Regarding the most basic, or elementary, education, Jefferson proposed that "every person in it (be) entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it." And from there, parents would continue to pay for advanced education, too. (Jefferson's basic parental fiscal philosophy was: If you bring them into the world, you pay for them until they are responsible enough to pay for themselves.)
Of course, Jefferson's proposal for public education wasn't perfect. Even he reflected some of the educational biases of his day. Chief among them was his view on limited education for women and slaves. But that doesn't mean that he would have opposed their complete education in a more liberating era.
In fact, according to the Library of Congress, Jefferson wrote to Quaker Robert Pleasants and advised that slaves should have a system of education based upon his 1784 plan for public education in Virginia as one step in preparing those who were "destined to be free" under our new republic.
In addition, for Jefferson's own daughters, he believed it was "essential to give them a solid education which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive."
I'm not proposing that we follow every jot and tittle of Jefferson's proposed educational system. However, I do believe we would be well-served by adopting some of his basic educational philosophies, such as returning complete educational autonomy to parents and experts in local communities. Overreaching educational laws and programs -- such as No Child Left Behind -- centered in Washington and even state capitals have only multiplied bureaucratic red tape, tied the hands of parents, administrators and teachers, and relinquished school funding and choices (including textbooks) to the power and pocketbook of special interest groups.
In Part 4, I will address possibly the most controversial aspect of Thomas Jefferson and public education: Did he advocate and expect only a completely secular education for the public?