Early Colonial Period to the American Revolution: A Free Market in Education

Early colonial America was arguably the freest civil society that has ever existed. This freedom extended to education, which meant that parents were responsible for, and had complete control of, their children's schooling. There were no accrediting agencies, no regulatory boards, and no teacher certification requirements. Parents could choose whatever kind of school or education they wanted for their children, and no one was forced to pay for education they did not use or approve of.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, the majority of American schools were organized and operated on a laissez-faire basis. There were common schools (often partially financed by local taxpayers but primarily funded through private means) and specialized private schools of every sort (church schools, academies that prepared students for college, seminaries, dame schools for primary education, charity schools for the poor, and private tutors).

Common schools are America's original government schools, and they existed primarily in New England. They were first built in the Puritan commonwealth of Massachusetts to inculcate the Calvinist Puritan religion in the colony's young. The Puritans modeled their common schools after those created by Martin Luther and the German princes as a means of instilling religious doctrine and maintaining social order in the Protestant states of Germany.2 Apart from the Puritans' religious considerations, it is uncertain whether the Massachusetts legislature would have enacted the first compulsory school code in 1647, known as the Old Deluder Satan Act. To that point, none of the other colonies—with the exception of Connecticut—had enacted such laws. 3

As the Puritans' commonwealth acceded to the development of trade and the influx of other religious sects, enforcement of the Massachusetts school laws grew lax and private schools soon sprang up to teach the more practical commercial subjects. By 1720, Boston had more private schools than taxpayer-financed ones, and by the close of the American Revolution, many Massachusetts towns had no tax-funded schools at all.4