Mike McMahon AUSD
BOE Meetings Assessment Facilities FinancesFavorite Links

Historical Timeline of Public Education in the US

Additional Historical Background

1647 The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decrees that every town of fifty families should have an elementary school and that every town of 100 families should have a Latin school. The goal is to ensure that Puritan children learn to read the Bible and receive basic information about their Calvinist religion.

1779 Thomas Jefferson proposes a two-track educational system, with different tracks in his words for "the laboring and the learned." Scholarship would allow a very few of the laboring class to advance, Jefferson says, by "raking a few geniuses from the rubbish."

1785 The Continental Congress (before the U.S. Constitution was ratified) passes a law calling for a survey of the "Northwest Territory" which included what was to become the state of Ohio. The law created "townships," reserving a portion of each township for a local school. From these "land grants" eventually came the U.S. system of "land grant universities," the state public universities that exist today. Of course in order to create these townships, the Continental Congress assumes it has the right to give away or sell land that is already occupied by Native people.

1790 Pennsylvania state constitution calls for free public education but only for poor children. It is expected that rich people will pay for their children's schooling.

1805 New York Public School Society formed by wealthy businessmen to provide education for poor children. Schools are run on the "Lancasterian" model, in which one "master" can teach hundreds of students in a single room. The master gives a rote lesson to the older students, who then pass it down to the younger students. These schools emphasize discipline and obedience qualities that factory owners want in their workers.

1817 A petition presented in the Boston Town Meeting calls for establishing of a system of free public primary schools. Main support comes from local merchants, businessmen and wealthier artisans. Many wage earners oppose it, because they don't want to pay the taxes.

1820 First public high school in the U.S., Boston English, opens.

1827 Massachusetts passes a law making all grades of public school open to all pupils free of charge.

1830s By this time, most southern states have laws forbidding teaching people in slavery to read. Even so, around 5 percent become literate at great personal risk.

1820-1860 The percentage of people working in agriculture plummets as family farms are gobbled up by larger agricultural businesses and people are forced to look for work in towns and cities. At the same time, cities grow tremendously, fueled by new manufacturing industries, the influx of people from rural areas and many immigrants from Europe. During the 10 years from 1846 to 1856, 3.1 million immigrants arrive a number equal to one eighth of the entire U.S. population. Owners of industry needed a docile, obedient workforce and look to public schools to provide it.

1836 Slave-owner James Bowie and Indian-killer Davy Crockett are among those killed in the Battle of the Alamo in Texas, in their attempt to take Texas by force from Mexico.

1837 Horace Mann becomes head of the newly formed Massachusetts State Board of Education. Those who have studied the origin and development of public schools appear to be unanimous in concluding that Horace Mann was the most influential proponent of free, tax-supported schools for every community. Mann is widely quoted as stating that "the common school is the greatest discovery ever made by man." He was convinced that by educating in the same school building, children of all religions, social classes and ethnic backgrounds, society could dramatically decrease social and political conflict. Edmund Dwight, a major industrialist, thinks a state board of education was so important to factory owners that he offered to supplement the state salary with extra money of his own.

1840s Over a million Irish immigrants arrive in the United States, driven out of their homes in Ireland by the potato famine. Irish Catholics in New York City struggle for local neighborhood control of schools as a way of preventing their children from being force-fed a Protestant curriculum.

1845 The United States annexes Texas.

1846 President James Polk orders the invasion of Mexico.

1848 Massachusetts Reform School at Westboro opens, where children who have refused to attend public schools are sent. This begins a long tradition of "reform schools," which combine the education and juvenile justice systems.

1848 The war against Mexico ends with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which gives the United States almost half of what was then Mexico. This includes all of what is now the U.S. Southwest, plus parts of Utah, Nevada and Wyoming and most of California. The treaty guarantees citizenship rights to everyone living in these areas mostly Mexicans and Native people. It also guarantees the continued use of the Spanish language, including in education. One hundred fifty years later, in 1998, California breaks that treaty, by passing Proposition 227, which would make it illegal for teachers to speak Spanish in public schools.

1851 State of Massachusetts passes first its compulsory education law. The goal is to make sure that the children of poor immigrants get "civilized" and learn obedience and restraint, so they make good workers and don't contribute to social upheaval.

1864 Congress makes it illegal for Native Americans to be taught in their native languages. Native children as young as four years old are taken from their parents and sent to Bureau of Indian Affairs off-reservation boarding schools, whose goal, as one BIA official put it, is to "kill the Indian to save the man."

