Derek Black’s Fine New Book Explores the History of America’s Idea of Public Education — Part I

By Jan Resseger for janresseger@wordpress.com

Derek Black’s stunning new book, School House Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, threads together a history that has rarely been collected in one volume. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, presents the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history but persistently revived and reanimated: that a system of public education is the one institution most essential for our democratic society. And, while the specific language defining a public education as each child’s fundamental right is absent from the U.S. Constitution, the guarantee of that right is embedded in the nation’s other founding documents, in the history of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, in the second Reconstruction during the Civil Rights Movement, and in every one of the state constitutions.

Today’s post will skim the history as Derek Black presents it; on Wednesday, this blog will explore how Black believes both public education and democracy are threatened today.

While the U.S. Constitution never formally names public education as the nation’s fundamental and necessary institution, the provision for public education is the centerpiece of the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787: “The Ordinances, and education’s role in them, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is one of the most significant legal documents in our nation’s history and the current United States Code treats it as such… In many important ways, the history and effect of the Constitution and the Ordinances are inseparable.  First, the documents were passed by many of the same people… Second, the Northwest Ordinance’s substance is a constitutional charter of sorts. Practically speaking, it established the foundational structure for the nation to grow and organize itself for the next two centuries. Precise rules for dividing up the land, developing the nation’s vast territories, and detailing the path that these territories would follow to become states are not the work of everyday legislation. They are the work of a national charter.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 64-65).  “The 1785 Ordinance specified how every square inch of the territories would be divided into counties and towns. Every new town had to set aside one-ninth of its land and one-third of its natural resources for the financial support of education. And every town had to reserve one of its lots for the operation of a public school.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 62)  The Northwest Ordinances named the urgent purpose of public education and prescribed a means of funding the schools.

Read more here.

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