In 1818, Boston became the first American city to have a complete government-financed school system from the primary to the secondary level.
In drafting its new state constitution in 1780, Massachusetts decided to reinvigorate its earlier model of tax-funded schools. So it was that Boston, at the time of the nation's birth, laid the foundation for the first tax-funded school system in any American city. But it was hardly like the system of today: Primary education was still left to families' private and voluntary arrangements and children had to already be literate in order to enter the tax-funded grammar schools at age seven. There were no compulsory attendance laws and private schools flourished alongside the new tax-funded schools. In fact, most parents preferred private schools to the government ones.5
Massachusetts's Education Act required the creation of common schools in the state's smaller towns plus grammar schools in its larger towns, where Latin and Greek were to be taught. However, there was no central authority in education: All of the schools were strictly localfinanced and controlled by local committees who set their own standards, chose their own teachers, and selected their own textbooks.
Connecticut modeled its laws after those of Massachusetts to maintain the continuity of its common schools after the Revolutionary War. New Hampshire did likewise. In New York State, the legislature in 1795 appropriated a large sum of money for the purpose of encouraging and maintaining schools in its cities and towns.6 Many towns took advantage of this school fund and established common schools, but they were only partially financed by the state fund. The counties were required to raise matching funds, and parents also paid tuition. Wherever colonial governments showed an interest in promoting schools, private schools were also eligible for government funding.7 There was no discrimination against schools that provided a religious education.
As for secondary schools, the "academy" became the dominant form throughout the country between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Academies were generally organized as individual corporations operated by self-perpetuating boards of trustees and financed either wholly through private endowment or through a combination of endowment and tuition. State governments accepted this corporate form of organization for secondary education as desirable public policy and actively promoted it through grants of land or money to individual academies. Americans of the time conceived of academies as public institutionswhen "public" implied the performance of broad social functions and the service of a large, heterogeneous, nonexclusive clientele rather than control and ownership by the community or state.8 In this respect, Massachusetts's system of land grants, beginning in 1797, represented a radical departure from the active promotion of grammar-school maintenance by towns in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
The policy of governmental encouragement of academies soon spread throughout the country during the early 1800s. Gradually, small, private, and often transient schools outnumbered incorporated academies. Religious denominations as well as colleges actively established their own versions of academies. The actual curricula varied widely. State legislatures viewed support for incorporated academies as an inexpensive and administratively simple way of ensuring the maintenance of substantial numbers of secondary schools. The task of founding, managing, and supervising the schools rested with self-contained boards of trustees and thus did not add significant burdens to the state.9
The popular argument that autonomous, competing corporations best served the public interest extended easily from finance, travel, and manufacturing into the realm of education. According to author Barry Poulson, "Private education was widely demanded in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Great Britain and America. The private supply of education was highly responsive to that demand, with the consequence that large numbers of children from all classes of society received several years of education."10
Not only was private education in demand, but it was quite successful. Literacy in the North rose from 75 percent to between 91 and 97 percent between 1800 and 1840, the years prior to compulsory schooling and governmental provision and operation of education. In the South, during the same time period, the rate grew among the white population from between 50 and 60 percent to 81 percent.11
Despite the demonstrated success of privately managed education in America, many European nations began to adopt the view that the state should be the guardian of national character and culture. In 1806, Holland became the first country to create a national system of state-regulated education. Prussia followed suit in 1819 when it adopted a centralized government system of education.12
The first movement toward state-controlled education in America came in May 1817 when a small but vocal group of Bostonians petitioned to establish a system of government primary schools and phase out the private primary schools. They argued that many poor parents could not afford to send their children to private schools. In response, the "Boston School Committee" conducted a survey. They determined that an astonishing 96 percent of the city's children attended school, despite the fact that there were no compulsory attendance laws and the primary schools were private. The committee recommended against establishing government-financed and operated primary schools since the vast majority of parents were willing to pay for private instruction and charity schools were available for those who could not afford to pay anything.13
But the primary school reformers waged a vigorous campaign in the press, focusing on the several hundred children who were not attending school. They insisted on expanding the government school system to include the primary grades, rather than having the local government authority subsidize the tuition of children whose parents could not afford to send them to the private schools. The reformers' efforts were rewarded in 1818 when the city government created a new Primary School Board, which would oversee the newly formed government-funded schools. As a result, Boston became the first American city to have a complete government-financed school system from the primary to the secondary level. 14
The "problems" cited by the government school reformers were only tangentially related to economic issues: Their primary disagreement with the organizers and operators of most private schools was on fundamental issues of religious doctrine.15 In this regard, the early reformers' efforts foreshadowed Massachusetts State Senator Horace Mann's work in the 1830s.
Ultimately, it would have been more economical for Massachusetts townsfolk to pay for the tuition of poor children to attend private schools than to pay for "free" government schools. Privately funded and operated schools were "more efficiently organized, provided better instruction, pupil supervision, and social atmosphere"16 than did tax-funded schools. In addition, citizens had already demonstrated their willingness to support education without governmental control or assistance.17