1865-1877 African Americans mobilize to bring public education to the South for the first time. After the Civil War, and with the legal end of slavery, African Americans in the South make alliances with white Republicans to push for many political changes, including for the first time rewriting state constitutions to guarantee free public education. In practice, white children benefit more than Black children.

1877-1900 Reconstruction ends in 1877 when federal troops, which had occupied the South since the end of the Civil War are withdrawn. Whites regain political control of the South and lay the foundations of legal segregation.

1893-1913 Size of school boards in the country's 28 biggest cities is cut in half. Most local district (or "ward") based positions are eliminated, in favor of city-wide elections. This means that local immigrant communities lose control of their local schools. Makeup of school boards changes from small local businessmen and some wage earners to professionals (like doctors and lawyers), big businessmen and other members of the richest classes.

1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the state of Louisiana has the right to require "separate but equal" railroad cars for Blacks and whites. This decision means that the federal government officially recognizes segregation as legal. One result is that southern states pass laws requiring racial segregation in public schools.

1905 The U.S. Supreme Court requires California to extend public education to the children of Chinese immigrants.

1917 Smith-Hughes Act passes, providing federal funding for vocational education. Big manufacturing corporations push this, because they want to remove job skill training from the apprenticeship programs of trade unions and bring it under their own control.

1924 An act of Congress makes Native Americans U.S. citizens for the first time.

1930-1950 The NAACP brings a series of suits over unequal teachers' pay for Blacks and whites in southern states. At the same time, southern states realize they are losing African American labor to the northern cities. These two sources of pressure resulted in some increase of spending on Black schools in the South.

1932 A survey of 150 school districts reveals that three quarters of them are using so-called intelligence testing to place students in different academic tracks.

1945 At the end of World War 2, the G.I. Bill of Rights gives thousands of working class men college scholarships for the first time in U.S. history.

1948 Educational Testing Service is formed, merging the College Entrance Examination Board, the Cooperative Test Service, the Graduate Records Office, the National Committee on Teachers Examinations and others, with huge grants from the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. These testing services continued the work of eugenicists like Carl Brigham (originator of the SAT) who did research "proving" that immigrants were feeble-minded.

1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Supreme Court unanimously agrees that segregated schools are "inherently unequal" and must be abolished. Almost 45 years later in 1998, schools, especially in the north, are as segregated as ever.

1957 A federal court orders integration of Little Rock, Arkansas public schools. Governor Orval Faubus sends his National Guard to physically prevent nine African American students from enrolling at all-white Central High School. Reluctantly, President Eisenhower sends federal troops to enforce the court order not because he supports desegregation, but because he can't let a state governor use military power to defy the U.S. federal government.

1968 African American parents and white teachers clash in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of New York City, over the issue of community control of the schools. Teachers go on strike, and the community organizes freedom schools while the public schools are closed.

1974 Milliken v. Bradley. A Supreme Court made up of Richard Nixon's appointees rules that schools may not be desegregated across school districts. This effectively legally segregates students of color in inner-city districts from white students in wealthier white suburban districts.

Late 1970s The so-called "taxpayers' revolt" leads to the passage of Proposition 13 in California, and copy-cat measures like Proposition 2-1/2 in Massachusetts. These propositions freeze property taxes, which are a major source of funding for public schools. As a result, in twenty years California drops from first in the nation in per-student spending in 1978 to number 43 in 1998.

1980s The federal Tribal Colleges Act establishes a community college on every Indian reservation, which allows young people to go to college without leaving their families.

1994 Proposition 187 passes in California, making it illegal for children of undocumented immigrants to attend public school. Federal courts hold Proposition 187 unconstitutional, but anti-immigrant feeling spreads across the country.

1996 Leading the way backwards again, California passes Proposition 209, which outlaws affirmative action in public employment, public contracting and public education. Other states jump on the bandwagon with their own initiatives and right wing elements hope to pass similar legislation on a federal level.

1998 California again! This time a multi-millionaire named Ron Unz manages to put a measure on the June 1998 ballot outlawing bilingual education in California.

SourceCenter for Community Change Action Guide

Milestones in the History of Public Education

Education in the Colonies – the 1600s
Defining Social and Class Roles – the 1700s
Industrial Schools – the 1800s
Reconstruction – 1865 - 1950
Migration, Immigration and Industrialization
Battles for Equality and Control – 1950s
The Federal Government Steps In – The Elementary and Secondary Education Act(ESEA) 60s
Communities Step In – Local Control 70s
A Nation at Risk 80s
No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

Recent Education Trends

A sense of the past is useful for organizing in the present because it provides a context for our work. The historical context for education organizing in the U.S. includes class, race and ideological struggles born of two – frequently competing – goals for public school systems.

