Part 2: Short History of Public Education in America

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In my previous posts, I have outlined problems I see every day as a teacher and I have raised questions that I, and many others, have wondered for several years. To answer those questions I wanted to show a quick history of public education in the United States. Yes, no one likes history but I promise its very short and might help you understand a few things. 

Education in America has its roots in Massachusetts. The first education law was enacted in 1642 by Massachusetts General Court, which required Parents and guardians of children to “make certain that their charges could read and understand the principles of religion and the laws of the Commonwealth.” Then, the first government-owned public high school opens in Boston in 1821, followed by enacting a law in 1827 requiring public high schools. During this time, the government did not require the establishment of schools but they did encourage it. Slowly but surely and due to a mistrust of parents, the government was moving toward the establishment of public schools. This was demonstrated in the Teacher Article: “In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children… the children must be gathered up and forced into school.” Hence, in 1857 we have the establishment of the National Education Association and compulsory school attendance laws were enacted in all states. Not only that but between 1855 and 1915, the government regarded children as “state property” and parental authority was diminished. However, in 1925 the Supreme Court limits government’s authority and states that “the child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligation” (US Supreme Court, Pierce v. Little Sisters for the Poor).  Fast forward to 1958; Congress passes the “National Defense Education Act”. Notice the wording of the Act here as Congress at that time thought of funding of education as National Defense! That is due to the fact that there was a national sense that the American scientists were falling behind scientists in the Soviet Union. 

So where did we go wrong? The 80s signaled a shift in how education was regarded in the United States, and specifically with the election of Ronald Reagan who ran for president on the platform of abolishing the Department of Education. While governor of California Ronald Reagan repeated called for the ending of free tuition to state colleges and demanded 20 percent cuts in higher education funding. Over his eight years in office as President, he slashed the federal budget in half. But what signaled another major shift is how Reagan gave corporate executives major influence over the future of education to begin the privatization of public education in America. No longer were we concerned with producing good citizens but rather good employees who don’t ask a lot of questions. 

Then, came George H.W. Bush “The Education President” who served as the last nail in the coffin of public education. While Bush didn’t sign any education bills, his work paved the way for the massive privatization of public education. He believed that federal education should come as only a “catalyst” and not a major influencer of public education. His administration introduced the idea of “standard-base accountability”. President Clinton came in and took the ideas of charter schools and standards testing. George W. Bush came in 2000 and brought No Child Left Behind and we all know how that went. Obama did not make it any better with “Race to the Top”. And now we have something called Betsy Devos running the Department of Education! 

So, there you have it, folks. That’s the quick history of public education. By the way, George H.W. Bush promised that the US would be in first place in math and science by the year 2000. We ended up no. 18! 


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millermgeorge

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