Public Education in the United States, programs of instruction offered to children, adolescents, and adults in the United States through schools and colleges operated by state and local governments. Unlike the nationally regulated and financed education systems of many other industrialized societies, American public education is primarily the responsibility of the states and individual school districts.
Until the 1840s American education was not a system at all, but a disjointed collection of local, regional, and usually private institutions. The extent of schooling and the type of education available depended on the resources and values of the particular town or city, on the activities of religious groups seeking to further their ends through schools and colleges, and on many other private groups – such as philanthropic associations and trade organizations – that created different types of schools for different reasons. Most institutions only provided educational opportunities
for boys from wealthy families. Public governing bodies were rarely involved in the financing or control of schools.
The American school system originated in the 1830s and 1840s, when a new generation of education reformers attacked the tradition of disjointed and localized education. Prominent American educators, such as Horace Mann in Massachusetts and Henry Barnard in Connecticut, sought to increase educational opportunity for all children by creating the common-school movement. In 1837 Mann became secretary of the board of education in Massachusetts and supervised the creation of a statewide common-school system. Barnard led similar efforts in Connecticut where he became superintendent of common schools in 1849. The term common meant several things to these educators. Their reform efforts focused on elementary education, on the idea that all young children should be schooled, and on the notion that the content of education should be the same for everyone.
By the end of the 19th century the reformers had largely achieved their objective. Free public education at the elementary level was available for all American children. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852, followed by New York in 1853. By 1918 all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school.
Not everyone accepted publicly funded and controlled schools as the only way to provide education. The most significant opposition came from members of the Roman Catholic Church, who believed that the moral values taught in public schools were biased toward Protestantism. Arguing that proper education could not separate intellectual development from moral development, Catholics created their own separate school system. In 1925 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that states could not compel children to attend public schools, and that children could attend private schools instead. In 1994, 11 percent of American students in elementary and secondary schools attended private institutions. Most of these attended Catholic schools.
Before the 20th century, a bewildering variety of schools existed for the small number of teenagers who had the ability or the desire to pursue education beyond the elementary level. These schools offered students opportunities to prepare for college, or to learn a complex skill instead of competing for one of the rapidly decreasing number of on-the-job apprenticeships. Only a relatively small number of teenagers had the ability or desire to pursue secondary education.