Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Standing at the Creation of Public Schools in the United States

This week it's the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. In the Jewish tradition, we are all supposed to see ourselves as if we were in the Sinai desert, when the Torah (Five Books of Moses) was given to the Jewish people. That is because the Torah is foundational to Jewish understanding of Jews as a people. When Jews "see" themselves as if they were "present" at Sinai, it's as if a connecting strand stretches back thousands of years. It's not literally true, but it's a powerful image.

I know, you're thinking--but what does that have to do with education in Michigan?

In a recent conversation with Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools, he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that "some of the anti-public school people try to make it seem as if public schools were an idea hatched by hippies in the 1960s. Some of them believe that public schools are a recent innovation. And nothing could be further from the truth." No, he argues (still paraphrasing here), "public schools are foundational to our understanding of ourselves as a nation. Public schools helped create our nation, and our national identity."

I think that in order to argue for public schools, it's important to understand that public schools have a long, deep history in our country.

So here is a short quiz, and then some pictures of some historic public schools in Washtenaw County, and then the quiz answers. (No peeking until you've tried!) [Update: Quiz closed, but you can find the questions and answers here.]
Sharon District #1 School from 1890 is located just outside Manchester on Pleasant Lake Road. Photo: Ruth Kraut
 I couldn't find out too much about this school, but if you know some of its history you could put it in the comments. The Manchester Area Historical Society records for schools are at the Bentley Library, and District No. 1 was in existence from 1839-1952, according to the catalog. Take a look at the catalog here.

Blaess School in Saline is now located on the campus of the old Saline High School. Photo: Ruth Kraut
About Blaess School:
In 1836, a year before Michigan became a state, Lodi Township (north of Saline, MI) was platted. The present Weber-Blaess one-room school was built in 1867 in Section 17, on Ellsworth Road in Lodi Township. A simple wood structure was built on the same stone foundation as its predecessor, a log school that had burned a year earlier.
Read more here.

Quiz Answers:

1. The first public school in the country was Boston Latin, founded in 1635.

2. In 1827, Massachusetts passed a law making schools free to all children. (And yes, Michigan wasn't even a state then! Just testing you...). And even earlier, pre-Revolution, Massachusetts had the Old Deluder Satan Law which required schools to be established in towns with more than fifty families. By the way, Massachusetts is still a leader in public education in our country, funding public schools at something like twice the amount of funding that Michigan schools get.

3. In the 19th century, most states passed laws forbidding using public funds for parochial schools. (This largely started out because the mostly Protestant U.S. saw a lot of new immigrants who were Catholic moving in. Still--the issue of keeping public funding for public schools has a long, long history.) There is lots of interesting history around the education of African-Americans, Asians (particularly the education of the children of Chinese immigrants in California), and Native Americans (who were forbidden to be taught in their native languages).

4. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case was overturned by the Brown v. the Board of Ed. decision. However, you should read up on these other cases! Engel v. Vitale is about prayer in public schools; Tinker v. Des Moines features Ann Arbor's own Paul Tinkerhess and is a free speech case; and Hendrick Hudson Board of Ed. v. Rowley is an early special education case.

So, in sum--if we think of ourselves as being present at the founding of our nation, then we were surely present at the founding of our public schools. They are foundational to our national heritage. Stand beside them. And guide them. Protect them. And defend them.

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