Tracing Federal Involvement in Education

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Today's blog post comes from AASA Past-President David Pennington, Superintendent of Ponca City Schools (OK). He writes about the importance of public education and our nation's long-term support for public education. 

“There is no mention of education in the U. S. Constitution.” During the past few years, this sentiment has become a popular refrain among members of Congress looking to justify their support for reductions or in some cases elimination of federal funds allocated to our nation’s public schools. Although it’s true that the Constitution does not mention education, there is a historical precedent for the federal government’s involvement in funding public education dating back to the late 1700s. 

Federal involvement in public education can be traced back to the laws that comprise the Northwest Ordinances: the Land Ordinance of 1784, the Land Ordinance of 1785, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. These laws were enacted by the Second Continental Congress to organize and govern the Northwest Territory. This land, ceded to the United States government by England at the end of the Revolutionary War, consisted of more than 260,000 square miles north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River.  

The Northwest Ordinances were critical to the creation of our nation as we know it today, as they helped promote and manage the country’s westward expansion. The Ordinance of 1785 required that the Northwest Territory be surveyed and organized into townships. Each township would be 36 square miles in size and would be divided into 36 sections of one square mile each, with each section comprising about 640 acres. Each section of the township save one was to be sold to the public for $1 per acre. Thus, this legislation provided a means for the government to raise much-needed revenue. 

What if that one section that was to be set aside from public sale? Setting the precedent for providing support for public education, Congress decreed that Section 16 in each township be set aside for the maintenance of public schools. When states were carved out of the Northwest Territory, this same strategy was also a part of the Enabling Act of each of the newly formed states. Beginning in 1850 Congress set aside Sections 16 and 32 in each territory for the support of public schools. The exceptions were the territories of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, where four sections of land in each township were set aside to support common schools. 

As a result of this set aside of land specifically for public schools, billions of dollars were earmarked to support the public schools of this nation. Even as the nation grew and debates over the rules for the settlement of territories and the admittance of those states into the Union became more and more contentious, this practice was never contested. In fact, many of the original states added provisions to their state constitutions putting land in trust to support public schools

Why would a Congress desperate for revenue set aside millions of acres to support public education? Many of our Founding Fathers recognized the need to develop a system of education for all citizens if our democracy was to flourish. Many of them wrote about the importance of an educated populace to the survival of the democratic republic they created. The Founding Father who is most well-known for his support of education is Thomas Jefferson, who was the author of the Ordinance of 1785. In fact, in a letter to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson said he hoped public schools would become “the keystone in the arch of our government.” 


I believe that although public education is not mentioned in the Constitution, our Founding Fathers fully intended to provide support for public education for as long as the nation exists. 

DAVID PENNINGTON served as AASA’s president for 2014-15. Twitter: @DavidPennid

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