Why were the public schools ever established? Did the private sector fail to set up schools or set up too few of them? Were large segments of society barred from obtaining education? Was the education of poor quality? The answer to the last three questions is no. The public schools were not established to make up for any deficiency in people's ability to learn to read, write, do arithmetic, and acquire knowledge of other subjects. The government schools were set up for another purpose entirely.
As Jack High and Jerome Ellig have written, "Private education was widely demanded in the late 18th and 19th centuries in Great Britain and America. The private supply of education was highly responsive to that demand, with the consequence that large numbers of children from all classes of society received several years of education. " High and Ellig show that the government's involvement in education "displaced private education, sometimes deliberately stifling it [and] altered the kind of education that was offered, mainly to the detriment of the poorer working classes.
"In colonial times through the early Republic period, when private schools were the rule, a great many people were educated, despite the relatively low living standards of the day. As the historian Robert Seybolt wrote:
In the hands of private schoolmasters the curriculum expanded rapidly. Their schools were commercial ventures, and, consequently, competition was keen.... Popular demands, and the element of competition, forced them not only to add new courses of instruction, but also constantly to improve their methods and technique of instruction.
Schooling in that early period was plentiful, innovative, and well within the reach of the common people. What effect did it have? High and Ellig note that 80 percent of New Yorkers leaving wills could sign their names. Other data show...