The Education Reform Primer: How did it all begin?

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

This blog will explore some of the influences from the last 375 years (mostly from the last 100 or so) that have shaped public school education and made it what it is today (for better or worse). So stay tuned, add this to your favorites, and prepare to receive a bit of education on education.

How did it all begin?

by Matthew R. Plain

The United States Supreme Court has aptly, and somewhat recently, recognized that, “[e]ducation, to be sure, is not a ‘one size fits all’ business.” What type of business is it then?  Before we can take a meager stab at answering this, it’s critical to get a sense of the origin and history of public school education in the United States. As you can likely guess, it began in the New England colonies close to 400 years ago.

Massachusetts Bay colonists founded the Boston Latin School in 1635, the first school in America. Public funds supported the school.  It was based on the European Latin School model and focused on religion, Latin, and the Classics. Only males gained admission.

Soon thereafter, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s legislature, the General Court, enacted the General School Law of 1642, obligating the selectmen of every town to assess the colonists’ ability to read Religion and understand laws. The General Court’s Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 heightened Massachusetts towns’ schooling obligations. Under this Act, the General Court obligated towns with at least fifty families to hire a teacher and towns with at least one hundred families to establish a grammar school. The General Court compelled funding for such schools from both local appropriation and tuition. Failure to comply with the Act’s directives resulted in a five pound fine. It appeared that the rationale for such law was the avoidance of ignorance, “a state vulnerable to the Devil’s influence.”

Over the next few decades of the mid-1600s, the rest of the New England colonies would follow suit and pass similar public school laws. Though the various legislatures compelled these New England towns to provide schooling, they were not free, as families were generally billed for attendance. Some laws suggested bill adjustments based on a family’s ability to pay.

So there it is – 375 years ago the Massachusetts Bay Colony required its selectmen to be mindful of the citizenry’s ability to read and understand Scripture.  Now, today, there are tens of thousands of public schools across the country educating tens of millions of public school students to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including charter schools, charter management organizations, traditional public schools, private schools, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York . For more information, please click here.

Matt Plain is a Partner at Barton Gilman focusing his practice on education law, including school governance, administrative law, labor and employment, special education, and contract drafting and disputes. In addition, Matt is currently serving his second term as an elected member of the East Greenwich School Committee. In this capacity, he chairs the district’s policy subcommittee and serves on the negotiating team. Matt also teaches Education Reform and Policy at Roger Williams University School of Education. He is a former public school teacher and holds a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction. Matt has been named a 2018 Best Lawyer in America in Education Law, a New England Super Lawyer Rising Star, and a 40 Under Forty honoree by Providence Business News.