by Tom Lee
Sartell-St. Stephen School District
Author’s note: There are debates raging in our culture today, one of which is around the purpose(s) of schools. It is the intent of this series to touch on some historically significant influences, to examine our current state of affairs and offer suggestions for the future of Sartell-St. Stephen schools. We begin with a general examination of public schools and will work our way through a series of articles to an examination of our local school district.
What are the purposes of school? Have the purposes changed throughout the years? Are the purposes of public and private schooling the same?
It seems we have heard variations of “our schools are failing our kids” for a very long time. I heard it as a young teacher when the federal report “A Nation at Risk” was published during the Ronald Reagan Administration. While there are several answers to the above questions, let’s examine first some generally agreed-upon history of public education in the United States.
The family was where most children learned reading, writing and mathematics into the mid-1800s. It is widely agreed the first public school (a secondary school for university-bound boys in the United States) was the Boston Latin School, founded in 1635. Besides other similar schools with similar purposes opening largely in New England, most of education occurred in the home. If you were born to a family that did not read or write, you probably would not develop those skills yourself.
Many of the early schools were operated by churches and charged tuition. Those schools provided education to people who could afford it but not for all. Compulsory education laws were passed beginning in the mid-19th century and designed to make publicly funded schools for all as a way of ensuring the education of all children and a way to integrate large numbers of new immigrant children. By the early 20th century, compulsory education was also a means to protect children from exploitation by factory owners (child labor).
From the beginning, public education provided instruction in basic academic skills and moral instruction, and was used as a social tool to integrate immigrant children and protect children from the labor market.
Unlike European systems of education, the American system was uniquely decentralized and – in accordance to the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment – primarily left to the states. Therefore, we do not have one national system of public education. Rather, we have 50 state systems of education where each state must establish its own system.
The Minnesota Constitution states in Article VIII Section 1: “Uniform system of public schools. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”
Minnesota clearly states schools are to promote citizenship. Therefore, the purpose of an education in Minnesota is to ensure the development of knowledge and skills of every student for their general welfare (post secondary school, work, relationships, pursuit of happiness and more), to develop moral character and to promote knowledgeable citizens capable of preserving our “republican form of government.”
How is our public school system designed to reach these goals? Are there fundamental strengths and weaknesses in the design? What impact can a community have on local schooling if we have a state system? We will examine those and other questions in future columns.