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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.

One-Room Schoolhouse, Grundy County, Iowa, 1939

One-Room Schoolhouse, Grundy County, Iowa, 1939

Courtesy Library of Congress

School Plan, Braintree Massachusetts, 1811

Americans have long levied taxes to fund education while attempting to keep costs down. White male voters in a growing Massachusetts town approved the construction of a new public school. The builder of this school was required to build it in a “plain but workmanlike” manner. 

Gift of Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection 

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Harper’s School District Library, Mid-19th Century

Beyond paying taxes, communities have helped to fund schools through giving time, money, and supplies. This portable library is typical of one that hung on school walls in the 1800s. In some schools, a portable library was purchased through community donations, while in others, an individual donated one. 

Gift of Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection 

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Property Tax Receipt, Hopkins County, Texas, 19th Century

Property taxes have been levied to help pay for public education since the colonial era. Property-tax-based school funding has contributed to educational inequality. Wealthier districts typically have more tax money to spend per student. This property tax receipt from Texas includes taxes that would have supported public education. 

Gift of Benjamin T. Layton

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Button, 1978

Property taxes are a critical funding source for American public schools. In 1978 California voters passed Proposition 13, significantly lowering property tax rates and thus reducing funds available for public education. The California Teachers Association sold this button for $5 at the 1978 National Education Association convention to oppose the proposition.

Gift of Gerald H. Meral, Ph.D.

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Fundraising Poster, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2017 

Most public school teachers provide classroom supplies using their own funds or by raising money. Educator Teresa Danks Roark’s roadside fundraising in Tulsa, Oklahoma, went viral in the summer of 2017. 

Gift of Teresa Danks Roark

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Fundraising Box, 2000s

Fundraising Box, 2000s

Schools have enlisted students in fundraising to support educational activities. Businesses have profited from developing fundraising products specifically for schools and youth activities. This portable box was used by a public school student to raise funds in Selma, California, in the early 2000s.

Newspaper Headlines, 2019

Newspaper Headlines, 2019

Student debt, underpaid adjunct faculty, the rising cost of higher education, and universities’ ties to American slavery were all topics of debate in media sources across the United States in 2019. These conversations have roots in earlier era’s debates and decisions about the economy, education, gender and racial equality, and more.

Industrial Schools

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.   
 

Two boys making or repairing shoes at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1904 

Two boys making or repairing shoes at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1904 

Founded in 1879, the Carlisle Indian School was the first federally funded off-reservation boarding school for indigenous children. Education at this school was intended to erase native culture. Vocational training at schools like Carlisle reinforced white gender roles and stereotypes. Girls were taught to cook, clean, sew, and do laundry, while boys were taught shoemaking, farming, blacksmithing, and other trades considered useful for assimilating into white society. 

The erasure of native culture was extensive. Students were forced to adopt a new language (English) and religion (Christianity), wear Euro-American clothing, and change their everyday lives. They were not allowed to practice indigenous arts or trades.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Shoe made at Carlisle Indian School, 1885 

Shoe made at Carlisle Indian School, 1885 

This woman’s shoe was made by Carlisle students who were taught to make and repair shoes in styles worn by most Euro-Americans. The school prided itself on the fact that it could repair all students’ shoes on the campus, thereby saving on operating costs.    

Gift of Richard H. Pratt

School Donor List, Washington, D.C., Early 20th Century

School Donor List, Washington, D.C., Early 20th Century

To promote independence for African American women and girls in the face of racist limitations on their opportunities, Nannie Helen Burroughs founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909 in Washington, D.C. African American donors throughout the United States gave to support its expansion. The commercial laundry they helped fund was both a teaching space and a source of income to support the school. 

Gift of Nannie Helen Burroughs School

School Cup and Saucer, Washington, D.C., 20th Century

The National Training School for Women and Girls was part of the industrial school movement to teach employable skills. Classes included dressmaking, hairdressing, book-keeping, waitressing, typewriting, laundering, and missionary training, along with music, English, history, and science classes. This cup and saucer were used by students, many of whom boarded at the school. 

Gift of Nannie Helen Burroughs School

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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.
 

Diorama of Fisk University Jubilee Singers, 1990s

In the 1870s the Fisk University Jubilee Singers began touring the United States and Europe to raise money for the African American school. Familiarizing white audiences with black spirituals, the group also advocated for African American rights and independence.

Gift of Diedra J. Bell and Dr. Stephney J. Keyser

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In the Paper Lab:
Conservation of the Fisk Diorama

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

Tuition card, Jonesboro, Georgia, 1910–1918

The segregated Georgia school attended by sisters Eula (born 1901) and Lillian (born 1904) Arnold charged 15 cents per month in tuition. 

Gift of Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection

Community School Plans issued by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Nashville, Tennessee, 1931

Community School Plans issued by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Nashville, Tennessee, 1931

In 1912 Booker T. Washington initiated a partnership with philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to provide better education for black children. The Rosenwald Rural School Initiative worked with communities to award matching grants that resulted in the construction of over 5,000 schools in fifteen southern states by 1933. Although Rosenwald collaborated with African Americans, the Initiative accepted segregation and gained support from white Southern leaders.

The Rosenwald Fund issued plans for different school sizes. Lighting and ventilation were important aspects of these designs. The school in Jonesboro, Georgia, was similar to this “three-teacher” floor plan.

Rosenwald School, Jonesboro, Georgia, 2016 

Rosenwald School, Jonesboro, Georgia, 2016 

Eula and Lillian Arnold’s father, J. W. Arnold, helped to secure a Rosenwald School for Jonesboro’s black students in the early 1930s. The Rosenwald Fund required African Americans to contribute cash and in-kind donations of labor and building materials to match the organization’s grants. The school initially cost $5,325. The grant covered 20 percent of the costs. In addition to African Americans’ contributions, funds also came from the public treasury and white donors.

J. W. Arnold later donated the land on which J. W. Arnold Elementary School opened in 1963 to serve African American children. Clayton County’s schools integrated in 1968.

Photograph by Johnny Jackson