The Surprising Origin of America’s Public Schools

As in many other countries, public education in the United States began at the instigation of churches. For a long time, schooling was openly religious. In the 1820s, in New York and in other states, legislators became concerned that many students were receiving the wrong type of education. It was not that children were going uneducated – in 1821, about 93 percent of New York’s school age youths were already attending private schools. As expressed in legislative debates, the fear was that students educated in private Catholic schools would learn the wrong values and end up becoming criminals. If Protestant schools could be made less expensive through government subsidies, the legislators reasoned, some Catholics would transfer their children there, thus saving them from a life of crime.

The subsidies began as a kind of voucher system in which approved Protestant schools received a per pupil payment. However, this had an unintended consequence: the subsidized Protestant schools started competing against each other to attract Catholic students. To compete, they began teaching more of what Catholic parents and students wanted – reading, writing, and math – and less of what they didn’t want – Protestant religious training. Advocates of the subsidies found that the subsidized schools were no longer providing the religious training that justified the funding program in the first place.

In response, subsidies were limited to the approved Protestant school nearest to a student’s home. This reduced the incentive for the schools to compete against each other, and thus to limit their Protestant instruction. As government programs tend to do, over time the subsidy scheme grew until it began eliciting complaints that the subsidized schools were getting most of their money from the government while being protected from competition. With the Free Schools Act of 1867, the state simply took over the subsidized schools, which then became public institutions. This is the surprising, true origin of America’s public school system.

John Lott, Freedomnomics pp. 190-91.

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  • Kyle R. Cupp

    Interesting. The wonders one discovers living in a society with an iron wall of separation between history and reality.

  • Michael

    Well, it would be a wonder if it were true. It isn’t. New York had a Common School system from 1795 on. Here’s the governor in 1795:

    While it is evident that the general and liberal endowment of academies are highly to be commended and are attended with the most beneficial consequences yet it cannot be denied that they are principally confined to the children of the opulent and that a great portion of the community is excluded from their immediate advantage The establishment of Common Schools throughout the State is happily calculated to remedy this inconvenience and will therefore engage your early and decided consideration

    The legislature acted on his recommendation. In fact, the Catholic school system was largely a result of the Protestant nature of the existing public school system.

  • http://deleted Michael

    I should clarify my last sentence above: the Catholic school system was largely a response by the clergy and episcopacy to the Protestant nature of the existing public school system.

  • Blackadder


    Interesting. Where are you getting that quote from?

  • http://deleted Michael

    S. S. Randall’s History of the Common School System of the State of New York, originally published in 1871. You’ll find it on Google Books.

  • Blackadder

    Thanks. I’ll look into it.

  • Andy K.

    Dear Blackadder,

    You may also want to look up the Ol’ Deluder Satan laws of Massachusetts. The Puritans there set up requirements for town with populations over a certain amount.

  • DarwinCatholic

    There were a number of generally protestant-themed “common schools” throughout the states in the 1700s and 1800s, but the “public school” system that we have at this point didn’t fully come into form until the early 1900s.

  • Michael

    DarwinCatholic, that’s true, but looking at what we have now and saying “this is the definition of the public school system” is simplistic presentism. That seems to me to be what Lott does. He also gets the timeline wrong. The history of public education in America is rather more complex that he seems to think.