The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Public Schools:
Won by Movements of the Laboring People

Jul 1, 2002

The development of the public school system – that is, freed from religious influence, paid for by the state, open to all, and obligatory for all – was the work of the popular classes in American society, starting in its earliest years.

There were schools in the North American colonies before the revolution, almost all run by religious orders. But shortly after the first bourgeois revolution, that of 1775-78, a movement began to establish secular schools.

People like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the more far-sighted political representatives of the American bourgeoisie, were among those who led the drive for non-religious schools. These schools, secular though they were, were not yet a system of public education, even though Jefferson popularized the demands for schools open to everyone, paid for by the state. But for such schools to come into being required a movement of the laboring classes, in fact, several different movements.

The first quarter of the 19th century saw the gradual establishment of “common schools” for young children, but in many cases, the children of laboring people could attend only if the family took a “pauper’s oath.”

The first publicly funded high school was started in Boston in 1821. In 1827, the state of Massachusetts ordered every town with a certain minimum number of families to provide basic education, the number and variety of courses depending on the size of the town. By 1825, the first high schools outside of New England opened in New York City, and in Cincinnati Ohio. But these high schools were not yet open to all, nor certainly not obligatory for all children, which is the only way to ensure that education is free for all.

What changed that was the development of workingmen’s parties in a number of towns where the working class was developing. The first such party was established in Philadelphia in 1828. Other parties quickly sprang up, first in other Pennsylvania towns, then westward to Ohio, as well as southward to Delaware and northward to New York City, Boston and other New England towns. Within six years, such parties were organized in more than 60 cities, and “mechanics societies” in many more. Every one of these parties raised the demand for publicly funded education open to all, and most parties called for mandatory school attendance up to a certain age and, along with it, an end to child labor, as well as other demands such as the abolition of debtor’s prison, of unequal taxation and of convict labor. While the parties which raised these demands did not have a long life, their activity was what brought public schools as we understand them today into being.

By 1837, a state board of education had been established in Massachusetts; and a state-funded and state-administered system of education, directed by the state university, established in Michigan. As the frontier moved westward, many schools were established in small localities, before the states had even been organized.

The South, obviously, had a different development. For all practical purposes, there was no system of education, other than for the very privileged sons of the slave holders until after the Civil War. Teaching slaves to read was legally prohibited, and while there was no law against teaching the poor whites, there were also no schools where they could have been taught. But the Civil War, that second bourgeois revolution, and the social changes wrought by Reconstruction coming on its heels, brought a system of public education into being in the South. One of the first actions taken by almost all the Reconstruction governments set up by the ex-slaves and, in some states, the poor whites, was to establish public schools open to all, funded directly by the state governments, with aid from the federal government.

For the development of capitalism, public education of broad layers of the population was a necessity. For modern industry and the technology required for it to develop, there must be workers with at least the rudiments of an education: the ability to read, to write, to carry out basic mathematical functions, etc.

Nonetheless, it was not the capitalists who established the system of public schools that we know – secular, publicly funded, open to everyone and mandatory for everyone. It was the working people of this country who forced the issue.