As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I remember fondly all the costumes, turkey drawings, Pilgrim hats and headdresses I made while in elementary school. There was such excitement that a special day was coming where we honored our history and got two days off from school. My love of history was planted deeply as we studied those early colonists and the Native Americans who helped them survive.
While that original Thanksgiving wasn’t repeated for many years, one aspect of our early New England settlers that did survive was the respect for education. Only fifteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the first public school was founded in Boston (Boston Latin). All New England towns were required to set up schools and in 1642 Massachusetts Bay Colony made a proper education compulsory.
Those first public schools were not necessarily free. Parents had to pay to send their children to school, but as time went on, taxes became the way to fund schools for every child. And not everyone could attend. Sadly women, native peoples, and slaves were denied an education for a very long time. The first free school for women was established in 1727 in New Orleans (where women of all races would eventually attend).
Our founding fathers were educated, enlightened men. As our nation was founded and settlers flowed westward, the importance of education was carried with those men and women. Every state constitution now has a provision providing free public schools to all citizens.
The language used in these constitutions is inspiring. Georgia’s constitution states that “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation …” and that a, “Public education for the citizens prior to the college or postsecondary level shall be free and shall be provided for by taxation …” Alaska keeps it simple, “… establish a system of public schools open to all children of the State …” Florida tells us specifics, “… a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education …” Massachusetts reflects the enlightened sentiment of the value of schools, “… to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns …”
As I remember those funny plays and inelegant turkey drawings, I am grateful that our democratic values were founded on an understanding that a free, public education is necessary. And I am grateful that my work with Parents for Public Schools continues to uphold those values.