Throughout United States history, government, in one form or another, has expressed an interest in education. Indeed, this interest predates the American Revolution by more than 100 years. In 1647, the General Court of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay passed the Old Deluder Satan Act. Section 2 of that act provided that "when any town increased to one hundred families or households, a grammar school would be established with a master capable of preparing young people for university level study." The Massachusetts Bay Colony was not unique in its concern for education: Other colonies also gave unrestricted aid through land grants and appropriations of money. Both forms of support were adopted later by the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS and the CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES.
The first measure enacted by the federal government in support of education came when the Continental Congress passed the Ordinance of 1785, which disposed of lands in the Western Territory and reserved section 16 of each congressional township for the support of schools. Two years later, the same Congress passed the NORTHWEST ORDINANCE, which was the first policy statement by Congress with respect to education. Its third article recognizes knowledge as being essential to good government and to the public welfare, and it encourages happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education.
These early acts by the colonies, and support from the federal Congress, forged a partnership in public education that continues to this day. This partnership has thrived despite the absence of any explicit reference to education in the Constitution. The legal authority for the intrusion of the federal government into education is based on an interpretation given to the GENERAL WELFARE Clause of the Constitution, which reads, "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States" (art. I, § 8).
The TENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution provides the basis in legal theory for making education a function of the states. It reads, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Although this amendment does not specifically direct the states to assume the responsibility for providing education, its effect has been no less. Each state constitution provides for the establishment of a statewide school system. Some state constitutions define in detail the structure for organizing and maintaining a system of public education; others merely accept that responsibility and delegate authority for its implementation to the state legislature. The U.S. Supreme Court and the state courts have consistently ruled that education is a function of the states.
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