough supply. This is a casebook example of how government could do a better job, if a leader would step forward. And it may be that only the federal government could play that leading role, as it did in the late 1800s in shaping American colleges and universities.
The principles behind public libraries—that they are open to any resident’s use, lend books for free, and be supported by taxes—were considered outlandish to most Americans in the mid-1800s. But an incredible act of philanthropy in 1883 changed how people thought about libraries, and local governments seized the opportunity to build and support these institutions. Today going to the library is twice as popular as attending sporting events. For these places of learning, you can thank both philanthropy and government. But mostly government.
Public education was based on three tenets: that every child should be in school until adolescence, that schools should be free to attend, and that government should pay for them through taxes. And behind the tenets was the belief that our political and economic systems depended on citizens who could read and write. The results have been historic, as literacy has spread today to nearly every adult. For this monumental achievement, you can thank government.
If you attended a state college or university, you benefited from one of America’s greatest investments in its people, the creation and expansion of affordable higher education. How did we get this network of 1,600 state colleges? Through a remarkable collaboration of the states and the federal government that began in the Civil War. It shows us federalism at its best.