Who Pays for Education?
From the nation’s beginning, Americans have grappled with who gets educated and who pays for education. Both public and private schools have relied on a combination of public and private funding. Disparities in wealth and political influence have affected Americans’ ability to support schools. As a result, educational philanthropy has reflected inequalities in the American economy and society. Giving through contributions of time and money has both created opportunities for students and increased inequalities among them. In the case of the industrial schools explored here, some white reformers used their privileged positions in attempts to assimilate minorities to the dominant culture, while in other instances, communities used the industrial school model to meet their own needs.
In the late 1800s, many Americans embraced industrial schools in efforts to train and reform children who were typically from immigrant or working-class backgrounds. Industrial schools offered vocational training intended for children to develop skills that would help them find jobs.
In some cases, communities supported industrial schools as a way to meet their own needs. In other cases, privileged white reformers from outside particular communities established schools in efforts to train and acculturate children based on their own paternalistic views of what was best. Reformers’ views were often at odds with those of the community that the reformers intended to serve.
Donation page from Second Annual Report of the Wilson Industrial School Association for Girls, 1855
The Wilson Industrial School for Girls was founded in the 1850s by white middle-class reformers who believed that the children of predominantly Irish, working-class immigrants living in New York City’s Lower East Side needed “intellectual and moral improvement.” These reformers described their work as saving children from the vices of their parents, whom they often depicted as destitute drunkards. Poverty was widespread, but reformers were quick to attribute poor living conditions to the moral failing of parents, rather than economic inequality.
Female students were taught housekeeping skills that would allow them to work as domestic servants, as well as dressmaking and other trades.
The school was funded through monetary contributions, the donation of material items that could be used by the school, and income from students’ work in dressmaking and tailoring.
Access to Education under Segregation
Barred from schools for white children due to racist practices, African Americans in the late 1800s established and supported a wide variety of educational institutions of their own. In the early 1900s, Southern state and local governments funded white and black children’s public educations separately and unequally. (Many Northern schools were also segregated due to residential segregation and, in some cases, the law.) In the face of laws that enforced racial segregation and severe underfunding, African Americans contributed their own funds to support schools.
Students at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1902
The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was founded in 1881 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Booker T. Washington, a graduate of the Hampton Normal and Industrial School in Virginia, was the first head of Tuskegee. Washington secured funding for the school from white philanthropists, including John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Julius Rosenwald.
Washington’s racial-uplift philosophy was controversial within the African American community because he was reluctant to upset the racial hierarchy through political agitation and instead emphasized self-empowerment through vocational training as a means of advancement. Students learned agricultural work and trades, such as bricklaying, carpentry, and printing. In this photograph, students were learning about agricultural crops.
Courtesy of Library of Congress