Judith Dale: Back to school: The history of public education in America
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Judith Dale: Back to school: The history of public education in America

From the Series: Judith Dale takes a look at the history of education in the Santa Ynez Valley series
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The Santa Ynez Valley is fortunate to have excellent public schools. Six elementary school districts feed into Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District: Ballard, Buellton, College, Los Olivos, Solvang and Vista de las Cruces.

With school starting in just a few days, I thought it would be interesting to research the history of education in the United States and some current statistics.

New England colonists valued education and established the first public school in 1635. It was called the Boston Latin School and is still in operation today.

The first free taxpayer-supported school was opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1639. These early schools did not emphasize reading and math, but the traditional English curriculum of family, church, community, and trades skills.

It was assumed that parents would teach their children reading and math as most of the original colonists were literate as they were involved in the Protestant Church so learned to read the scriptures.

However, this was not the case in the South as a large part of the population was single indentured servants who were not literate. The “planter class” did not support public education as they could afford private tutors for their children. In the South, only children from wealthy families were educated.

In both the North and South, early schools were for white boys only. There were few facilities for girls. It was felt that girls did not need an education to become wives and mothers.

Later, girls were taught to reading but not writing or math. The philosophy was they did not need those skills to run a household as all money decisions were made by their fathers or husbands.

The first school for girls was opened in 1727 in New Orleans by the Catholic Church. It was also the first school teach “girls of color” and Native Americans. By 1767, there were some tax-supported schools for girls in New England but once again, reading was the emphasis so they could read the scriptures, but writing was not taught.

This why colonial women could read but could not sign their names and used an X for a signature.

It was not until after the Civil War that large numbers of African-Americans had the opportunity to go to school. In the early days of the Reconstruction Era, the Freedman’s Bureau opened over a thousand schools for black children.

By 1865, more than 90,000 freedmen were enrolled as students in these schools. Public schools were not integrated at this time and school integration would not be implemented until the 1954 Supreme Court Case of Brown vs The Board of Education ruled that public schools must be integrated.

Change did not come easily.

In 1957 it took Federal troops to enforce integration in Little Rock, Arkansas as the “Little Rock 9” enrolled in Central High School.

Today, education is controlled by each state. All states have tax-supported public education for all children. The national average states spend per student for public education is $12,756.

California spends $10,281 per pupil. New York is the highest spending state, paying $19,697 per pupil.

This fall it is estimated that there will be 50.8 million students enrolled in public schools nationwide.

  • Three million of these will be enrolled in public charter schools
  • An additional 5.6 million children will be enrolled in private schools that charge tuition — most located in cities and have some religious affiliation
  • Approximately 1.7 million children (3.3%) will be homeschooled

Nationwide, 85% of students graduate from high school, an increase of 6% since 2011, mostly because a larger number of Hispanic students are graduating. California’s over-all graduation rate is 83%.

In summary, we are fortunate to live in a country that values education for all. We have come a long way from our county’s beginning when few had the opportunity to get an education. A democracy can only be successful with an educated population.

An educated population allows us to compete on the world stage and have a high standard of living. While there are still huge differences between the quality of education nationwide and by school district, thanks to enlightened national and local leaders these differences are becoming fewer.

However, the people who make the greatest difference are local citizens. We all must take an interest in the quality of education in our communities.

This is where our community shines: Valley residents run for school boards and attend school board meetings; and parents take an active role in their children’s education. Keep up the good work Santa Ynez Valley citizens. 

Best wishes to all you students starting a new school year. Your hard work will pay off.

The population of the world is currently about 7.7 billion people and growing at a rate of around 1.07% per year. In an effort to focus global…

Judith Dale can be reached at judith@hwy246.net.


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