The degree of legal authority that elected government officials or their appointees exert, directly or indirectly, over public and private education. Unlike most foreign nations, where central governments or official religious authorities control education, the powers of government over education in the United States
have been limited since the nation’s beginnings. Indeed, the federal government abdicated all influence over education when the republic was formed following independence from England. Prior to that, the colonies had left all education to parents and local churches. The only interference by the state, whose monarch also headed the Church of England, was to certify the teaching qualifications of clerics and ensure their loyalty to the Crown. At the time of independence, a handful of secular secondary schools had emerged in Philadelphia, New York and Boston, and some socially liberal framers of the Constitution— notably BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, THOMAS JEFFERSON, JAMES MADISON and BENJAMIN RUSH—had sought to include universal public education
in the CONSTITUTION as a basic right of all Americans. Indeed, they proposed a national, federally controlled system of public education, with elementary schools in each community, regional secondary schools in each county, a college in each state and a national university. Competitive examinations were to have determined progression to each level, and graduation from the national university was to have been a prerequisite for government service.
The proposal was defeated by northern industrialists and southern planters who feared schools would deprive them of their cheapest form of labor—children and slaves. The Constitution made no mention of education and thus left the question to the states. The latter, in turn, largely left education to parents, who perpetuated the colonial system of either educating children themselves or, if they could afford to, sending them to local, church-run “common schools.” The landed gentry sent their children to independent private schools, also usually under the direction of churchmen. The only active state control over education was through the issuance of charters of incorporation, which determined a school’s right to operate. Read more…