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Free Public Schools

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During the Agriculture Age, when most Americans worked with horse teams and plows, there was scant need for intellect and book knowledge. Many farm children were taught (a bit) at home, or attended one-room elementary schools where all ages sat together, learning simple spelling, reading and math. Some villages had "dame schools" in which women were paid (a bit) to teach children the alphabet and grammar around their fireplaces.

In colonial times, White Horse Taverns and Red Lion Inns had pictures of white horses and red lions, for the benefit of many who couldn't read writing on signs.

Two centuries ago, only affluent families could afford tutors or small private schools, such as the 1635 Boston Latin School. Blue-collar folks went untaught.

But the Industrial Revolution brought changing needs, and a movement for free public schools became a liberal quest.

Here's an example: Around 1800, some residents of Providence, Rhode Island, began a halting attempt to establish city schools for all. A barber asked the Mechanics Association, an assembly of many trades, to appeal to the state assembly for help. The association drafted a petition saying:

"The means of education enjoyed in this state are very inadequate to a purpose so highly important". Members of the rising generation" are suffered to grow up in ignorance."

It asked for schools for all children, "and in particular those who are poor and destitute -- the son of the widow and child of distress."

Members wrote to newspapers demanding schools, because "genius is certainly to be found as well in the cottage as in the palace."

In Providence at that time, the only people eligible to vote were men owning at least $134 worth of real estate and the eldest sons of such property owners. Yet a Providence assembly voted in favor of public schools. In 1800, legislators approved the plan, and Rhode Island became America's first state with a law establishing statewide public schools.

Providence people raised money and opened schools attended by nearly a thousand boys and girls. Each student was required to pay for firewood.

In 1803, the state law was repealed -- but by then, public momentum for schools was snowballing.


Horace Mann (1796-1859) grew up in Puritanical Massachusetts, but he was repelled by hate-filled Calvinist preaching and joined the liberal Unitarian movement. He was elected to the legislature and clamored for abolition of slavery, asylums for the mentally ill, and especially free public schools with morality training but not sectarian religious indoctrination. He insisted on classes divided by age groups, with a standard curriculum used in all schools.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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