One of society’s goals has been to help students develop the skills needed to function successfully in a democracy. It is characterized by a belief in democratic ideals including equal opportunity, selfimprovement, class mobility, generational progress and achievement through hard work. Another view embraces the role that public K-12 education has played historically in preparing children to become cooperative and effective workers and passive consumers as adults—thereby favoring capitalist goals over democratic ideals.

Inevitably, these two goals come into conflict with one another. But they have shared, over time, a limited notion of democracy articulated by Thomas Jefferson and others of his day and perpetuated in our economic system. Both made distinctions between “laborers and the learned,” between men and women, between black, brown, yellow and white skin. Whether intentional or not, the legacy our society has brought forward through history is evident in the tensions emanating from class and race distinctions in our schools.

Tension between a school’s responsibility to an individual (providing some children with boundless resources), versus responsibility to society as a whole (insuring that all children have access to the highest level of instruction) also serves to separate rather than unite. Despite court rulings overturning the concept of ‘separate but equal’, today’s public schools often manifest a sharp contrast in their racial segregation and their uneven distribution of resources.

All of these competing constructs of public education are evident in the curriculum, the structure of schools and learning, and of course the politics of public school reform. The constant tension between the democratic ideals and the pressure to maintain class and racial divides explains much about how schools are governed and funded and about the rhetoric and reality of reform efforts. With this in mind, activists and organizers must constantly ask questions that help expose these contradictory interests. For instance:

  • How does education policy in our districts play out along race and class lines? What are the ways that resources – broadly defined – are skewed to widen these divides?
  • Does a school’s curriculum encourage creative and independent thinking or does it focus on test scores, rote memorization, and ability grouping?
  • Are standards and assessments being used to evaluate what’s working and what’s not and assure better outcomes for students and teachers, or to bar access, sort and label kids, or to punish students, teachers, schools or districts?
  • Do politicians and corporate executives dictate policy and practice or do parents, students and teachers take the lead, modeling democratic ideals – or at least have a seat at the table?
  • Is reform being driven by well-documented research about how children learn, or by the political desire to seem tough and push for quick fixes?

Education in the Colonies – the 1600s

The first schools in the European colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire were created by the Puritans in the mid-1600s. Promoting the twin tenets of work and faith, Puritan schools taught basic literacy – relying heavily on the Bible as a textbook – along with skills needed for work and survival. Very few children had access to these schools, which were often centered in private homes. And even those who did attend found their academic schedule heavily shaped by the colonists’ need for young people to work in the fields and trades.

The colonists recognized the role that schooling plays in conveying not just skills but also moral values to children. As Protestants who belonged to sects other than Puritanism arrived in the colonies, they began to object to the theological grounding of the Puritan schools. Without common agreement on a single set of values, these arrivals established schools to share their own values with their children. By the middle of the eighteenth century, private schools, guided by the ideologies of disparate religious groups, were the norm.

Defining Social and Class Roles – the 1700s

Thomas Jefferson was an early advocate of public schools, available to all children. But “public” didn’t mean equal. Jefferson was a proponent of both conflicting tenets described in the introduction to this chapter. He wanted education to serve to “maintain democracy,” but also envisioned two sets of schools segregating “the laboring from the learned” and educating them accordingly. Jefferson’s crumb to the poor was a promise of upward mobility: he conceded that his system might “[rake] a few geniuses from the rubbish.”

Jefferson’s concept of public schooling didn’t catch on right away, but in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson revived his campaign. He argued that public schooling was necessary to teach the values of the new democracy and prepare citizens for civic involvement.

Jefferson’s concept of who was to partake of this training in democracy was hardly democratic. Public education was not envisioned to include women, Native people, enslaved Africans, indentured servants or laborers. Yet even such a stratified system wasn’t enough for some. In the southern states, for example, wealthy plantation owners shunned the idea of public schools altogether. They were content to arrange for the private education of their own children and declined to worry about the larger societal implications of failing to education all children.

