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A History of Public Education in the United States

by Deeptha Thattai

Editorial Summary
This article explores the history of the United States' public education system, tracing its development from its
roots in Puritan and Congregationalist religious schools in the 1600s and subsequently the availability of free
elementary education thanks to the efforts of Common School reformers in the 1800s. It continues on to the
dramatic changes of the 1900s, culminating in today's highly decentralized (but still very imperfect) system. It
explores the impact that many figures of great importance in America's history have had on the education system,
and discusses various social, legal and cultural factors that have all influenced public education. The article also
touches on issues of racial and gender equality.

Early History
American public education differs from that of many other nations in that it is primarily the responsibility of the states
and individual school districts. The national system of formal education in the United States developed in the 19th
century. Jefferson was the first American leader to suggest creating a public school system. His ideas formed the
basis of education systems developed in the 19th century.

The most preliminary form of public education was in existence in the 1600s in the New England colonies of
Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. The overriding belief on educating the children was more due to
religious reasons and was easy to implement, as the only groups in existence were the Puritans and the
Congregationalists. However, the influx of people from many countries and belonging to different faiths led to a
weakening of the concept. People refused to learn only in English and opposed the clergy imposing their religious
views through public education. By the middle of the eighteenth century, private schooling had become the norm.
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After the Declaration of Independence, 14 states had their own constitutions by 1791, and out of the 14, 7 states had
specific provisions for education. Jefferson believed that education should be under the control of the government,
free from religious biases, and available to all people irrespective of their status in society. Others who vouched for
public education around the same time were Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Robert Coram and George
Washington. It was still very difficult to translate the concept to practice because of the political upheavals, vast
immigration, and economic transformations. Thus, even for many more decades, there were many private schools,
and charitable and religious institutions dominating the scene.

The Beginning of the Public Education System

Until the 1840s the education system was highly localized and available only to wealthy people. Reformers who
wanted all children to gain the benefits of education opposed this. Prominent among them were Horace Mann in
Massachusetts and Henry Barnard in Connecticut. Mann started the publication of the Common School Journal,
which took the educational issues to the public. The common-school reformers argued for the case on the belief that
common schooling could create good citizens, unite society and prevent crime and poverty. As a result of their
efforts, free public education at the elementary level was available for all American children by the end of the 19th
century. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852, followed by New York in 1853.
By 1918 all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school. The Catholics were,
however, opposed to common schooling and created their own private schools. Their decision was supported by the
1925 Supreme Court rule in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that states could not compel children to attend public
schools, and that children could attend private schools instead.

High Schools
The first publicly supported secondary school in the United States was the Boston Latin School, founded in 1635.
Harvard was the first University in existence at that time. The attendance in secondary schools was very little
because the curriculum was specialized and hard. The demand for skilled workers in the middle of the eighteenth
century led Benjamin Franklin to start a new kind of secondary school. Thus, the American Academy was
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established in Philadelphia in 1751. American high schools eventually replaced Latin grammar schools. The rise in
American high school attendance was one of the most striking developments in U.S. education during the 20th
century. From 1900 to 1996 the percentage of teenagers who graduated from high school increased from about 6
percent to about 85 percent. As the 20th century progressed, most states enacted legislation extending compulsory
education laws to the age of 16. It is essential to look at the history of public education along with the events shaping
the country in the early years of the 20th century. The Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, wars with other
countries, civil rights movement, student protests and the numerous political events within the country all had their
effects on the education system too. In the 1920s and 30s, “progressive education” was the word of the day; the
focus then shifted to intellectual discipline and curriculum development projects in the later decades.

During the 20th century participation in higher or postsecondary education in the United States increased
tremendously. At the beginning of the century about 2 percent of Americans from the ages of 18 to 24 were enrolled
in a college. Near the end of the century more than 60 percent of this age group, or over 14 million students, were
enrolled in about 3500 four-year and two-year colleges.

The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 provided federal financial support to state universities. Many land-grant colleges
and state universities were established through gifts of federal land to the states for the support of higher education.
Financial support was extended to the universities and this in turn led to increased research. In addition, the numbers
of students attending college increased dramatically after World War II ended in 1945.

Involvement at the Local and Federal Levels

Individual states—rather than the federal government—have primary authority over public education in the United
States. Eventually, every state developed a department of education and enacted laws regulating finance, the hiring
of school personnel, student attendance, and curriculum. In general, however, local districts oversee the
administration of schools, with the exception of licensing requirements and general rules concerning health and
safety. Public schools have also relied heavily on local property taxes to meet the vast majority of school expenses.
American schools have thus tended to reflect the educational values and financial capabilities of the communities in
which they are located.
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By the middle of the 20th century, most states took a more active regulatory role than in the past. States
consolidated school districts into larger units with common procedures. In 1940 there were over 117,000 school
districts in the United States, but by 1990 the number had decreased to just over 15,000. The states also became
much more responsible for financing education. In 1940 local property taxes financed 68 percent of public school
expenses, while the states contributed 30 percent. In 1990 local districts and states each contributed 47 percent to
public school revenues. The federal government provided most of the remaining funds.

