Public Schools in the United States: Some History

On November 6, 2013 Applied Research Center (ARC) was rebranded as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. The content on this page was published on the ARC website prior to the rebrand.
April 13, 2006

In the United States, public education has not always been free or universal.
Race has often been the deciding factor. The original U.S. Constitution did not recognize slaves as full human beings, let alone citizens. It's not surprising that southern states made no provision for their education. But southern laws went further than that. Slave owners considered Black literacy so dangerous that was illegal for African Americans (whether slave or free) to learn to read, or for anyone to teach them. Until 1905, when the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional, California law excluded Chinese children from the public schools.
But today in the United States, grade school and high school are not only free, but until you're sixteen years old, school is compulsory. Why?

Reasons you usually hear for why we have public schools:
    •    Because the United States is a democracy. Our citizens need to be educated so they can make good decisions.

    •    Because there are no economic classes in the United States. Everyone is created equal and everyone has the same chances. Public schools give everyone equal access to education.

    •    Because people have to be able to compete, if they are going to be able to make a living and be productive citizens.

Some real reasons we have public education in the United States:
    •    Public schools give businesses something they need: a pre-trained workforce that has been taught important skills. These skills may include ability in subject matter like reading or math, but even more important to business is attitude. Public schools teach "skills" that business owners find very useful like competition, obedience and respect for authority.

    •    Public schools create the illusion that everyone has an equal chance. Even though some schools are rich and some are poor, the fact that everyone can go to public school is supposed to prove that if people of color can't get ahead, there I something wrong with them with their culture, their families and community, or their genes.

One way of looking at the history of public education in the United States is to see how wealthy people and business shaped the schools to contain and control poor people and turn them into useful workers and consumers. That's why rich people are willing to support public schools with their tax dollars because they benefit.

In earlier times, business people and their supporters were not shy about saying so directly. Horace Mann, Massachusetts' first state Superintendent of Schools told business owners in the 1840s that they would get better workers if they paid for public education. Workers who had been to school were distinguished by their "docility and quickness in applying themselves to work, personal cleanliness and fidelity in the performance of duties," not by their ability to read or do math.

Learn more about the history of public schools in the U.S. with this timeline .