As August makes way for September, students of all ages are heading back to the classroom. Some will fill the hallways of the country's Catholic and other private schools. A small but growing number will hit the books at home. A vast majority -- a record 49.8 million students for the 2008-09 school year -- will attend public schools.

Despite its ubiquity, public education provokes mixed opinions among Americans. Some are dismal in their outlook -- and look elsewhere for their child's formation. Others view public schooling with a mixture of awestruck deference to the experts and irreproachable pride for its rich heritage of producing an outstanding citizenry.

Very few Americans, though, would argue that public schooling ought not to be done -- that it is unconstitutional. After all, who would oppose the state's right to form its citizens in all the proper pieties and hallmark traditions which have nourished this nation since its birth?

Catholics did.

And, eventually, a number of Protestants did, too.

As James C. Carper and Thomas C. Hunt chronicle in their recently published book, "The Dissenting Tradition in American Education" (Peter Lang, $32.95), Catholics first led the charge against public schooling, but, faced with an increasingly secularized vision of public education, many Protestants eventually joined the protest.

Students of history

Carper, a Protestant who teaches at the University of South Carolina, and Hunt, a Catholic professor at the University of Dayton, present a history of the relationship between Christian religious beliefs in America and public education. They trace the history of public education from its genesis as a state-funded vehicle for Protestant formation to its more rancorous manifestations as an inflexible closed-shop operation, which the 19th-century influx of a largely Catholic immigrant population found intolerant of their "Old World" religion. But rather than showing Catholics as unpatriotic, the authors hold that public education has never made the grade from a religious or constitutional point of view.

"Despite our differing theological and educational experiences," the authors write, "we believe that, regardless of some recent steps in the direction of enhancing the liberty of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children ... the current structure of public education is incompatible with America's confessional pluralism."

By the book

At the beginning of the struggle, Catholics opposed such things as the reading of the King James Bible in American public schools without the divine aid of the Church to interpret the text.

Acknowledging the irony involved, Carper and Hunt note that by standing up for their rights, Catholics inadvertently set legal matters in motion that eventually led to the outlawing of God from the classroom.

Carper and Hunt argue, however, that the Catholic action -- which led to the formation of the Catholic school system in America -- was a response to the aggressive policies of mainline American Protestantism.

"Historians have often pointed out that most Protestants supported the creation of common-school systems in the mid-1800s," Carper and Hunt write. "They did so because they believed that the common school with its pan-Protestant character evidenced by, for example, Bible reading would help maintain a Protestant Christian culture in the face of increasing religious pluralism spurred in large measure by the growing number of Catholics."

Class action

In concluding this passage, Carper and Hunt note, "Protestant support for public education, however, was neither unanimous nor unequivocal." Many Protestants began to recognize that the public schoolroom had become increasingly secularized and so would withdraw their support for public schooling as well.

The authors highlight a few Protestant dissenters who, for all their principled opposition to Catholicism, recognized that in its protest of the public school system the Church had a valid claim to equality before the law. Renowned Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge was one of these early champions of those disenfranchised by American public education.

He recognized, Carper and Hunt write, that "the legitimacy of Catholics' and others' complaints about public schools that taught propositions of knowledge and dispositions of belief and value that were alien to their faith commitments." He also understood that "confessional pluralism was a stubborn fact of 19th-century American life and that one system could not accommodate the educational preference of all families."

New face of dissent

Carper and Hunt end by examining the new face of dissent in American education -- and in a certain sense the culmination of this dissent -- the home-schooling movement. Noting the steep rise in home schooling in the last couple of decades (only about 200,000 in 1985, but more than 1.5 million by 2002), they write, "conservative Christian parents chose to home school their children primarily for religious ... reasons. [T]hey objected to what they believed to be the religion of secular humanism in the public schools and desired to inculcate a Christian worldview in their children. The Darwinian orientation of the science curriculum, explicit sex education and lack of attention to Christian perspectives in the social sciences and literature were particularly troubling to them."

Emphasizing the strength of the home-schooling movement -- and the scale of its dissent from public education -- Carper and Hunt forecast that by 2010, 3 million children -- about half of all nonpublic school students -- will be home-schooled.

For homework

While Carper and Hunt are coming at the question of dissent from different religious backgrounds, they remain unified in their summation of American public education. What they suggest throughout their history is made explicit in their concluding remarks -- namely, that American public education is perhaps the least American of America's institutions.

"But even if dissenters remain a distinct minority for the foreseeable future, they may now have a unique opportunity to prompt Americans to give careful consideration to whether public education in its current form violates the conscience of those who desire a different kind of education for their children than that offered by the state, forcing them not only to pay taxes for the support of that orthodoxy but to pay again for the right to educate their children as they see fit."

And as Carper and Hunt demonstrate in their own meticulous research, that careful consideration has already begun.

Education snapshot

49.8 million -Number of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in fall 2008

6.2 million-Number of students expected to attend private schools this fall

3.3 million-Number of public school teachers this fall

500,000-Number of teachers working in private schools this fall

160,075-Number of teachers in Catholic schools for 2008-09, up from 157,134 in 2000

10,418-Dollar amount of national average current expenditure per student in public schools

46.2-Percentage of private school students who attend Catholic schools, which comprise 29.7 percent of all private schools

Sources: National Catholic Education Association, National Center for Education Statistics

Joseph O'Brien writes from Wisconsin.