During the 1980s and 1990s, virtually all states have given unprecedented attention to their role in raising education
standards. A federal report published in 1983 indicated very low academic achievement in public schools. This
resulted in states taking up more responsibility and involvement. This report, A Nation at Risk, suggested that
American students were outperformed on international academic tests by students from other industrial societies.
Statistics also suggested that American test scores were declining over time. As a result, most states have
implemented reform strategies that emphasize more frequent testing conducted by states, more effective state
testing, and more state-mandated curriculum requirements.
The federal government's activities in the field of education have further centralized American schooling. The Smith-
Hughes Act of 1917 helped create vocational programs in high schools, and the GI Bill of 1944 was the first
important federal effort to provide financial aid for military veterans to attend college. In addition, federal civil rights
laws require all schools and colleges to conform to national standards of educational equality.

The federal commitment to improve and finance public schools expanded enormously when Congress passed the
National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. In these two
landmark statutes, Congress addressed for the first time such broad problems as expanding educational opportunity
for poor children and improving instruction in pivotal but usually neglected subjects, such as science, mathematics,
and foreign languages. Other federal acts that addressed educational issues in this period were the Vocational
Education Act of 1963, the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1963, and the International Education Act of

Other Issues

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In spite of the belief that public education should be available to every child irrespective of race, gender or economic
status, this has not happened in reality. Discrimination in schools on the basis of race and gender has always
persisted. Girls were not admitted in schools until many years after the establishment of schools, and even then, they
were not taught the same subjects as boys. Since the 1950s, public policy toward education has addressed
discrimination issues in education more than educational issues. The federal government has especially been
concerned with issues of equality in school districts.

Racial Equality
The first blacks arrived as slaves in the colonies in 1619. By the middle of the nineteenth century there were 4.5
million blacks in this country. The earliest education given to them was by the missionaries to convert them to
Christianity. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts established many schools. The southern
states opposed the education of blacks because these states were still favoring slavery. In spite of individual efforts,
the education of blacks remained very low until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The literacy
rate that was around 5% in the 1860s rose to 40% in 1890 and by 1910 it was at 70%.

During the 1950s segregation by race in public and private schools was still common in the United States. The
South had separate schools for African Americans and whites and this system had been upheld by the Supreme
Court of the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In the North no such laws existed, but racial segregation
was still common in schools. Segregation usually resulted in inferior education for blacks. Average public
expenditures for white schools exceeded expenditures for black schools. Teachers in white schools generally
received higher pay than did teachers in black schools, and facilities in most white schools were far superior to
facilities in most black schools.

In 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in
public schools was unconstitutional. Despite vigorous resistance for many years by many southern states, by 1980
the federal courts had largely succeeded in eliminating the system of legalized segregation in southern schools.

Even after the court rulings, it was difficult to eliminate discrimination in practice. Many whites and middle class
blacks had moved out of central cities by the 1970s, leaving poor blacks and rising populations of Hispanic
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Americans to attend urban schools. Native Americans, who had already lost all their lands to whites, also face the
additional burden of poverty, which keeps them away from schools.

Most federally mandated desegregation efforts have been aimed at increasing educational achievement among
African American students. However, many educators cite continued inequality in educational opportunities for
Hispanic American students.

Gender Equality

Women have been equally discriminated against in American schools. Even in coeducational schools, practically no
encouragement was given to the girls. Prominent women educators who have contributed significantly include
Catharine Esther Beecher, Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, Jane Addams, Susan Anthony, Mrs. Carl Schurz, and Mary
McLeod. They established higher-level institutions for women and offered subjects that earlier educators deemed
unnecessary for women. The first coeducational college was Oberlin College (founded in 1833), the first enduring all-
women's college was Vassar College (1861), and the first graduate school for women was at Bryn Mawr College

The emergence of the women's rights movement during the 1960s was a boost against sexual discrimination. Title
IX of the 1972 federal Education Amendments prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in educational
institutions that received federal aid. Educators are of the opinion that even after all these measures, women do not
get equal pay in jobs. Discrimination in professional jobs still exists.

The advancement in technology and learning methods has brought about a lot of change for the better in the public
education. However, other social problems that affect the public schools today are violence, drugs, alcohol, smoking,
and sex-related issues. The American public school has always been looked upon as a system that inculcates the
ideals of equality and freedom in the individual. It has changed historically according to the upheavals in the society.
But the pitiful standard of high school education today has left many educators wondering how to improve the
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system, so much so that in his first week of ascending the Presidency, Bush introduced his “No child left behind”
education plan. It is eventually the role of the public that should influence public education, which is not much
prevalent now.

[1] Public Education in the United States. Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001.
[2] Department of Education Website. (http://www.ed.gov/index.html)
[3] Butts, R.F. Public Education in the United States: From Revolution to Reform. Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
[4] Johnson, J.A., Collins, H.W., Dupuis, V.L. and Johansen, J.H. Introduction to the Foundations of American
Education, Sixth Edition. Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1985.

Deeptha Thattai (deeptha1@yahoo.com) is a volunteer with the Cinncinati chapter of the Association for India's
Development (http://www.aidindia.org).

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