A Brief History of Public Education

Common schools were started by the Massachusetts Colony in 1647 to promote sectarian orthodoxy. Since only members of the Congregational Church could vote, the common schools were really church schools, and were resisted in the more pluralistic towns. By 1720 Boston had far more private schools than common schools, and by 1780 many towns had no common schools at all.

After the revolution, several state set up common school systems of a less sectarian nature. However, these schools still charged a tuition and were not very good. Private schools remained the principle form of education in early America. At this time America was the most literate society in the world.

In 1827 the city of Boston conducted a survey which found 3,767 students in private schools, 2,365 students in common schools, 365 students in charity free schools, and only 283 children in this age group who did not go to school. They concluded that there was no need for a unified system of primary education, but they got one anyway.

Support for increasing the role of government in education at this time came from several distinct sources. The first and most important was anti-Catholicism, since common schools were used to teach Protestant culture and values to the children of Catholic immigrants. It was not until later that Catholics retaliated by forming their own school system.

Second was the Owenite socialist movement. While relatively short lived and never very large, their rhetoric set the tone for the public education debate. Specifically, after the failure of the New Harmony commune, Robert Owen concluded that the only way to bring about a communal society was to indoctrinate children from as early an age as possible. Uniform compulsory public education was promoted as a necessary precursor to a new and better world.

"Fix your eyes on the great object - the salvation and regeneration of human kind, by means of the rational education and protection of youth... Bind all you efforts to the one great measure of a uniform plan of education for all the children and youth of your several states..."

Third came the Unitarian elite which dominated Boston society in the 1800's. They viewed public education as a way to do good with other people's money, and to promote the perfectibility of man and society.

Finally there was the American Lyceum movement, which consisted largely of teachers and sought a unification and standardization of education.

In 1837, under the leadership of Edward Everett and Horace Mann, Massachusetts set up the first state school board and later the first teachers colleges, called normal schools. The power of teacher training for controlling education had already been demonstrated in Prussia. As James Carter had written in 1826, "An institution for this purpose would become, by its influence on society, and particularly on the young, an engine to sway the public sentiment, the public morals, and the public religion, more powerful than any in government."

The movement to make common schools free for everyone, and later compulsory, was promoted primarily by teachers and administrators of government schools, presumably to improve their salaries and prestige. Already the poor were being given free education through the mechanism of rate bills. The issue here was to end the role of private schools as primary providers of education.

Starting with the Municipal Reform movement of 1910, the trend in public education has been one of less and less democratic control. School board elections were made nonpartisan, school boards became smaller, and school districts became larger. The result was that school boards became dominated by elite members of the community, and that the administration of schools came under greater control of bureaucracy. The original functions of school boards included choosing textbooks, hiring teachers, and annual examinations of students. These are now usually performed by government employees on a statewide level.