Industrial Schools – the 1800s

Public education received a major boost in the early 1800s with the contributions of Horace Mann, who was appointed as the First Secretary of the State Board of Education in Massachusetts in 1837. Mann campaigned throughout the state on behalf of public schools, and his work resulted in significantly improved financial commitments to schools, and the increased institutionalization of public education in the state. Mann also established the first teacher training school in the United States, and advocated for a system of free libraries. His series of twelve Annual Reports carried his message outside of Massachusetts. In the reports, he called for a free education for all children, rich and poor alike, which he believed would equalize growing class schisms in society. He supported taxation as a means to support a system of public schools, a non-sectarian approach to public schools, and argued that the nation’s economic wealth would increase as citizens were educated.

Largely through the influence of Mann, in the first half of the 1800s new state constitutions were being drafted, and most included provisions for public education. Though most schooling continued to be private and highly segregated, public schools began to emerge. They were immediately politicized, with the curriculum designed to reflect the values of the dominant political party or social groupings in their jurisdictions.

During the 1800s, a dramatically increasing population and urban concentration in some states, due to both internal and external migration, was met with a corresponding explosion of public schools. Between 1846 and 1856, over three million immigrants arrived in the United States, a number then equal to one eighth of the entire U.S. population2 . These immigrants, and the influx of people from rural areas and the south, joined the growing workforce that fueled new manufacturing industries in the north. Factory owners wanted public schools to provide basic skills and a workforce that accepted its place -- a mission that came in direct conflict with the vision of schools that prepared all citizens to participate fully in civic society.

Reconstruction – 1865 - 1950

At the conclusion of the Civil War there was a rush to bring public education to the South, particularly to some four million recently emancipated slaves. Congress created a federal Department of Education in 1867 to spearhead and regulate this massive expansion of public schools.

Southern states-rights congressmen, however, opposed federal involvement in education. They wanted to control who was educated and what they were taught. As a result of their efforts, the Department of Education enjoyed cabinet-level status for only one year before being demoted to a “bureau.” Education did not return to Cabinet level again until 1979—more than a hundred years later.

Despite this struggle over the federal government’s role in education, public schooling did find its way into the lives of millions of citizens. White literacy was almost universal by the beginning of Reconstruction, and grew rapidly in the rural South where school access had been more limited.3 But the rise in Black literacy rates was especially dramatic. While estimates of the growth in Black literacy vary, one more conservative estimate is that Black literacy increased from 10 percent in 1880 to 50 percent in 1910. The Census Bureau reported that by 1930 the Black literacy rate had jumped to 80 percent.4 At the same time, the literacy for white adults was 90 percent. Robert Higgs writes:

    …even if the true literacy figure a half century after emancipation reached only 50 percent, the magnitude of the accomplishment is still striking, especially when one recalls the overwhelming obstacles blocking black educational efforts. For a large population to transform itself from virtually unlettered to more than half literate in 50 years ranks as an accomplishment seldom witnessed in human history. — Higgs, Robert, Competition and Coercion, Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

After Reconstruction, signaled by the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, whites regained political control of the South and laid the groundwork for legal segregation through the Jim Crow laws. African Americans were relegated to separate schools. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson declared the concept of “separate but equal” constitutional and permitted segregation in virtually all aspects of public life, including schools.

Migration, Immigration and Industrialization

American society, cities and culture continued to change dramatically at the turn of the twentieth century. From 1870 to 1920, 40 million immigrants from Europe came into the United States. Hundreds of thousands were children whose parents looked to public schools to help them forge a better life. Public schools played a major role in the assimilation of immigrant families, as they do today. The forced removal of Native American children from their homes on reservations to attend boarding schools is a grim reminder of the negative aspects of assimilation goals. In many ways the schools were a cultural battleground, with debates over bilingual education similar to the debates going on in schools today. Beginning in the mid-1850s and up through the turn of the century many states enacted bilingual education laws. However, after the massive immigration noted above and the U.S. involvement in the first World War, xenophobia caused a number of states to pass English-only instruction laws. These bilingual education debates reflected biases about which immigrants’ cultures should be valued. For example, European languages such as German and French were frequently taught in the classroom, but Mexican students were punished for speaking Spanish in school.

At the same time, African Americans left the south, changing the face of northern cities and increasing pressure on schools to meet the needs of the developing industries in which they worked. Junior highs and high schools were restructured, with large numbers of students moving from one classroom to another like widgets moving along an assembly line. Teachers specialized and students were placed in groupings that were said to be based on ability, but deliberately or not often reproduced the socio-economic or racial caste of students’ families. Much of this structure remains today: “ability grouping” may begin as early as kindergarten when children are assigned to reading-readiness groups. Once labeled “low-track,” children often have difficulty moving to tracks that will prepare them for more sophisticated secondary schools or college.

