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SIR WILLIAM BERKELEY, governor of Virginia, responded in 1671 to a question about the specter of public schools in the colonies: "I thank God, there are no free schools . . . and I hope we shall not have these (for a) hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world."

Berkeley's 17th-century fear of public education will strike many of us as quaint, harsh or even foolish. But take a hard look at America in the 1990s. I am not sure about the heresy part, but the world Berkeley referred to now suffers from rampant disobedience and contains sects (many violent ones) too numerous to count. Whether public schools caused these problems I do not know.But I suspect that even Berkeley would be shocked that such disobedience, sectarianism and other isms, warring pedagogies and various ideological fiefdoms have virtually overrun the very institutions that he feared would ruin the rest of society. In fact, public education in America is fast becoming a Tower of Babel.

Many religious groups, for example, are bent on bringing mandatory prayer and other doctrinal causes to the schools.

On the secular side, crusaders for political correctness want to put a bit in everyone's mouth, and defenders of the First Amendment are screaming for the right to do, say and wear whatever they please. Integrationists still see the divisive bus ride as the answer to most problems of equality. But one of the most harmful trends is that too many parents, with no academic training, feel no qualms in minding the school's business.

Many of our schools are besieged by so many outside forces that they have all but abandoned their real mission of teaching the nation's children the three R's and are now serving as clearinghouses and laboratories for every whim and scam larger society entertains.

If you want to see what is wrong with America, visit a typical public school. If you attend a typical school meeting of any kind, you probably will witness tribal warfare. You will see ordinary citizens - who would not dare tell a police chief how to make an arrest or a bank president how to count money - reading the riot act to principals and teachers.

I have long believed that public schools, as democratic institutions, are victims of their own success. Why? Because democracy is citizen-driven. This fact makes all democratic institutions inherently vulnerable to creeping anarchy.

Every public school is a virtual town hall. Anyone can attend meetings there and exert some influence.

Like other democratic institutions, public schools work best when non-school participants are reasonably informed and are motivated by a need to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. But exactly the opposite is happening in many districts across the country.

Uninformed and misinformed parents and inflexible, organized groups are staking out schools as their ideological turf.

Our public schools need mature, committed, well-informed allies - not self-interested detractors who confuse and destroy. Our schools need adults who care about the future of all children.