The Foundation of Universal Education

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In the 20th century, the United States opened wide the schoolhouse doors to the vast majority of its young people. But those advances built on a solid foundation that had been established long before, when the nation embraced the principle of free, universal public education.

"It goes back to the New England tradition of literacy," says the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, "and the belief that all young people should be inducted into the ideas that govern the nation and the community."

In Colonial times, many towns had schools, but attendance was strictly voluntary, and parents usually paid a fee, notes Carl F. Kaestle, a professor and historian at Brown University. School subjects generally were confined to reading, writing, and arithmetic. And students in rural areas might attend for only a few months each year.

"Nowhere was schooling entirely tax-supported and compulsory," Kaestle writes in Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society: 1780-1860. That gradually began to change in the 19th century, as states in the new republic moved toward greater financial support for public schooling, at least in the elementary grades.

In 1795, Connecticut sold its land in the Western territories for $1.2 million and used the proceeds to establish a permanent school fund, which by 1810 was providing annual assistance to schools. New York state created such a fund in 1805. By the 1820s and '30s, several more states had followed suit, although the money covered only a fraction of the costs of education.

In 1852, Horace Mann, the secretary of the Massachusetts board of education, helped pass the first compulsory-attendance law in the nation, for children of elementary school age.

Mann and other advocates of universal schooling had an almost boundless faith in the ability of public education to advance both national and individual progress. "Never will wisdom preside in the halls of legislation," Mann wrote, "and its profound utterances be recorded on the pages of the statute book, until Common Schools ... shall create a more farseeing intelligence and a purer morality than has ever existed among communities of men."

Wider Access

By the Civil War, Kaestle notes, state governments in the North generally had created common school systems, by enacting laws for tax-supported elementary schools and appointing state school officers. Support for public schooling came later to the South. And while 16 states had compulsory-attendance laws by 1885, most of those laws were sporadically enforced at best.

By 1860, writes David B. Tyack, an education historian at Stanford University, most large cities divided schoolchildren into grades, and by 1870, the concept had spread almost everywhere there were enough students to classify. That year, about 61 percent of Americans ages 5 to 18 were enrolled in some school, Tyack points out. By 1898, that figure was 71 percent, and the typical young American could expect to receive five years of schooling.

Indeed, so many young people wanted to go to school that educators often had nowhere to put them. In 1878, the Detroit school system turned away almost 800 children for lack of seats. And it educated others in rented basements. In 1881, New York City refused admission to 9,189 students for lack of room.

The situation was much worse for black Americans. In 1870, fewer than 10 percent of African-Americans ages 5 to 19 were in school for even part of the year.

Who Will Pay?

As Kaestle observes, though Americans supported the idea of public education, many took issue with the concept of state control and state financing. Attempts to gather all groups into a common school system with a common curriculum met with resistance.

On one side of the debate were reformers like Mann, who supported a standardized curriculum, better-prepared teachers, graded schools, a longer school year, and greater state supervision and regulation. On the other side was a loosely knit opposition made up of advocates of local control, tax resisters, defenders of religious freedom who worried about the dominant Protestant ideology of the schools, and supporters of private education.

Those groups, however, were "not upset about the same things about public education," Kaestle says. "So there's considerable opposition, but it's fragmented."

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Page 29

Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as The Foundation of Universal Education
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