In 1926 the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a standardized college entrance exam, was used for the first time. The SAT was developed by Carl Brigham, a eugenicist who did research that allegedly proved immigrants were “feeble-minded”. In the next few decades intelligence and achievement tests became widespread in their use. To this day many argue that the SAT and other standardized tests are culturally biased, favoring white students over students of color.

Battles for Equality and Control – 1950s

After decades of behind-the-scenes groundwork, as the civil rights movement was building in the South, the Supreme Court struck down Plessy v. Ferguson in 1954. In Brown v. Board of Education the justices declared segregated schools inherently unequal and ordered them dismantled “with all deliberate speed.” The ruling ignited a firestorm of protest, from northern as well as southern states, and led to decades of sometimes-violent struggles for integration and equality.

Opposition to the Brown decision was couched in terms of “states rights,” – the notion that state governments should maintain the ability to do as they please. State’s rights continues to be used symbolically today to avoid talking about difficult issues of race, class and values.

The Brown decision was hailed as forcing states and districts to integrate their schools and equalize resources. But in fact, the Supreme Court failed to throw its full weight behind the decision. As the Mississippi organizing group Southern Echo notes5 , “Instead, the court left it up to the combatants at the local school district level where the local districts had the advantage, often supported by corrupt, racist federal judges who had no reluctance to flaunt and attack the Supreme Court and the United States Constitution.” Echo argues that the Court’s use of the phrase, “all deliberate speed,” while meant to acknowledge the complexity of the task it was demanding, instead signaled to local segregationists that change could wait. While some cities turned to forced busing and gerrymandering school attendance boundaries to reach for a more diverse student body, equity and integration proved more elusive. The courts could order busing, but they could not force parents to participate.

In response to integration, millions of white families moved away from urban centers, spurring a massive expansion of suburbs, where the new, all-white school districts were unaffected by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Housing segregation fostered school segregation. African-Americans were denied access to suburban homes through ‘redlining’— banks and realtors simply shut them out of all-white neighborhoods. Through the 1980s, and despite attempts by some urban districts to keep and attract white students with programs such as magnet schools, the exodus from city schools continued. By 1992, the Court was forced to declare itself unwilling to order more drastic solutions to reverse the rapid resegregation of public schools: “Where resegregation is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications. […] It is beyond the authority and beyond the practical ability of the federal courts to try to counteract these kinds of continuous and massive demographic shifts,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Freeman v. Pitts decision.

The Federal Government Steps In – The Elementary and Secondary Education Act(ESEA)

In the 1950s and early 1960s, states and local school boards shared authority over public education, its funding, organization, and content. By then most states had departments of education, established funding mechanisms and regulations guiding attendance, curriculum and other components of the public education system. Within broad guidelines, localities made specific policies and decisions.

Predictably, there were vast differences among districts in the same state and among the states themselves. There was little consistency in the way that students and their families were involved, supported, and challenged in the schools.

In an effort to manage these disparities, the federal government, in 1965, stepped into the fray. The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) directed federal funds and programs to disadvantaged students in recognition that children from lowincome homes required more educational services than children from affluent homes. Title I of ESEA became the largest federal K-12 education program, receiving $8 billion its first year. In pressing for the ESEA, President Johnson acted less out of altruism than in response to demands from the civil rights movement, widespread civil unrest and the Civil Rights Act passed the previous year. Without directly attacking local or state control of schools, Congress said that the states had failed to meet the educational needs of their most impoverished children and would, therefore, have to live with more federal involvement. ESEA was also a cornerstone of the President’s “War on Poverty. In addition to providing new federal resources for schools, the law encompassed the new Head Start program for disadvantaged preschoolers and in 1968 incorporated bilingual education provisions (Title VII), offering federal aid to school districts to assist them in addressing the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability.

Communities Step In – Local Control

While battles over desegregation raged through the 1960s and ‘70s, the issue of who controlled the public schools continued to be a subtext. One important struggle was the 1968 confrontation in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a predominantly Black and Puerto Rican community in Brooklyn, New York, which exposed and ignited simmering tensions between communities of color and mostly white teachers over the control of schools.

