What does the term public school mean to you? Do you know the history of public schools? This article contains great history information on the early years in the history public schools as well as recent history of public schools.

The term public school has two different meanings. In the United States, as well as in Australia and Canada, a public school is a Federally funded school, administered to some extent by the government, and charge with educating all citizens. The public schools include primary and secondary schools, which citizens are required to attend for a certain number of years, as well as a group of public universities. In the United Kingdom, a public school is like a U.S. preparatory school: a private secondary boarding school. This article deals with some highlights in the history of the first•the American version of the public school.

Early Years in the History of Public Schools

When the need for elementary and Latin schools was decreed in 1647 by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the schools they had in mind were a cross between public and private schools. They were public, in that they were mandated by the governing body to serve all. But they were like our current private schools in that they were meant to teach Puritan values and reading the Bible.

In 1785, the Continental Congress mandates a survey of the Northwest Territory. The survey is to create townships, with a portion of each one reserved for a school. These land grants came to be the system of public land grant universities in the years 1862 to 1890. These universities include many of those named “University of <state name>” or “<state name> State University,” such as University of Vermont and Pennsylvania State University.

In 1790, the state constitution in Pennsylvania required free public education for children in families that could not afford to pay for an education. Also concerned about the education of poor children, the New York Public School Society in 1805  set up schools that had a school master to teach the older children with a system in place for the older children to teach those who were younger.

In 1820, Boston is the site of the first public U.S. high school. And in 1827, a Massachusetts law makes all grades of public school free to all. Massachusetts innovation continues with the state's first Board of Education formed in 1837, headed by Horace Mann. And in 1851, Massachusetts makes education compulsory.

During Reconstruction, from 1865-1877, African Americans work to encourage public education in the South. With the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, “separate but equal' becomes an acceptable approach, not only on railroad cars, but in education, and public school are soon required by law to be racially segregated.

Vocational education is first funded when the Smith-Hughes Act passes in 1917, and by 1932, students in public schools are being slotted into multiple tracks based on the results of so-called “intelligence tests.”

In 1954, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregated schools are “inherently unequal” also says that they must be abolished. There is no immediate move to do so. In 1957, when a Federal court says that public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas must be integrated, the Governor of Arkansas sends the state National Guard to prevent it. In response, President Eisenhower sends Federal troops to make sure that the court order is enforced.

The Supreme Court decision in Miliken v. Bradley in 1974-that desegregation cannot take place across school districts-creates practical limits to desegregation efforts in urban districts as well as those in wealthy suburbs. Also in 1974, District 4-the Harlem District of New York City Schools-creates an intra-district school choice program.

In the 1980s, the first charter schools are set up in Minnesota.

In 1990-91, the first voucher legislation that allows a choice of public or private secular schools is passed by the Wisconsin legislature. Also in 1991, Minnesota creates a statewide, inter-district choice system, which has spread to sixteen more states in the next decade.

In 1994, Proposition 187, which says that it is illegal for children of illegal immigrants to attend public school is passed in California. It is declared unconstitutional in Federal court.

In 1995, religious schools become an accepted alternative in Wisconsin's school choice program, and the following year, Ohio allows vouchers to be used for religious schools.

By the 1999-2000 school year, a quarter of K-12 students are no longer attending their local neighborhood school, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) .


Applied Research Center  arc.org/content/view/100/48/


United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) About Us csrees.usda.gov/qlinks/partners/state_partners.html

PBS “The Story of American Public Education” pbs.org/kcet/publicschool/roots_in_history/testing_master3.html

Written by Mary Elizabeth