Providing Fair and Equal Education for All


Tom Nedreberg

By UEA Vice President Tom Nedreberg

In Utah, we’ve traditionally done a good job of educating all children equally, regardless of circumstances, but the concept of providing fair and equal access to education appears to be eroding.

While researching potential new legislation that might be proposed in the upcoming Utah legislative session, I came across a blog that started with this statement, “Childhood education in our country has gone from private and optional to public and mandatory.” The statement, made in support of a proposal to eliminate the requirement that Utah children attend school, is not entirely true.

Perhaps some historical perspective is in order.

Education in the United States and in Utah has a complicated history. The first public school was established in Boston in 1635. It was common in New England to have public schools and mandatory attendance, at least for boys, from 1650 onwards. In Virginia, the other seat of civilization at that time, schools were established as private for the elite.

As our country developed, each education model adapted and changed. The New England model eventually became non-sectarian and included high school and girls. While it was mandatory in most villages, it started to become mandatory in states, beginning with Massachusetts in 1852, followed shortly thereafter by other New England states.

Southern states were much slower to establish public, non-sectarian schools or to include girls. Southern blacks were not allowed to attend any school until after the Civil War and then only in segregated schools with inferior facilities. Mississippi was the last state to have compulsory education in 1918. High schools were rare in the South until after 1945.

In Utah, schools were established as towns developed, but they were private schools charging tuition. They did not become free and public until the 1870’s when competition from free schools established as proselyting tools by religions based outside Utah became prevalent. Compulsory school attendance began in 1890, before statehood, and high schools began to be established around 1900.

So while childhood education may have been private and optional in a section of our country, it was certainly not that way everywhere.

Which brings us to today and the question: Are we providing fair and equal access to education for all?

As members of the UEA, we are committed to our mission of “A great public school for every child.” This was pretty simple when a public school was a place that any child could attend and receive an education. But now we have proposals to take us back two centuries and eliminate compulsory education laws.

We also have public schools called ‘charter schools,’ which are not required to accept every child. They may have waiting lists, application processes that favor some, stringent rules to expel students, or sectarian curriculum that limits the students who would attend. They have developed into schools for some, not schools for all.

Supporting all children with fair and equal access to public schools during the 20th century provided the bedrock for our nation to build itself into a world power. It’s time to recommit ourselves to the notion that ALL children deserve an appropriate education.



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