That conflict emerged when the New York City schools, under pressure from parents, created three experimental school districts and gave local communities control over school budgets, curricula and staffing. One of those districts, Oceanhill-Brownsville, was also assigned the City’s first black superintendent. When the new parent council in Oceanhill-Brownsville decided to signal their power to the union by voting to transfer 18 teachers out of the district, the fight erupted into the public arena. To the press, the school council claimed that the teachers were undermining the goals of the community control experiment. But a larger context of the dispute was the emergence of Black and Puerto Rican nationalism across the country, with its call for self-reliance and racial empowerment. The predominantly white teachers of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) were perceived as indifferent and unsympathetic to the needs of the community and its children. To no one’s surprise, the United Federation of Teachers objected. Union president Albert Shankar called a citywide teachers strike. The strike lasted two months, ending when NYC Mayor John Lindsay, who had originally supported the plan for community control, capitulated to the union and brought an end to the experiment.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict catapulted to the front pages of newspapers around the country. It fueled a debate that rang with the rhetoric of the ongoing civil and workers’ rights struggles and pitted parents against teachers with a viciousness that has not been seen since – but has shaped a public perception of conflicting interests between parents and teachers that continues to the present. Even today, many who were involved in the struggle have difficulty talking about Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Yet, despite the difficulty of the struggle, the demand for more community control has persisted. Two decades later, in 1988, The Chicago School Reform Act signaled a new era in local control. The Act established Local School Councils (LSCs) that gave parents and community activists new power. Among the responsibilities turned over to the Councils was the right to select and evaluate principals, help develop and approve school improvement plans, and control discretionary budgets averaging $500,000 per school. The Chicago Teachers Union, while initially skeptical and not supportive of the move, now embraces the site-based management structure. In fact, during 2004, the Union has joined with a broad coalition of community organizations to oppose the Mayor’s “Renaissance 2010” plan which would, in part, abolish Local School Councils at some schools.

‘A Nation at Risk’

The optimism of the 1960s and early 70s, the momentum created by the civil rights movement, and federal mandates that the poor and children of color receive an equal education began to wane in the late 1970s. Students of color were increasingly segregated in inner city and racially isolated rural schools as attempts to integrate schools failed. The growth of the suburbs had drained property wealth from cities and funding from schools serving their residents.

In the face of these defeats, new approaches to education were gaining ground. The civil rights and women’s movements influenced many parents and teachers to seek more diverse curriculum content that would give prominence to the roles of women and people of color, and to seek better understanding of how race and gender oppression are manifested in a learning environment. A growing number of educators and community activists rejected adjectives like “needy” and “disadvantaged” to describe children and families. They urged schools and teachers to recognize the strength, talents and resources that exist in every individual, family and community. Furthermore, they argued, teaching styles and expectations heavily influence students’ success or failure.

President Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 on a platform that rejected these kinds of ideas. He, his staff and his supporters were committed to going back to some imagined time when everyone could and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and there was no talk – or recognition – of inequality. He hoped to reduce the size and scope of government and let markets reign. In 1983 Reagan created the National Commission on Excellence in Education to evaluate the nation’s education system and propose reforms to help the U.S. maintain international supremacy – economically (the “trade war”) and politically (the Cold War).

The Commission’s report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” gave the administration the rhetoric it wanted, warning that U.S. student achievement was slipping and that the country faced the imminent prospect of being overtaken in the global market by other nations. Among the alarmist sound bites the report produced were:

    “The educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

    “…If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The Commission’s recommendations, on the other hand, were a mixed bag. Largely disregarded by the administration and the media was the Commission’s support for smaller class size and greater access to more sophisticated curriculum and teaching. Also widely ignored were recommendations that teachers receive more autonomy, more access to professional development and more competitive salaries. Instead, the Reagan administration emphasized the report’s discussion of learning “standards,” spawning a standards movement.

Standards were (and are) a potentially valuable mechanism to insure that all students receive high-level curriculum, and might even have led to the elimination of tracking. But the administration took a more conservative tack. Governors, corporate executives and the media were cultivated at regional and national summits promoting a results-driven approach to education that sought to emulate the late 1970s restructuring of American businesses to increase productivity. “Standards” became curricular requirements that could be measured with standardized tests. More recently, many states have implemented “high stakes” testing programs that tie student promotion and graduation to statewide achievement tests. While these various assessments have sometimes proved useful to evaluate school resources and identify needs, they are increasingly used to punish students, teachers and schools. As noted by the Education Commission of the States, “Standards are only one piece in a puzzle that also encompasses assessment, curriculum, accountability, teacher education and professional development, and intervention and support for struggling students and schools.”

