The term “private school” had only recently entered the lexicon of American education at the end of the 19th century. Earlier in the nation’s history, few distinctions were made between institutions based on how they were financed and governed. But when the “common school” arrived on the scene, any school that did not fit that mold suddenly seemed different.
Many parents still chose to send their children to private schools, even after states began guaranteeing a free education to all. Private education promised something many families believed a public school could not: the preservation of their religious and cultural identities. Even parents who could afford to send their children to the country’s prominent prep schools did so as much to instill enduring virtues as to give them a leg up in life.
For a country perpetually caught between the ideals of pluralism and the melting pot, such motivations have made the history of private education an often tumultuous one. Under those circumstances, what’s remarkable is just how much the public schools have learned from private ones.
The eighth installment of “Lessons of a Century,” a yearlong Education Week series of monthly special sections, looks at “A Private Choice.”