The 1850s and Beyond

States Increase Government's Role in Education and Restrict School Choice

Government control of schooling was intended to bring education to a larger segment of the population, but the result was that it simply pushed aside existing private schools without substantially increasing overall enrollment rates.  As tax expenditures on the government system increased during the mid-1800s, more parents were drawn away from tuition-charging schools while the percentage of the child population being educated remained essentially constant.  Government usurpation of schooling did little to increase educational access for children.  Rather, it simply shifted the responsibility of education from the family to the state.[30]

Modern educators argue that state intervention was, and remains, necessary in order to unify American society.  It is regularly contended that government schooling has been key to bringing together various racial, religious, and political groups; and that society would otherwise become polarized and antagonistic to one another.  However, based on the experiences of the 1800s, this belief is not only wrong but is exactly backwards.  Author Andrew J. Coulson writes 

Prior to the government's involvement in education, there were nondenominational schools, Quaker schools and Lutheran schools, fundamentalist schools and more liberal Protestant schools, classical schools and technical schools, in accordance with the preferences of local communities.  Some had homogeneous enrollments, others drew students from across ethnic and religious lines.  In areas where schools of different sects coexisted, they and their patrons seldom came into conflict, since they did not try to foist their views on one another.  They lived and let live in what were comparatively stable, though increasingly diverse communities.  It was only after the state began creating uniform institutions for all children that these families were thrown into conflict.  Within public schools, many parents were faced with an unpleasant choice: accept that objectionable ideas would be force on their children, or forces their own ideas on everyone else's children by taking control of the system.  It was this artificial choice between two evils that led to the Philadelphia Bible Riots, the beatings of Catholic children, the official denigration of immigrant values and lifestyles in public schools and textbooks, and laws—which would today be viewed as utterly unconstitutional—forcing the Protestant Bible on all families.  The unparalleled treatment of black families by the government schools, which persisted for over a century, does nothing to lighten this grim picture.[31]

Although none of the original state constitutions of the United States prohibited the use of public funds to assist church-related education, the inclusion or addition of such prohibitions in state constitutions occurred in isolated instances up to the 1850s.  The growth of nativist and anti-Catholic sentiments in the country, however, hastened the movement to add such restrictions beginning in the mid-1800s.  This served to further place private, religious schools at a competitive disadvantage and force children into government-run schools.

In 1818, Connecticut was the first state expressly to limit its "school fund" to the support of "public" or "common" or "free" schools, but it did not explicitly forbid church-connected schools from being considered as "public" or "common" schools.  Rhode Island adopted a similar constitutional amendment in 1843, and Kentucky and Indiana followed suit in 1850 and 1851, respectively.[32]  The first laws explicitly to exclude religiously affiliated private schools from sharing in the "public school fund" were amendments introduced into the constitutions of Ohio and Massachusetts in 1851 and 1855, respectively.  The impetus behind these laws, however, seems to have been a desire to prevent state educational funds from being diverted to purposes other than general education, rather than a concern with church and state issues.[33]

Michigan was the first state, upon its entrance into the Union in 1835, to constitutionally prohibit the use of public funds "for the benefit of religious societies or theological seminaries."  The second state was Wisconsin, which included an identical prohibition in its original constitution of 1848.  "Religious society" eventually came to be interpreted strictly to mean a church.[34]

In 1864, Louisiana banned by constitutional amendment the use of government funds for any private school.  The amendment stated that "[n]o appropriation shall be made by the legislature for the support of any private school or institution."  Subsequently, between 1868 and 1900, 14 more states amended their constitutions to prohibit any appropriation of public funds for religiously affiliated private schools, and seven other states adopted amendments limiting the use of school funds to "public" schools only.  Many of these provisions—which are commonly referred to as Blaine Amendments, after Speaker of the House James G. Blaine[35]—were enacted as part of broader constitutional revisions related to Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War.  In addition, the original constitutions of all new states admitted to the Union since 1857—except those of Kansas (1859), West Virginia (1863), Nebraska (1866), and Hawaii (1959)—have contained a prohibition against the direct use of public or state funds to aid religious institutions or schools.[36]

As the United States struggled to unify itself following the Civil War, greater state control of many services that were initially provided through private means became significantly more common.  In education, the Prussian model of government-controlled schools spread across the nation as state governments assumed responsibility of funding, operating, and managing schools.

Today, nearly 90 percent of all children are in government-run schools.  This monopoly of education tax dollars and schools forces families who desire a religious or nongovernment education for their children to finance two school systems—first through compulsory taxation for government schools they do not use and again through tuition at a private school that is educating their children.  The result is a monolithic system that is unresponsive to parental desires and student needs.  Observers who understand basic economic principles recognize that the current crisis in education was inevitable once a government monopoly of schooling was established.

[30]       Coulson, Market Education., p. 83.

[31]       Ibid., p. 85.

[32]      Jim B. Pearson and Edgar Fuller, ed., Education in the States: Historical Development and Outlook (Washington, D.C.: National Education Association of the United States, 1969), pp. 179-182, 373-376, 463-467, 565-568, 949-954, 1091-1095; and Edgar W. Knight and Clifton L. Hall, Readings in American Educational History (New York: Appleton-Century-Crafts, Inc., 1951), pp. 247, 316, 321, 359-361, 366.

[33]      Ibid.

[34]       Michigan, Constitution of 1835, art. 1, sec. 5.

[35]      As Speaker of the House, James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to prohibit public aid to religious schools—something that had been commonly accepted until then.  Many states adopted this language in their state constitutions in an effort to prevent Catholics from using public funds for education as Protestants had done for many years.

[36]     David Kirkpatrick, "The Bigotry of Blaine Amendments," Crisis in Education, February 1998, p 12.