Members Only | December 27, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

You’d think debate over public education would be neutral and supported by all. But that’s never been how it works in America

Who’s in, who’s out – and are they the right kind of American?

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Editor’s note: The EB will have a light publishing schedule this week. One piece each today, Tuesday and Wednesday. Then off Thursday and Friday. Regular publishing will resume after the new year. –JS

Conservative attacks on education through anti-critical race theory laws are the newest strategy in a long history of politicizing public education and delegitimizing integrated and inclusive academics. 

While public education should be a neutral conversation supported by all (why would educating your children be political?), its history as a flashpoint for desegregation and racial inclusion fuels white panic. 


Anti-CRT laws might seem outlandish but they are the latest attempt by white conservatives to justify objections to acceptable public education. They are a continuation of attempts to use public education to indoctrinate students into white Protestant Americanism.


Anti-CRT laws might seem outlandish but they are the latest attempt by white conservatives to justify objections to acceptable public education. They are a continuation of attempts to use public education to indoctrinate students into white Protestant Americanism.

One reason public education is inherently politicized is because the federal public school system actually began after the Civil War. Public education was a local matter and much more common in New England. Boston Latin was the first public school in the original 13 colonies founded in 1635. Massachusetts began the first free taxpayer funded school in 1639 called the Mather School in Dorchester. 

Education in this period was often in the hands of the parents to teach literacy and arithmetic while children had apprenticeships to learn other skills. However, the ability of the parents to teach literacy was partially related to their religion. Those who were Protestant were more likely to be able to read well so they could read the Bible. 


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Public education was less common in the South where the rich would employ tutors for their children rather than building a community school project. While New England’s public grammar school network expanded, and became required in Massachusetts in 1647, they opened prestigious private academies, many of which still exist today. 

In addition to a greater emphasis on primary education, most of the earliest universities were also located in the North. Therefore elite Southerners would travel to the North to enroll in universities.

Education was both a necessary component for a functioning democracy and also the purview of the elite. Not only did educating one’s children cost money, it meant there was luxury time for those children. Even with the focus on public education in New England, there wasn’t a public high school in the United States until 1820 or a compulsory education law until 1852 (both in Massachusetts). 

Until the late 19th century, even those supportive of public education for all usually only meant access to grammar school for basic literacy and arithmetic. Further education was a luxury and a sign of wealth. 

Some states specified free public education would only be for the poor, thereby ensuring two tiers of education. After the revolution, the concept of Republican Motherhood ascended. That linked republican citizenship to education and put the responsibility in the mothers’ hands. This had the positive benefit of including women in some education since it was up to them to educate the next generation.

Until the Civil War, education was very limited for free Black people in the North and illegal for enslaved people. In the North, it was rare for schools to accept Black students though there were exceptions. 


Public education has a history of forcing a white Protestant curriculum with the idea of “civilizing” the poor, immigrants and Native Americans. Compulsory education gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because it was seen as a tool of assimilation


For example, Caroline Forten attended an all-white private grammar school in 1854 and was hired eventually to teach white students in Salem, Massachusetts. She joined a group traveling to South Carolina islands to teach former enslaved people during the Civil War (the white slave owners had fled, leaving the Black people behind). 

There were examples of schools dedicated to teaching free Black people, like the New York African Free School. Their mission was often controversial (it was burned down in 1814) and difficult, because their students had to work and didn’t have basic necessities. 

In the South, literacy was considered dangerous for enslaved people as it would allow communication between plantations and could lead to an organized revolt. It was also in the best interests of the planter class to keep enslaved people from knowing too much about radical politics. 

The federal Department of Education was founded in 1867 but there was an immediate concern it could exercise too much control over local populations and was made into the “Office of Education” to be housed within different departments a year later. By 1870, all states had public elementary schools paid by taxes. While these schools were meant to educate everyone, they were not initially compulsory.

Mississippi was the last state to pass a compulsory education law in 1917 but with little enforcement. During Reconstruction, the Freedman’s Bureau opened many schools and Republican politicians set up a system of taxpayer funded schools in the South. 


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When Reconstruction ended, Democrats took back power. They cut funding for education. There was no requirement that schools be integrated, only that there be a school available for all children. The “separate but equal” rule was formalized in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

Public education has a history of forcing a white Protestant curriculum with the idea of “civilizing” the poor, immigrants and Native Americans. Compulsory education gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because it was seen as a tool of assimilation

Compulsory education has a particularly brutal history for Native Americans. who were required to learn in English (not their native languages) and were taken off reservations to be taught at boarding schools. One of the most commonly used readers for public schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the McGuffey Readers. Its antisemitic tropes were taught to Jewish children. Public schools were a place of forced assimilation into a white Protestant culture.


When Brown v. Board of Education forced the integration of public school education in 1954, the worst fears about federalism and compulsory education came true for white conservatives. Integrated education was dangerous, because it could lead to interracial sex – “miscegenation” – which was a direct threat to white supremacy. 


When Brown v. Board of Education forced the integration of public school education in 1954, the worst fears about federalism and compulsory education came true for white conservatives. Integrated education was dangerous, because it could lead to interracial sex – “miscegenation” – which was a direct threat to white supremacy. 

With integrated schools, it would be harder to ensure that Black education was always worse and less funded, though de facto segregation has continued many of these disparities. The North mostly relied on existing de facto segregation or parents pulled children out of public school and sent them to newly formed “segregation academies,” which were all-white private schools. While these can’t legally discriminate, after the 1976 Supreme Court case Runyon v. McCrary, many still exist today with very low Black enrollment. 

The history of public education is highly politicized and racialized in who was excluded and how the content of public education enforced a specific white Protestant worldview. Recent attacks on “critical race theory” are the latest bogeyman to attempt to elevate a mythologized white-centric history over an inclusive and accurate education. 


Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.

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