Thus, despite its use of specious data and its unfounded conclusions, “A Nation at Risk” left a ‘standards’ legacy that significantly impacts learning today. Though subsequent studies disputed its findings, “A Nation at Risk” fulfilled its mission to open the debate on a fundamental restructuring of public education. Rhetoric found in “A Nation at Risk” and the standards movement’s failure to get quick results provided Reagan, subsequent administrations and conservative governors with justification for free-market experiments including vouchers, tuition tax credits and privatization.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

George W. Bush’s administration swept into office with a plan to seize the Democratic Party’s traditional dominance over public education as a domestic issue. The vehicle for this “education presidency” was the scheduled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The development of the new ESEA began on a progressive note. In fact, NCLB contains several progressive principles, including the idea that schools should be judged based on their ability to bring all children along educationally, and that the quality of the teaching staff is a key component of successful learning and an area where huge gaps exist between wealthy and low-income schools. But through the course of the debate, conservatives managed to move the details of the law in a much more ominous direction.

In January 2001, with broad bipartisan support, President Bush signed the new incarnation of ESEA, with the title “No Child Left Behind” (the moniker was lifted from the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) slogan ‘Leave No Child Behind,’ though the Children’s Defense Fund has been strongly critical of the new law). NCLB makes sweeping changes in the way schools and districts must operate if they receive federal education dollars. The law requires annual assessments in grades 3-12 and imposes sanctions on low-income schools that do not meet annual goals for improvement in assessment scores. It sets goals for improving teacher quality. It consolidates funding, allowing states the leeway to use federal education dollars for a wide range of programs. And it refocuses the longstanding federal program for bilingual education towards English language acquisition. The fact that the law rests on some solid foundations makes it harder to criticize. As a political move, NCLB was a brilliant strategy. But for kids, it could be a disaster.

No Child Left Behind dramatically expands the federal role in public schools, while at the same time encouraging families to look to less regulated private and semi-private institutions to educate their children.

The immediate effect of the law has been to dramatically increase federal oversight of education, worrying advocates of smaller government and flying in the face of the legacies of Presidents Reagan and Bush senior. However, the Bush Administration’s ultimate goal is undeniably the downsizing of not only the federal role in education, but likely the public role as a whole. The Administration has severely underfunded the law. And NCLB’s promotion of privatization of education and flirtation with vouchers belies a longer term agenda to reduce the role of government in education.

In effect, the law sets unrealistic restrictions and mandates on schools and districts, while at the same time encouraging “failing” schools be turned over to private entities that are less accountable and virtually unregulated. It offers “choice” to low income parents to move their children out of poorly performing or “persistently dangerous” schools – without insuring that there will be better quality, safer schools for them to attend. It funnels federal dollars to private supplemental service providers and to advocacy organizations that promote vouchers. And at every step, the law emphasizes measurement, assessment, and curricula that feed business – and federal dollars – to the private sector.

In the first two years after NCLB was enacted, it appeared to have achieved the Republican goal of disarming the Democrats of their traditional dominance over the issue by positioning the Republicans as the party of change, fundamentally restructuring public education in the country. Astute spin from the Department of Education suggests that to argue against NCLB is to support the status quo.

Despite the Department of Education’s attempts to vilify opponents of the law (the Secretary of Education during Bush’s first term, Rod Paige, went so far as to call the National Education Association a “terrorist organization” in the spring of 2004), a wide assortment of teachers, administrators, parents, advocates and education experts have expressed grave concerns about the law. Clearly, the rhetorical goal of leaving no child behind is seen as much more complicated by those on the ground.

As implementation proceeds, a rising opposition to the law, and support for revisions have grown. How school districts, teachers, parents and communities respond to No Child Left Behind is certain to be the major theme of the next several years in the debate on public education in the U.S. Will the law lead to the erosion of federal support for poor children in public schools? Will public schools become even more stratified based on race and class, with the “haves” winning and the “have-nots” losing…again? Or will the focus on assessment and sanctions eliminate unproven or ineffective teaching practices and raise student assessment scores? And if it does so, what will those assessment scores really tell us about our kids’ ability to succeed in post-secondary education and beyond?

Recent Education Trends

However NCLB plays out, education is an issue that Americans care about, and therefore one that politicians know they have to address. In a poll taken in 2002, 38 percent of those polled said the president and congress should make education their ‘highest priority’, and another 45 percent said education should be a ‘high priority.’ The only two issues ranked higher by those polled were terrorism and the economy. In the Latino community, education consistently out-polls all other issues – even immigration reform. It’s no wonder that public schools are a political battle ground. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 47.4 million children enrolled in the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools. And together, billions of federal, state and local dollars support the massive infrastructure of 85,000 school buildings across the country.

