Start with the proverbial little red schoolhouse, which wasn't as tidy or pristine as our folklore suggests. It wasn't even red! Penny-pinching school boards favored white hues, which were less expensive, or simply left schoolhouses unpainted.
Inside, conditions were primitive. Young female teachers, most of them teenagers with barely more formal education than their charges, struggled to instruct and control dozens of students, ranging in age from 3 to 20. In winter, younger children huddled next to the fire; older ones shivered on the periphery, where water buckets routinely froze.
That's why Horace Mann and other reformers called for "common schools" regulated by the states. As the first secretary of Massachusetts' State Board of Education, Mann campaigned for better facilities, a longer school term, enhanced teacher training, and mandatory attendance. Without shared state standards, he argued, children would be subject to the whims of stingy communities.
To be sure, some communities resisted the costs that the new regulations imposed. But state school systems eventually triumphed, spurred not by some evil bureaucratic conspiracy, as Santorum suggests, but by the voters. Mann and company simply convinced enough Americans that the one-room schoolhouse wasn't good enough.
By the 1920s, American schools boasted gymnasiums, laboratories, health clinics, and a huge variety of other services. But their main source of revenue remained the same: local taxes. So when the Great Depression arrived, schools in poorer communities had to lay off teachers or close down altogether.
Into this breach stepped the federal government. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal gave emergency relief to local districts, enabling a million children to stay in school. It also provided funds for building repairs and school lunches.
But inequalities remained, especially along racial lines. Most African Americans attended segregated, substandard schools resembling the one-room shacks of the 19th century. The next great burst of federal educational activity came in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 ruling against state-sponsored segregation.
Some communities fought back, especially in the white South. If you want a vivid example of local control of education in America, watch the grainy, black-and-white footage of the white mobs who tried to keep nine black children from attending Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. It was federal troops who swooped in to escort them to class.
Since then, the U.S. government has been the prime engine and enforcer of equality in American education. Did you play on a girls' sports team in high school, or do you have a daughter who does? Then thank the federal government, which barred public schools from discriminating on the basis of sex with Title IX. In 1971, the year before Title IX was enacted, only 7 percent of American high school athletes were girls. Thirty years later, more than 40 percent were.
Or perhaps, like Santorum, you have a child with a disability. In that case, you're a beneficiary of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to educate children regardless of ability or condition. Santorum and his wife have chosen to home-school their kids, but they remain eligible for a wide array of educational services for their daughter Bella, who was born with a genetic disorder.
When I was a kid, in the 1960s and '70s, I didn't know any children with disabilities; they were warehoused in other institutions, if they went to school at all. Today, my children interact with peers who have disabilities every day. And that, too, is thanks to Uncle Sam.
Indeed, when it comes to education, we all owe something to our state and federal governments. So let's work hard to make them better, instead of pretending that life was better without them. The little red schoolhouse wasn't red, but it was little - and lousy.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."