Education Policy: Driving the American Dream

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, J.D.

The policies establishing and defining public education change both with time and politics and by necessity. As societies grow, the reasons to provide education services to any percentage or configuration of the population change as social and economic needs demand. Circumstances evolving throughout the 20th Century are now grounding the policies driving the U.S. education sector in the 21st.    


Religious Beginnings Evolve to Equity Goals

School policies have come a long way since the first European settlers launched the American experiment in the mid-1600s. Over time, as those policies evolved, the reasons to make the changes reflected the mindset of the day, often addressing a need arising from very topical social or economic circumstances.

The 16th Century settlers initiated the American education system, establishing in 1635 the first free public school to teach children to read the Bible. Within ten years, Massachusetts required towns of 50 people or more to open a school; those with 100 or more residents were also required to provide a Latin Grammar master. 

(The settlers also established a parallel education system of Latin schools, primarily to educate the sons of the ‘elite’ classes while inadvertently setting the foundation for economic disparities in education that persist to this day. But that’s a tale for another edition.)   

Massachusetts also launched the inaugural state-based Board of Education to develop a state-wide structure for public education. Driven by Horace Mann, the principle behind the Board was to use education to address widening social gaps and to overcome poverty. Mann’s advocacy resulted in establishing a uniform six-month school term, better pay for teachers, and better resources for schools in general. 

The federal Department of Education (DOE) opened in 1867 for the primary purpose of helping states establish effective public school systems. While this remains its principle purpose today, the DOE has also expanded its purview to include higher education in general (beginning 1890) and vocational education (in the early 20th Century).

The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, known as the ‘G.I.’ bill, of 1944 provides educational funding and other supports for military veterans, beginning with soldiers returning home from the second World War. Supporting the academic and career aspirations of millions of former and active service people, the G.I. bill and its successors are considered one of America’s most significant contributions to its current social, political, and economic foundations.  

Today, the country’s education systems remain state-based and under the control of local and regional Boards and Commissions, which are empowered to create and direct policy to address its unique social and cultural needs. However, the federal government’s role in impacting nationwide education systems remains significant. It continues to press towards its goals of promoting student achievement and supporting educational excellence and equal access initiatives across the country.   


20th Century Challenges Created Today’s Education Systems

The chaos of the 20th Century both eroded America’s confidence in its educational capacities and illuminated many of the critical challenges inherent in virtually all of them. In response, the federal government and its DOE initiated a series of policies to address each challenge, intending to create a more equitable and effective national education environment:

The 1917 Smith-Hughes Act was the first to clarify that education should train the student for ‘the real world,’ and not teach only Greek and Latin scholarly standards. The Act culminated years of debate centered on the need for agricultural, vocational, and industrial education opportunities for both men and women. Almost as a precursor to today’s policies, the law addressed the lament that then-existing educational practices were ” … satisfied to go on as in the past, paying little heed to changing commercial demands.”

The 1936 George-Deen Act provided funding for vocational education in public schools, including training for ‘distributive’ occupations and training for the traditional vocational trades themselves. The grants added training for product sales, services, commercial management, and other related vocational activities to curricula across the country. Nursing was added to the funding recipients by the Health Amendments Act of 1956

The purpose of these federal laws was not to mandate that states implement them in a rigorous or uniform manner. Instead, the federal government allocated millions of federal dollars to the states to support their individual efforts in establishing these educational programs. 

That trend continued into the second half of the 20th Century:

The launch of the Soviet ‘Sputnik’ satellite triggered the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which escalated the country’s higher education investments in its emerging science, math, and technology industries. The Act also began the nation’s investments in its students, providing funding for low-cost student loans to facilitate educational goals. The law’s reach was significant: in 1960, there were 3.6 million college students in American. In 1070, that number had grown to 7.5 million.   

Civil rights and anti-poverty bills passed in the 1960s and 1970s also enhanced the federal presence in state-based educational systems:

Federal policies encased in Titles VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Section 504 of 1973’s Rehabilitation Act prohibited racial, gender, and disability discrimination throughout the entire country. 

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 launched the Title 1 Federal Aid program for economically disadvantaged children.

1965 also saw the passage of the Higher Education Act, which provides direction for post-secondary education and financial assistance for needy college students.  

Today’s DOE sits as a federal Cabinet-level entity, and its authority encompasses every layer of the nation’s educational systems to serve its (currently) 50+ million students. 

Every state is now mandated to execute its policies in alignment with these federal standards. However, each state continues to set its own educational goals and standards according to its individual economic, social, and cultural drivers. The aggregated state and federal laws reflect how the events of the last 150+ years continue to impact today’s communities and offer insights into how educational policies can shape both the present and future for every resident in every state.    


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