To protect democracy, defend public education
I have focused on this period as the most important and formative in the history of public education in America. We had ideas in 1785, but the nation was just getting started. He was broke, coming out of a war, and built from scratch. Many people thought the land ordinance would be enough to establish schools in the center of every town, but it didn’t work everywhere. There has been a lot of mismanagement of land etc.
But when we come to the end of the Civil War, we suddenly have a lot of clarity. Congress understood that if the United States was to truly function as the democracy envisioned when the nation was founded, there had to be public education at the center of politics.
For the southern states that rejoined the union, one of the conditions was that they provide public education. Prior to the Civil War, the South did not guarantee public education, and then almost overnight – literally between 1868 and 1870 – each of these states rewrote their state constitutions to establish public education as a right .
Meanwhile, all other states to the west should also do the same. No state is ever again admitted into the union without guaranteeing public instruction in its constitution. And every state that was already admitted, whenever they had the opportunity to rewrite their constitution, also added clauses on education.
Thus, the Civil War reforms the South, sets new guidelines for the West, and also gives the North the opportunity to rewrite its constitutions. Eventually we come to a place where, in the late 1800s, every state guarantees public education.
Now the story was far from over in the South, where with reconstruction complete and the so-called Redeemers in charge, there is an attempt to undermine the rights and position of African Americans. This attempt includes not only suppressing the vote, but also segregating public education and underfunding schools for African American children – in part because teaching black children to read and write was costing white people money they didn’t want to spend, and in part because they just didn’t want black people to have full social citizenship.
This backlash was enormous and had serious consequences that are evident in the history of the first half of the 20th century. But there was also a silver lining, namely that the South was never able to completely get rid of public education and return to what it was before. Mississippi State did try. They said, “Well, we didn’t have public education until slavery ended, we should get rid of it altogether.”
But it soon became clear that white people also loved public education, so it became here to stay, albeit in a very segregated and unequal form. The idea of public education was then strong enough that even the virulent racism of the time was not enough to eradicate it. The right to education has survived, although it has been left to future generations to fully realize it.