Today my kids are having their last day of school. They’re cleaning out desks, turning chairs up on them, scraping off the gunk of taped-on cursive letters and math facts, and eating whatever the cafeteria ladies have to clean out of the freezers. The papers that are coming home today will be in epic quantities.

The end of school has always been melancholy for me–first as a student, then as a parent. I’m always keenly aware of endings, and how they herald great change. Now, I have the great joy of looking at the graduation year of my youngest and needing a moment to lie down and hyperventilate at the size of the number. The year of her graduation still feels like Science Fiction to me.

But Fridays here at the blog are about history, so here’s a little bit on the US public education system. I know it makes one sound like Very Serious People to trash teachers and public schools right now in an effort to save a few bucks, but public education has a long history of government funding (some forms of public schools operated as early as the 1770’s). Prior to public schooling, young people were educated–or not–either at home by parents if they had the skills, or by tutors if the family could afford one, via a local church if a literate cleric could do so, or through apprenticeship in a trade.

Up until the 1840’s, education, while emphasized in the post-Revolutionary era, was neither organized nor widely managed in a public manner. Schools were very much run by local governments or the churches that sponsored them. The idea of a equal access to the same basic education was only just being developed. Then, as now, wealthy families balked at paying taxes to educate the children of poor families, and individuals without families balked at paying taxes in support of educating people with children. Also at the time, educating girls and women was still optional, although ladies interested in reforming education to include women were learning to tie the need for women’s education to effective motherhood. And educating blacks was, of course, forbidden in the South.

It wasn’t until 1918 that every state ratified a compulsory education law. At the time, every child was simply required to complete elementary school. (My children insisted this would be a great idea until I reminded them that at about age 14, their peers from a hundred years ago would be required to work 14-18 hours a day and get up even earlier. I got almost a full week of getting up without complaints. Alas, by Friday they were moaning and groaning again).

The Progressive era emerging from the ashes of the Gilded Age led to the greatest expansion in public education. From 1910 through 1940, Americans earning a high school diploma jumped from about 7% to 50%. This better-educated work force became the intellectual capital that fueled unprecedented economic growth. The increase in basic education also led to more colleges, more opportunities to go to college, and more trade and vocational schools. Whether or not you’ve used the public education system, and whether or not you’ve used it in the past hundred years, you have still benefited immensely from it. If for no other reason than knowing that the majority of teenagers and noisy youngsters are safely corralled between the hours of 9 AM and 3 PM in a place that is not the seat next to you in the movie theater.

I’m sure every era had its complainers, and I’ve no doubt that in an education system as large and varied as ours, there are better ways out there to do things. But complaining isn’t creating solutions. and the true best practices come from ideas that start out with belief in the underlying concepts that first fueled public education–the idea that every child in America should have access to the best basic education possible and the opportunity to pursue more, no matter their race, creed, origin, orientation, sex, or economic status. For my family, personally, every hardship we’ve ever suffered through in order to pay for an education, whether it be a professional certification, or a mountain of debt to pay for college, those years of hardship were brief bumps in the road that ended up paying for themselves at the minimum of ten times over. None of us has ever had a single moment of regret for the time or money put into something to further our education, and it’s paid off in spades.

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