How did we get public schools and universities?
June 9, 2015 10:21 AM   Subscribe

There is no Constitutional guarantee of education. So is it mandated, organized and funded through each state? Some more generous than others? Their constitution? or legislature? How did this evolve? And how are basic, minimum standards guaranteed? Federal law? What a mess if every town could set their own standards. But isn't that actually happening with the 'creationist' movement?
posted by ebesan to Law & Government (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The How Stuff Works article about the history of public schools in the US looks pretty decent for the basics.
posted by rtha at 10:25 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The federal Constitution has limits on federal power and enumerates what laws Congress can make (which, as you've noted, does not include education) (whether or not these are actually followed is an entirely different question - the existence of the Department of Education should indicate those limits are generally not followed). State Constitutions generally do not restrict what each state can/can't do. In other words, state Constitutions do not need to guarantee a right to an education for a state to provide an education.

That said, most states do guarantee an education and provide for regulation of those schools in their respective Constitutions. For instance, for Washington, Article IX, Section 2 (emphasis mine): "The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established. But the entire revenue derived from the common school fund and the state tax for common schools shall be exclusively applied to the support of the common schools."
posted by saeculorum at 10:27 AM on June 9, 2015

Look up Horace Mann. Universal public education came about in the US just about the same way public health care came about in the countries that have it: through political action and over stiff opposition.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:44 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Even though there was no universal public education in the US until 1918, the federal government actually made a provision for public school funding in 1785 (two years before the Constitution). The Land Ordinance of 1785 set aside one section of land in every township to be used for a school, with any extra land in the section sold or leased to fund the school. The ordinance ended up covering more than 75% of the modern US and created tens of thousands of "school sections."This shows that the founders were thinking about public education from the very beginning. It just took over 100 years for it to happen.
posted by miyabo at 10:48 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

How did we get public schools and universities?

I learned about this years ago when I was getting a Master's in Education, so my details will be fuzzy, but during the 1800s land was put aside for the purpose of building educational institutions; for colleges and universities, you can read about the Morrill Land-Grant Acts.

I don't remember as much about non-colleges, but I believe that when they were splitting up land into parcels they would set aside a certain amount of space on each tract for schools.

There is no Constitutional guarantee of education. So is it mandated, organized and funded through each state? Some more generous than others? Their constitution? or legislature? How did this evolve?

Although there is no Constitutional guarantee, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees all students a free, appropriate public education so this is now the law and has been for forty years or so. Things are done on state or even local levels; often property taxes will fund schooling which is why places with lots of rich people often have better schools than places without lots of rich people. Schools are administered by a Local Education Agency which makes a lot of these decisions.

And how are basic, minimum standards guaranteed? Federal law? What a mess if every town could set their own standards.

Basic, minimum standards are NOT set; when people talk about the "Common Core", this is an attempt to create a nationalized set of standards because they vary so much, as you point out, it is often a "mess", but these are opt-in. A lot of the pushback you hear about them is from conservative people who do not want decisions made about their children's education at a federal level. Editorializing, as a former teacher I think there are a lot of really good things about the Common Core (not everything is good, but it's not as bad as it's made out to be).
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:50 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of the earliest American colonial laws calling for publicly supported schools is the 1647 Olde Deluder Satan Law of Massachusetts. The rationale for this law was that children needed to learn to read the Bible for themselves so that they would not be misled by "saint seeming deceivers". After the American Revolution many, if not most, of the early state constitutions called for a system of public schools. The rationale for these was to prepare people for participation in the democratic process. Thomas Jefferson argued eloquently for a system of public schools.

There have been a number of histories of American education written. See, for example, Joel Spring's American School.
posted by mareli at 10:52 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you're really interested in the topic here's a MOOC.
posted by mareli at 10:55 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mareli beat me to it by one minute! The Deluder law was the precursor for public schools and for the principle local control of schools.
posted by jgirl at 10:55 AM on June 9, 2015

Response by poster: This is great start, thanks!
posted by ebesan at 11:05 AM on June 9, 2015

The Washington State constitution does specify that, "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex."

What is included in the definition of "basic education" is something that frequently comes up in the legislature. And our legislators are currently in contempt of court for not fully funding their constitutionally mandated commitments to fully fund education.

Other states do make specifications in their constitutions around education, but there are no universal standards.

Common Core State Standards are an attempt to provide more clarity and universality around what students are expected to learn when it comes to math and language arts. The standards were developed by a consortium of educators from various states and states voluntarily opted into them.
posted by brookeb at 11:07 AM on June 9, 2015

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is another example of an attempt to standardize public education. Of course, it's been roundly criticized. Read that whole article for the details on No Child Left Behind, but here's a broader point from the article which speaks to your question:
You can’t simply pass a law making bad schools illegal. Of course, you can, but the day after you do it, the schools will still be standing there, and the students in the neighborhood will need to go somewhere to learn. You can’t redistribute inspiring, highly-trained teachers in the same way that a revenue stream can be redirected from one place to another. The legal apparatus surrounding students with disabilities can’t be practically extended to the population as a whole. Even the problem itself is hard to define. A segregated school is pretty easy to spot. Funding levels can be counted and compared. But what, exactly, does it mean for a school to be “failing”? And how do you write a law that will make failing schools un-fail? ...

American K-12 schools are highly decentralized in governance, finance, and tradition. Wrestling with such an unruly system can seem Sisyphean. Public education is itself an act of optimism, based on a belief in universal human potential that has been absent from nearly all other places and times.
Remember, most law and policy in the US is not federal, because states and localities have broad power in our federalism system. This is supposed to be a feature, not a bug. "Laboratories of democracy" should, in theory, lead to a race to the top in public policy. Of course, it doesn't always work out in practice...
posted by John Cohen at 2:18 PM on June 9, 2015

The Morill Act was one of the best things we've done as a nation.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:29 AM on June 10, 2015

« Older Good USB headphone adapter - or other solution?   |   Please cry me only a small creek Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.