The public school as we know it was born in the mid-nineteenth century. Its founders called it the common school. Common schools were funded by local property taxes, charged no tuition, were open to all white children, were governed by local school committees, and were subject to a modest amount of state regulation. They arose through two decades of debate prior to the Civil War in the Northeast and the Midwest of what is now the United States and, later in the nineteenth century, in the South and the West
In eighteenth-century America, the institutions closest to our public schools were the short-term schools supported by towns in the northern British colonies. Town meetings often voted to provide elementary schooling for ten or twelve weeks a year. They often favored boys over girls and charged parental fees to supplement the towns support
Families carried most of the responsibility for childrens learning, along with churches, neighbors, and peers. Not only was schooling less important and thus not very extensive, but in general it was not free, not governmental, and not secular
These arrangements meant that family wealth, race, and gender had a strong impact on how much formal education a child received.
Excerpt from an essay by historian Carl Kaestle from companion volume SCHOOL: The Story of American Public Education.