Saturday, April 26, 2008

Public Education

The idea of public education has always been strong in the United States of America. From the very beginning the Founding Fathers placed an emphasis on education. Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the first “constitution” for the United States, on May 20, 1785 passed an “Ordinance for the Western Territory.”

This Ordinance is usually referred to in history books as the Ordinance of 1785. And should not be confused with the Northwest Ordinance that was passed on July 13, 1787 which established how the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River would be governed and the conditions under which the territories would become states. The Ordinance of 1785 established the surveying and dividing of the land into ranges, townships, and square miles. It also had a clause concerning education: There shall be reserved the lot N 16, of every township, for the maintenance of public schools, within the said township…..

Therefore, section 16 in each township was set aside to finance public education. The township government could sell the land and set aside the money to finance public schools, or could, as was usually the case, rent the land to farmers and use the proceeds to finance public schools.

Sixty-nine years later on May 30, 1854 Congress passed “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas.” Then the law was usually called “the Nebraska Bill,” today we know it as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It made an even stronger commitment to public education:

And be it further enacted, That when the lands in the said Territory shall be surveyed under the direction of the government of the United States, preparatory to bringing the same into market, section; numbered sixteen and thirty-six in each township in said Territory shall be, and the same are hereby, reserved for the purpose of being applied to schools in said Territory, and in the States and Territories hereafter to be erected out of the same.

So township governments under the Kansas-Nebraska Act had two sections [2 square miles] to use to finance public schools; again, the usual practice was to rent the land and use the proceeds to finance public schools.

So throughout much of the land in the United States Congress provided a way to finance public education [There were 20 states where the United States government never owned land, and therefore, never sold land or offered land free to homesteaders and therefore, could not set aside specific sections of the “public domain” to finance public education. See the map labeled “Principal Meridians and Baselines.”].

This led to one room “country schools” dotting the landscape of much of America. These schools in some locations were log cabins, in others sod buildings. But as time passed most became wooden buildings. One of the schools in Blakely Township, Gage County, Nebraska was built of red bricks. It was often called the “red brick school” and sometimes called the “Freeman School” because two families that had children attending the school were named Freeman. This school was built in 1872 and stayed in operation until 1967. It is preserved by Homestead National Monument of America.

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