The Education Reform Primer: Was it a Republican President who first advocated for universal education?

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

This blog will explore some of the influences from the last 375 years (mostly from the last 100 or so) that have shaped public school education and made it what it is today. So stay tuned, add this to your favorites, and prepare to receive a bit of education on education.

Was it a Republican President who first advocated for universal education?

by Matthew R. Plain

Current trends may leave one surprised to learn that the Republican Party was founded in the mid-1850’s on anti-slavery and economic reform principles. The party gained prominence when Abraham Lincoln, its first presidential candidate, prevailed in the election of 1860 and led efforts to preserve the Union and end slavery.   

Just twenty years later, James Garfield, a Republican Congressman from Ohio, defeated Democrat Winfield Hancock in the presidential election of 1880. Garfield was born poor and fatherless in Ohio 1831. He taught and studied at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later named Hiram College) in Ohio, and left to pursue his degree from Williams College in Massachusetts. After Garfield graduated from Williams in 1856, he returned to Ohio to teach at Hiram and study law. He served in the Ohio State Senate for a couple of years, gained admission to the Bar in 1861, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1862, where he would serve until 1880. Garfield also served in the Union Army during the Civil War, committed to ending the evil institution of slavery.

Only months after his inauguration, Charles Guiteau assassinated Garfield. Though his Presidency may be best remembered for this fact, this writer ponders whether it should be best remembered as the Presidency that could have been in light of his long-held commitment to reverse the plight of African-Americans. Garfield not only appointed several African-Americans to prominent government positions, in an effort to address the widespread illiteracy among the relatively new subsection of the electorate, he proposed the creation of a “universal” education system funded by the federal government. In his inaugural address of 1881, Garfield stated:

“But the responsibility for the existence of slavery did not rest upon the South alone. The nation itself is responsible for the extension of the suffrage, and is under special obligations to aid in removing the illiteracy which it has added to the voting population. For the North and South alike there is but one remedy. All the constitutional power of the nation and of the States and all the volunteer forces of the people should be surrendered to meet this danger by the savory influence of universal education.”

Unfortunately, due to his assassination in July of 1881, the country would not get the chance to see if Garfield could bring this initiative to fruition. Accordingly, we are left wondering what type of impact a federally-funded universal education would have had on partisan politics, particularly in light of the notion that the modern-day Republican Party has sought to disband and/or consolidate the United States Department of Education. Perhaps more importantly, we are left wondering whether Charles Guiteau not only ended a human life, but also slowed the heartbeat of civil rights, race relations, and education reform, at a time when the nation needed it desperately.

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including charter schools, charter management organizations, private schools, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York City. For more information, please click here.

Matt Plain is a Partner at Barton Gilman focusing his practice on education law, including school governance, administrative law, labor and employment, special education, and contract drafting and disputes. In addition, Matt is currently serving his second term as an elected member of the East Greenwich School Committee. In this capacity, he chairs the district’s policy subcommittee and serves on the negotiating team. Matt also teaches Education Reform and Policy at Roger Williams University School of Education. He is a former public school teacher and holds a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction. Matt has been named a 2018 Best Lawyer in America in Education Law, a New England Super Lawyer Rising Star, and a 40 Under Forty honoree by Providence Business News.