Moreover, public schools continue to educate the vast majority of the nation’s children, as compared to private and parochial schools, or home schools:

Overall Numbers

    No. of public elementary/secondary schools in the US (2002): 84,735 (76% of all schools)

    No. of private schools in the US (2002): 27,223 (24%)

    Total public elementary/secondary school enrollment (2001): 47,400,000 (89% of US students)

    Total private school enrollment (2000): 5,100,000 (9.4%)

    Total home-schooled enrollment (1999): 850,000 (1.6%)

Geographic Trends in Enrollment

Enrollment in elementary and secondary schools grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s due to the “baby boom” generation. Enrollment reached a peak in 1971 and began to decline from there. The decline, reflecting the decline in school-age population over the period, lasted through 1984. Then, in 1985, enrollment began to climb again and began hitting record levels in the mid- 1990s, in part due to a rise in immigration rates nationally.

Race and Ethnicity Matter

While the sheer number of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools climbs, with regional variations, we are also seeing a shift in the demographics of public school students over time.

. 1972 1976 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000
White 77.8% 76.2% 72.8% 69.6% 67.6% 65.5% 61.3%
Black 14.8% 15.5% 16.2% 16.8% 16.5% 16.9% 16.6%
Hispanic 6.0% 6.5% 8.6% 10.1% 11.7% 14.1% 16.6%
Other 1.4% 1.7% 2.4% 3.5% 4.2% 3.5% 5.4%

Source: US Department of Education Common Core of Data, 2002

While the percentage of White students in the public schools is inching downwards, African-American students became a larger percentage of the public school population through the mid-‘80s, and have basically stayed constant since then. The big shift is among Hispanic students, who have gone from making up 6 percent of the public school population in 1972 to over 16 percent in 2000. That’s a huge demographic shift, which is having a big impact on our schools. Similarly, the growth of “Other” students [meaning mostly non-Hispanic immigrants and Native Americans] has grown from 1.4 percent to 5.4 percent, an even more dramatic jump.

These demographic shifts have important implications for education organizing. The issues that matter to parents and their children will depend in part on how schools and districts are addressing the needs of changing school populations, including students with limited English proficiency.

Woven throughout the history of public education in the U.S. are stories of class and race struggles to achieve a decent education— to realize the democratic ideal of equal opportunity. The tension between this ideal and the political, economic and social realities of a given period in time continue to the present. The history and contradictions of public education in America provide an important lens to interpret and understand the current laws, debates, and practices.

2005 Enrollment Number - All Time High

An Associated Press story dated May, 2005 on the latest enrollment figures from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education covered the pages of most of America's newspapers last week, and although the numbers were correctly reported, the story lacks any context or history.

"A record 49.6 million students filled U.S. schools in 2003, breaking a mark set by their baby-boomer parents and giving educators a new generation of challenges," it begins. Then follows the host of quotes about the ominous problems of recruiting teachers, managing class sizes, increasing "fiscal capacity," and so on.

Since the latest figures are from 2003, let's go back to 1993 and examine what kind of demographics we dealt with in the past 10 years, compared to what our federal agencies believe we'll have to deal with over the next 10 years.

Over the last 10 years, school enrollment increased by a total of 12.6 percent. In response, America hired 23.1 percent more teachers, spent 25.9 percent more money per pupil (in constant dollars), and spent 48.9 percent more money on facilities acquisition and construction, replacement equipment, and interest on debt (also in constant dollars).

Over the next 10 years, school enrollment is expected to rise a cumulative 2.2 percent. But do the headlines read, "Enrollment growth flattens" or "Schools weather enrollment growth storm of the 1990s?" What's shocking is not that school enrollment surpassed the baby boom record of 1970, when the U.S. population was 203.3 million, but that it took so long. We now have a population of 296.2 million. If we managed to hire enough teachers and pay for schools in 1970, when we had 93 million fewer people to shoulder the burden, surely doing it today will be less challenging, not more.


Send mail to mikemcmahonausd@yahoo.com with questions or comments about this web site.
Last modified: March 25, 2005

Disclaimer: This website is the sole responsibility of Mike McMahon. It does not represent any official opinions, statement of facts or positions of the Alameda Unified School District. Its sole purpose is to disseminate information to interested individuals in the Alameda community.