During colonial times, schooling was left up to each of the colonies individually. With the many different religions and ways of life, schooling was difficult to maintain and centralize. The New England Colonies focused on compulsory public maintainence (1). They wanted all capable children to attend school to be educated to become good citizens. The Middle Colonies policies were that of parochial education (2). Schools were primarily for educating the children with powerful minds to become ministers, priests, or hold good offices. The Southern Colonies, on the other hand, didnt really have much in the line of compulsory education because of the ruralness of these areas. Most education in the south consisted of apprenticeships and the like.

In an effort to consolidate schools and make education mandatory, Congress enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785. This ordinance set aside what was known as Section Sixteen in every township in the new Western Territory for the maintenance of public schools. It also allotted section number 29 for the purpose of religion and no more than two townships for a University. The separation of church and state was visible by now with the two entities being in different areas. Public schools were organized to corral the best minds for training for public leadership.

Two years later came the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This ordinance provided land in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions for settlement. (It eventually broke into five states: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois). Of particular interest is Article 3 of the ordinance, which reads in part:

              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 point of this document is that education is necessary to become a good citizen and to have a strong government. Children will be encouraged to go to school, however religion is not specifically to be part of the curriculum. Schools then began to form everywhere over the next one-hundred plus years. Instead of township appointed teachers, they were subsidized to an extent by the government, and the rest by state taxes. Schools began teaching more that just religion, reading, and spelling. Sciences were part of the new curriculum. Thus, the federal government was able to create a public school system furnished to all children, especially in the new and ever growing West.


1. Encyclopedia of American History, Vol. 2, pp. 395-96.

2. ditto #1.

Prepared by Kevin VanZant