For the last 150 years, we have assumed “public education” meant publicly funded education, but in this new age of customized teaching and learning this definition is too narrow. Today, it’s more useful and accurate to define public education as all learning options that satisfy mandatory school attendance laws, including those that don’t receive public funding, such as private schools and home-schooling.
Education – especially public education – has taken many forms in the United States over the last 300 years. According to Pulitzer Prize winning education historian Lawrence A. Cremin, in the 1700s education encompassed institutions “that had a part in shaping human character – families and churches, schools and colleges, newspapers, voluntary associations, and … laws”, while public education referred to formal instruction in public settings outside the home.
Public teaching became increasingly common in the latter half of the 18th century, and by the early 19th century most communities had at least one free school open to all white children. These free schools, which operated independently much like today’s charter schools, became known as common or public schools. They combined with religious schools receiving public funding to educate the poor to comprise public education. As Cremin notes, in 1813, most New Yorkers saw publicly-funded religious schools “as public or common schools.”
Over the next few decades, public funding for religious schools – most notably Catholic schools – became more contentious and rare. By the mid-1800s, free public schools and public education had become synonymous. Schools not receiving public funds were called private schools, even though they provided public instruction outside the home.
The birth of public education as we know it today occurred during the 1840s and ‘50s.