Rise of Public Education in the United States
Universal, mandatory education in the United States arose in the mid-1800s as a response to industrialization and the economy's changing needs and as a way to assimilate recent immigrants. Informal education was prevalent prior to this time. Early American settlers largely educated their children at home rather than in public schools. Some private, mostly church-based schools existed, although only fairly wealthy families could afford to pay tuition. In general, education was reserved for white children. Slaves were deliberately denied education, a measure intended to contribute to their ongoing subjugation. Antiliteracy laws were passed in the South to prevent enslaved African Americans from learning to read. Unequal access to education continued well after the Civil War in many areas. (Indeed, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, educational inequality has remained an issue). Many early efforts at providing free public education occurred in the North. Boston opened the Boston Latin School, the country's first public school, in 1635. It served only boys, and granted admission to those who could read a few Bible verses. In 1647, the Colony of Massachusetts passed a law requiring families in towns of 50 households or more to hire teachers to provide children instruction in reading and writing. In 1787 the African Free School in New York City opened, with a mission to provide education to African American children. The Free School Society opened public schools in New York City for poor children in 1805.
As industrialization swept the nation, states began to pass laws requiring communities to provide free public education and requiring children to attend school. Massachusetts was the first state to pass a such a law. In 1852 it made school mandatory for children from eight to 14 years of age. Other states followed suit throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries. Mississippi was the last state to pass a mandatory education law, in 1918. The development of mandatory public education throughout the country reflected social and cultural ideas about the new, modern age the country was moving into. Part of the push for universal formal education was also fueled by fear and xenophobia (fear of foreigners), as waves of immigrants arrived over the course of the 19th century. As the recent immigrant population grew, white Americans worried about the influence of foreign values and cultures. Public education was seen by some as a way to get immigrant children out of their parents' homes and into schools, where the general public could be sure they were taught "American" values.
Mandatory public education developed first in Northern states and mostly developed in the South after the Civil War. Many schools were racially segregated in all regions of the country. Educational opportunity was therefore often impacted by race, because schools for African Americans, Hispanics, and other children of color frequently did not provide the same quality of education that white children received. Laws kept many public schools throughout the country racially segregated until the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954) mandated an end to the use of policies of racial segregation by public schools. This case made it illegal for schools to deny entrance to students based on race. In practice, many public schools remained completely segregated well into the 1960s and 1970s. Some integration of public schools has occurred since that time, with integration waxing and waning alongside other political, economic, and cultural trends. The widespread de facto racial segregation of neighborhoods means that most public schools remain fairly segregated. In fact, data show that in the 21st century public schools are even more racially segregated than prior to the Brown ruling. This is in large part because of correlations between income levels and race, as well as related housing patterns. Racial and economic segregation of schools reflects larger patterns in American society but also serves to reinforce and exacerbate racial and ethnic stratification and socioeconomic stratification.