The history of public education in the United States dates back to the mid-1600s, when the pilgrims of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony instated that any town of 50 families or more must have an elementary school. Originally the goal of these public schools was to educate children on the lessons of the Bible and morals of the Calvinist religion. However, clearly there has been a massive shift in the goals and objectives adapted by modern public schools. How did the nation start with a meager slew of elementary schools that only focused on the teachings of the Bible, and end up where it is now: a vast expansion of all varieties of schools that teach anything from speaking Mandarin Chinese to Physics, Calculus, and Advanced Composition? The history of public education in America is an extensive one, but the twists and turns and obstacles faced along the way have slowly molded it into the impressive system it is today. What started as a Biblical institution for upper class Americans slowly began molding itself into an equal opportunity system which allows children to socialize and educate themselves in order to become fully-functioning and successful members of society.
It all began with a question. Hypothetically, that is. That question was of course, how can a system be created in which the general public can receive an equal capacity of learning as the upper class without burning tremendous holes in their pockets? In 1779, Thomas Jefferson fabricated a plan. A two track educational system: one for laboring and one for learning. However, he proposed to shell out small amounts of scholarships to the brightest of the bunch which would allow for lower class kids to get an upper class education. It was not perfect, but it was a start. In 1790, before the nation had drafted a collective Constitution, the state of Pennsylvania declared that it would provide free public education. However, it would only be for underprivileged children- the rich still had to pay for their children to attend school. In 1817, a greater cry sounded out from the masses at a Boston Town Meeting. There was a demand for the establishment of free primary schools that was supported by much of the middle class. However, with little of the lower class understanding the importance of nationwide education, they were unwilling to pay the taxes necessary to fund these would-be new schools (Applied Research Center). The economic situation of the people at this time was not stable enough to make take such a formidable step towards educational progress.
Finally, in the 1840’s, the gears of compulsory education began to start turning. Because there were so many Irish and German immigrants of the Catholic religion migrating into the country, Protestant Americans felt the pressure to preserve their religious ideals. By creating more public schools, the Protestant faith could be better taught and dispersed throughout the minds of the nation’s future people, as well as preserve democracy which the American people felt was threatened by Catholicism. The school movement began to take hold of many intellectuals of the Progressive movement who believed that education was the key to a developed society. They popularized the idea of the state being completely in charge of the education of its citizens (Smith 2013). With the state leading the way, public education could expand in a way like never before by incorporating things such as math and science. Schools would no longer be restricted by the strict bindings of religious institutions.
As of now, public education has grown tremendously. The number of children attending public elementary and secondary schools is 49.6 million, and the ways of paying for these kids to go to school has also changed over the years. As of now, property tax accounts for the majority of money going towards public education (Watson 2008). Although critics claim that America is losing its “edge” over competitors around the globe, there are many reforms underway to help give education the boost it needs. Whether it be moving vocational education to community college, or even going so far as to eliminate the 12th grade as some are suggesting, there are ways to patch up the system and return it to its former glory. President Lyndon Johnson said that “public education is the engine that powers all economic growth in our nation,” and of course, he was right. Without public education, the entire system of the country would collapse (Wright 2012). Before public education, the American public was ignorant and trapped in the same monotonous lifestyle. However, with the introduction of this free schooling, the country saw a major growth spurt in intellect and economy. Yet, the journey is not complete. The United States still has a while to go until it achieves the education perfection that it is seeking, but as of now the American people can be satisfied of what has been accomplished thus far.
Applied Research Center – Historical Timeline of Public Education in the US. (n.d.). Applied Research Center – Home. Retrieved April 12, 2013, from http://www.arc.org/content/view/100/217/
Smith, H. (2013, February 13). A Brief History of Public Education: School Choice in America Part II | FreedomWorks. FreedomWorks . Retrieved April 12, 2013, from http://www.freedomworks.org/blog/rousseau/a-brief-history-of-public-education-school-choice
Watson, S. (2008, February 13). HowStuffWorks “Public Schools”. HowStuffWorks “People”. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from http://people.howstuffworks.com/public-schools3.htm
Wright, L. (2012, February 18). Restructuring Public Education for the 21st Century. National Center for Policy Analysis. Retrieved April 22, 2013, from www.ncpa.org/pdfs/ib107.pdf