Education In America
As the school year kicks off, CLA stands ready to defend Christian rights in American education.
The Christian Law Association defends the rights of all parents to control the education of their children. We believe the Bible, as well as America’s Constitution, gives parents, not the government, the primary duty and responsibility to direct the upbringing and education of their own children.
Today, the government has become the dominant force for educating children in America, but it was not always this way. Prior to the 1850s, the government had very little input into the education of America’s children. Instead, there was a decentralized system of privately funded and operated schools throughout the country, most of them organized and run by churches, philanthropic societies, or local community groups. It was only after 1850, beginning in New England and particularly in Massachusetts, that education was seen as a governmental function, with the government both funding and operating schools for all children. But for the first 150 years of America’s settlement, and for the first fifty to seventy-five years of our nation’s existence, government schooling, as practiced today, did not exist.
When America’s founders adopted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they recognized that under the law of nature and of nature’s God (natural law and the Bible), parents had the right and duty to direct the education and upbringing of their children.
Our founders were well-educated, and they believed that to remain free, America must always have a well-educated citizenry.
They did not, however, believe that an educated citizenry required the government to provide, regulate, or operate schools.
When America was founded, and when our founders were educated, government-run schools did not exist.
Prior to America’s independence, the majority of colonial schools were common schools, primarily funded by private or community groups. Church schools and academies educated children at all levels—elementary, secondary, and college. Some of these schools provided free education for poor children whose families could not afford tuition to attend other private schools. These schools were intended to inculcate religious doctrine and principles into the children, as well as general knowledge, and later education for various businesses and trades.
James Kent, in his famous book, Commentaries on American Law, published in 1826, observed:
The duties of parents to their children as being their natural guardians consist in maintaining and educating them during the season of infancy and youth, and in making reasonable provision for their future usefulness and happiness in life by a situation suited to their habits and a competent provision for the exigency of that situation.
Early American Schools
Schools were originally established in early America to enable ordinary citizens to read the Bible for themselves and to understand the rational order of the universe created by God. The first compulsory school legislation in America was enacted in Massachusetts in 1647, a mere two decades after the first settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock. The Old Deluder Satan Act was enacted so that all children of the colonists could learn to read the Bible for themselves and would no longer be deluded as they had previously been through ignorance on the European continent. The law authorized elected community leaders to charge parents with the responsibility of teaching their children. When there were more than fifty children in a community, the parents were directed to establish a school. Teachers, then, became the agents of the parents, not the government, in educating their children.
Our founders also recognized the need for an educated citizenry if freedom were to be preserved. Two months before the United States Constitution was adopted, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to govern the newly settled territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. This Act provided for the establishment of schools, stating:
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education, shall forever be encouraged.
The Northwest Ordinance did not presume that the government would establish these schools, but only encourage their private establishment. Just as in the original colonies, most schools were established by churches, groups of parents, or philanthropists. In 1811, when President James Madison recommended the first establishment of a federal university, Congress said “no,” concluding: “The erection of a university . . . is not within the powers confided by the Constitution to Congress.”
In 1859, President James Buchanan vetoed the first proposed legislation seeking to bring the federal government into the education arena. In his veto message, he said:
“I presume the general proposition is undeniable that Congress does not possess the power to appropriate money in the Treasury, raised by taxes on the people of the United States, for the purpose of educating the people of the respective States. It will not be pretended that any such power is to be found among the specific powers granted to Congress.”
America Adopts the European Educational Standard
In 1806, Holland became the first country to create a national system of state-regulated education to meet a goal of total government-run education. Prussia followed in 1819 by adopting a centralized government system of education.
The first movement toward state-controlled education in America began in 1817, but gained traction two decades later when Horace Mann, a Massachusetts legislator, led the fight for a uniform, government-controlled education after the Prussian model. Horace Mann was a Puritan who rejected his Biblical faith and became a Unitarian. The population in Massachusetts was becoming more diverse religiously. Rather than allow the various religions to establish their own schools to educate their children, Mann’s crusade to concentrate control of education in the government was intended to downplay religion and use the state to instill certain more secular common beliefs among the children. Mann believed that a uniform school system would be a powerful instrument for creating societal unity.
The public at large opposed Mann’s goal of having the state take over education under Europe’s Prussian model, so his supporters did not immediately seek direct authority over local schools. Instead, the Massachusetts legislature worked to gradually extend the state’s role in defining what would be taught in schools and setting uniform standards for teachers. When Mann later served on the Massachusetts Board of Education, he focused on three objectives: state collection of education data, state adoption of textbooks through the establishment of state-approved school libraries in each district, and state control of teacher preparation through the establishment of teacher’s colleges, called “Normal Schools.” In this way, Mann laid the groundwork for gradually greater government control of all education. Parents viewed Mann’s goals as antithetical to their freedom to pass on their own religious beliefs and traditions to their children. They did not want their children given to the state to be indoctrinated with the state’s more secular perspectives.
Defending Education for Christian Families Today
Today, nearly 90% of all American children are educated in government-run schools. Courts have ruled since 1947 that no government money may go to private religious schools. This monopoly of education tax dollars for public schools makes it difficult for some families to provide a religious education for their own children in addition to funding the government schools.
The Christian Law Association continues to believe that Christian parents should have their educational choices protected in our nation. CLA has been on the front lines for decades defending the rights of Christian schools to exist and assisting families who want to home educate their children by successfully winning over 8,000 cases in defense of these liberties. CLA also serves families with children in public schools to assure that these students also have the maximum opportunity possible to practice their faith in a government school setting.
Please pray for all these families and children and pray that Christian families in America will continue to be able to educate their children in their own Biblical faith. The future of our nation depends upon their success.