Education and the Constitution

The subject of education is notably absent from the body of the Constitution and was mentioned only once in the debates of the Constitutional Convention and then only with the issue of whether a national university should be established at the seat of government. The likely reason is that education was still largely a private issue, with exceptions, and under the control of the church. Thus, under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, the matter of education was left to the states. Significantly for later church/state debates, there were few, if any, free schools funded by the government at the time the First Amendment was being drafted.

The federal government had expressed some interest in education just prior to the ratification of the Constitution, though, with the passage of the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787. These laws established a rectangular form of land survey for the Northwest Territories, from which new states would be carved out, laying out land in six-mile-square townships, which were further subdivided into one-square-mile sections. Congress set aside a section of each township for education and also expressly affirmed a federal commitment to education. Article III of the Ordinance states: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." This was probably an outgrowth of the gradual shift in the initial religious purpose in education to a more politically based belief that maintaining an educated citizenry was essential to the republic. (This shift came to full flower in the decades preceding the Civil War.) As states were added to the union, beginning with Ohio, Congress donated a section in each township to the state for the maintenance of schools within the township, in exchange for foregoing state taxation of the public lands.

Despite the land grants of the federal government, except in New England and New York, there was little national consciousness with respect to education through the first quarter of the nineteenth century' ' and there were few public schools. The public schools that did exist were funded by parents whose children attended the schools, or sometimes by local taxes. That private schools existed in most communities was a testament to the view that education was primarily the parents' responsibility. Private schools, still motivated by the religious interests of the sects establishing them, remained dominant. In some states, the private school "lobby" was so powerful that it was able to secure public aid."

The success of private schooling was phenomenal, with literacy in the North increasing into the middle to high ninety percent range and reaching as high as eighty-one percent among whites in the South between 1800 and 1840. The initial pressure for government-controlled education began in Boston in 1817, as a result of lobbying by those who contended that impoverished parents were unable to afford private schooling for their children. The Boston School Committee, however, urged against public schooling after its own survey revealed that ninety-six percent of Boston children were in school even though the schools were private and there were no truancy laws. But public school advocates persisted, and by 1818 succeeded in making Boston the first city in America to establish an entirely publicly funded school system.

Around 1825 a serious battle began for the development of tax-supported, publicly controlled and directed, nonsectarian common schools. Before then, such schools were merely a distant hope among "reformers." It wasn't until the 1850s that public education-in the sense of being government-sponsored, -operated, and -controlled started to gain national prominence, first in New England and then in the rest of the nation. Prior to that time, America's education system had remained decentralized. While one of the main purposes of government-controlled schooling was to provide a safety net so that even the poorest of children could go to school, in practice, government schools didn't effect an increase in school enrollment. Rather, they wiped out many private schools whose sponsors could not support them while simultaneously supporting public schools through taxation.

One of the prime movers in this transformation was Massachusetts legislator Horace Mann. Mann was raised Calvinist, but at the age of twelve rejected his Calvinist background and eventually became a Unitarian. Mann fought to diminish the Calvinist influence in the schools, and was instrumental in a reform movement that eventually led to centralized control of education. When he was president of the state senate, he played a major roll in establishing the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, and served on it until 1848.

Mann was such an idealist in his views of the social engineering possibilities for government-run schools that he envisioned a society where ninety percent of the crimes would be eliminated. His influence extended well beyond Massachusetts; his energetic activism greatly contributed to the ignition of a crusade for public education in almost every state. During this time, the character of education became increasingly nonsectarian and secular, with a steadily decreasing focus on religious instruction. Many Protestant leaders attributed this trend to the workings of Mann, and people began to attack him for introducing secularism into the schools. Some claimed that the Massachusetts Board of Education intended to take the Bible out of schools and to leave students' religious instruction to the home and the Sabbath schools." While Mann denied any desire to remove the Bible, many today believe he was very influential in planting the seeds of secularism in our public schools. Secularism was part of a philosophical movement known as "humanism," whose influence on public education is explored in Chapter Three.

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