The roots of Michigan's government-funded system of education extend back over two centuries to a piece of legislation passed by the Confederation Congress—the legislative body of the United States prior to the Constitution's adoption. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established guidelines by which federal territories, including Michigan, could become states. The ordinance also created particular land policies that were designed to support government education, stating in part that, "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."32

The ordinance "encouraged" education in this way: It divided the Michigan territory into townships of six square miles each. The townships were then subdivided into 36 sections with a minimum size of 640 acres. Each section was then sold at a public auction with the starting bid of $1 per acre. The funds raised by the sale of section 16 in each township were then set aside for the purpose of funding schools.33

Each of Michigan's four constitutions since 1835 has adopted the Northwest Ordinance's language and spirit that "encouraged" education. Michigan also demonstrated its further commitment to government education by creating the state office of superintendent of public instruction, which from 1836 to 1942 made possible the longest unbroken period of state-supervised education in the history of the nation. 34