Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Introduction:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

Introduction: Federal Aid to Education, 1785-1900

It is important to note at the outset that, while the federal role in education has expanded rapidly since World War II, the basic idea of federal aid to education is, in fact, nearly as old as the republic itself. In 1785, two years after the end of the Revolutionary War, the Congress of Confederation passed the first of two Northwest Ordinances, which reserved 1/36 th of the land allocated to each western township "for the maintenance of public schools within the said township." Two years later, in 1787, the recently convened Constitutional Convention passed the second Northwest Ordinance, which reaffirmed the purpose of the first. However, since the Convention left all explicit mention of education out of the new Constitution itself, some have speculated that it saw schooling exclusively as a state or local issue-left, under the Tenth Amendment, as an unenumerated power reserved "to the states . . . or to the people."

Yet the use of federal land grants to support education continued during the Civil War, when Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. This act extended the aims of the Northwest Ordinances (land grants for school aid) to institutions of higher education. Then, after the war, the federal government moved beyond the basic idea of land grants and devoted significant resources from the federal treasury to support the so-called Freedmen's Bureau, which tackled, among many other challenges, the huge task of improving educational opportunities for recently emancipated slaves. The Freedmen's Bureau initiated three areas of federal aid to education that would last into the twentieth century: (1) offering federal aid to raise the educational level of the most disadvantaged members of society, (2) promoting economic (or "manpower") development through the expansion of access to learning, and (3) assimilating new citizens into American society for purposes of productive labor as well as social harmony. In 1867, Congress established the U.S. Office of Education (albeit with very limited powers) to monitor the nation's progress in some of these areas.


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