General information
Public Education in the United States

Public Education in the United States, programs of instruction offered to children, adolescents, and adults in the United States through schools and colleges operated by state and local governments. Unlike the nationally regulated and financed education systems of many other industrialized societies, American public education is primarily the responsibility of the states and individual school districts.

The national system of formal education in the United States developed in the 19th century. It differed from education systems of other Western societies in three fundamental respects. First, Americans were more inclined to regard education as a solution to various social problems. Second, because they had this confidence in the power of education, Americans provided more years of schooling for a larger percentage of the population than other countries. Third, educational institutions were primarily governed by local authorities rather than by federal ones.

The most notable characteristic of the American education system is the large number of people it serves. In 1995, 87 percent of Americans between age 25 and 29 had graduated from high school. Among those who had completed high school, 62 percent had completed at least some college, and 28 percent had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Expanding access to college education is an important priority for the U.S. government. In his 1997 State of the Union address U.S. president Bill Clinton called for the creation of new public policy to enable virtually every high school graduate to receive some form of college education.

After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the founders of the United States argued that education was essential for the prosperity and survival of the new nation. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, proposed that Americans give a high priority to a “crusade against ignorance.” Jefferson was the first American leader to suggest creating a system of free schools for all persons that would be publicly supported through taxes. In 1779 he proposed an education plan that would have supported free schooling for all children in the state of Virginia for three years. The best students from this group would continue in school at public expense through adolescence. The most advanced of these students would go on to publicly funded colleges. Jefferson’s proposal was never enacted and his idea of selecting the best and brightest students for special advantage failed to gain widespread support. However, Jefferson’s plans for universal education and for publicly funded schools formed the basis of education systems developed in the 19th century.

Until the 1840s American education was not a system at all, but a disjointed collection of local, regional, and usually private institutions. The extent of schooling and the type of education available depended on the resources and values of the particular town or city, on the activities of religious groups seeking to further their ends through schools and colleges, and on many other private groups—such as philanthropic associations and trade organizations—that created different types of schools for different reasons. Most institutions only provided educational opportunities for boys from wealthy families. Public governing bodies were rarely involved in the financing or control of schools.