Resolved, that next to life and liberty, we consider education the greatest blessing bestowed upon mankind.
Resolved, that the public funds should be appropriated (to a reasonable extent) to the purpose of education upon a regular system that shall insure the opportunity to every individual of obtaining a competent education before he shall have arrived at the age of maturity.
So voted New York City’s party of Mechanics and Workingmen in 1829.
There wasn’t always public education in the United States. And the state didn’t always pay. Our current system, in which property owners pay for public education regardless of whether they have children in school, came about after decades of debate. My most recent posts have touched on school district tax levies and state funding. Before going further, I wanted to reach back to where this all began. How did we arrive at this system of partial federal and state funding combined with local property tax levies?
There is a fantastic reference, Public Education in the United States, that discusses education’s history from the founding of the colonies until the book’s publication in 1919. The book itself is out of print, but a used bookstore should be able to track it down for you cheaply. Or, even better, the entire book is free to read online.
Its history of public finance for schools is something I want to summarize, in part. Our current system of public education, which seems like such a basic right now, was an argument that spanned decades in the mid-1800s. Author Ellwood Cubberly wrote: “Excepting the battle for the abolition of slavery, perhaps no question has ever been before the American people for settlement which caused so much feeling or aroused such bitter antagonisms.”
How public education developed in the United States is itself a story of dollars. For the rich, there was no question — they hired teachers and tutors themselves. Many times, churches set up schools. Occasionally, pauper schools were set up by a well-minded benefactor, or by the state. But, in general, the cost to pay one teacher to educate only a few students was just too expensive and the question of using either local or state tax dollars as a funding source wasn’t broached.
In the early 1800s, factory-like schools were opened in the United States, the first in New York. An English schoolmaster, Joseph Lancaster, is credited with the method. Anywhere between 200 to 1,000 children were taught by a single teacher with the help of a few outstanding students. Despite the problems inherent in such a system, some arising from students teaching one another (others, according to the Wikipedia article, included tying children up in sacks or hoisting them above the classroom in cages), the Lancastrian system did teach children for very little cost per student.
Suddenly, education was cheap, and the schoolroom was a place where many students from different backgrounds learned together. The idea of public education became common, paving the way for modern public schools and local taxes to support them.
Between 1800 and 1850, states began to allow school districts to levy taxes. With the Missouri law of 1824, districts could only do so with “the written demand of two-thirds of the voters of the district.” That’s a substantial requirement. In fact, the first public school district in Missouri didn’t show up until 1838, in St. Louis.
Schools could get local dollars only if voters approved. On top of that, they often asked for parents to pay for each of their children that went to school. It wasn’t a large fee, but it was enough to discourage poorer parents. For example, in 1826, when one school organization in New York City asked parents to pay per-child fees, enrollment dropped by nearly 15 percent.
Although schools could ask for taxes and fees, the states generally remained out of it.
The push for state funding for public education accelerated when men no longer had to own property to vote (by 1850). Before then, the pool of voters was rich — rich enough to pay for their children’s education themselves. Afterward, voters were both rich and poor, educated and uneducated … and electoral power no longer resided solely in the hands of the upper class.
“With the extension of the suffrage to all classes of the population, poor as well as rich, laborer as well as employer, there came to thinking men, often for the first time, a realization that general education had become a fundamental necessity for the State,” wrote Cubberly.
This is a pretty lengthy post (though still shorter than the book); I’ll write more about state funding for schools and how it changed school administration on Wednesday. If you have any questions or comments about state or local funding for schools, leave them below or email me.