Education Liberator, Vol. 3, No. 2, February/March

How Separation Worked for 200 Years

For 200 years prior to the advent of government-run schooling in the 1840s, American parents paid for their children's schooling. Children of the indigent usually attended "charity schools." Funding for many schools was in the form of what today we might call "sliding-scale tuition," as rates were adjusted to fit the financial means of each family to ensure that poor children were not turned away.

Education was so widespread in the non-slave states that literacy was higher before the advent of the tax-run "public schools" than it is today. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville commented that there was nothing like the American education system in the rest of the world. While the average number of days in school was lower than today, literacy measurements were remarkably high. In 1860, for instance, 94 percent of the population in the free states, and 84 percent of the free population in the slave states, were considered literate. (James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, p 24)

Prior to the advent of compulsory attendance, American parents had to convince their children of the importance of education. Parents decided how many days and how many years a child would attend. The compulsory attendance legislation that was completed in the 1910s took parents off the hook. Rather than discuss and convince, today's parents can tell their children, "It's the law."

Raising children is a struggle. Society's attempt to use government to reduce this struggle has lifted responsibility from parents. The absence of responsibility is irresponsibility. Who is to blame? It takes two to tango. Educators told parents that experts could improve society if children were forced into their schools. Parents accepted the offers of partial relief from the burdens of child raising. Ben Franklin said that exchanging freedom for security is a bad bargain-you end up with neither. Parents made a bad bargain with educators.

But blaming parents isn't the important thing. The important thing is for parents to reassert stewardship over their children's education.


This article is copyrighted by The Education Liberator, the monthly publication of the Separation of School & State Alliance. Permission is granted to freely distribute this article as long as this copyright notice is included in its entirety. The Separation Alliance can be reached online via email (separate@sepschool.org), or WWW (), voice (559-499-1776), or conventional mail (1071 N. Fulton Ave., Fresno, CA 93728).
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Last modified: Sat May 17, 1997 by Separation of School & State Alliance Web Team