Education as a function of the state

In this classic Kappan article, the author contemplates the value and purpose of public schools and the state’s role in governing them.


The problem of providing satisfactory educational opportunity for the millions of American children in the past has been such an enormous one that there has been little time to evaluate properly the success of the task. Frankly, it has been scarcely necessary to do, for we seemingly have been so successful in handling affairs that few dared to question the soundness of the principles underlying the organization and administration of the vast public education system, which was so largely responsible for training our leaders.

But such is no longer the case. Today the real value of the public school, especially on the secondary level, is being challenged and questioned by many leading thinkers. Representative of that group is our present United States Commissioner, who recently has said: “The high percentage of the eligible age groups in high school is the wonder of the world and many of our people ask what the purpose is and what the outcome is likely to be. The college officials tell us that these schools do not prepare students for college satisfactorily and many employers express dissatisfaction with the product they obtain from vocational courses.”1

Concerning the uncertainty and inadequacy of the present educational philosophy in America, Professor I. L. Kandel writes: “The time has come when education in the United States must become more self-conscious than it has been. The one enduring aim that has persisted since the Revolution, equality of opportunity, is not an adequate guide for the development of a national system of education. . . . There has, particularly during the War and since the War, been much talk of Americanization, especially of the immigrant, but true Americanization, . . . is not likely to be achieved until there is a better conception of what is meant by Americanization and the fundamental principles underlying American society. Until that is achieved American education is likely to be at the beck and call of new theories, changing devices, and uncertain objectives.”2

In the opinion of Professor Bode, the chief defect in American education today is the lack of a program, or sense of direction. “Yet,” he says, “the material for a significant and distinctive educational philosophy is immediately at hand. The influence of modern science is pervading our whole civilization. It is giving us a new conception of the nature and method of intelligence and it is making the question of the place of intelligence in human affairs the fundamental issue of our civilization. To understand this issue is to have a basis for a philosophy of conduct and a basis for an interpretation of education in its relation to modern life.”3

The fundamental principles underlying the control and administration of education in America can be understood only in the light of sociological and historical analysis. Also, they can best be seen when compared with another country, especially England which offers such an interesting contrast.

Early developments of control

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the schools in America were largely controlled by the various churches and consequently were sectarian. They were far more concerned with the preservation of the church than of the State. Herein was a conflict. It was early recognized that the success of a democratic, representative, republican form of government depended entirely upon an intelligent citizenry, — at least one that could read and write. The burden of eliminating illiteracy must be upon schools! Church schools were not interested in that problem, so special schools had to be provided. The period of transition from church control to state control of education has been appropriately called The Battle for Free Public Schools. The most effective weapon in that fight was the recognition of the right of the community to levy taxes for the support of free public education. Gradually the church had to give way to the flag of the state with its slogan of equality of educational opportunity as preparation for life in a democracy, as the exponents of liberty were forced to recognize the following fundamental principles of American education: that schools must be supported from public taxation; be non-sectarian, free, compulsory, and universal ; and, that education is the function of the state. Even though the latter principle was definitely recognized about a century ago, the tradition of liberty has been so strong that nowhere does it mean state dictatorship of schools, for the people will not grant their representatives power to pass laws centralizing the control of education in any state department. It seems the American people have had no greater fear than that of the danger of centralization of schools and none that is more vague or misunderstood. It is extremely difficult to harmonize the present highly-centralized, autocratically-controlled city school system with the tradition of liberty so sacred in America. Laymen simply do not know the truth! It would startle them to learn that many critics believe our city systems are more highly centralized than those in France!

The exponents of liberty were forced to recognize the following fundamental principles of American education: that schools must be supported from public taxation; be non-sectarian, free, compulsory, and universal ; and, that education is the function of the state.

Education as a function of the state

The principle that education is a function of the State is entirely legal in its origin and meaning. Its first meaning was that the federal government made no provision for establishing any national system of schools; consequently, education was conceived as one of the powers of the individual states. With the recognition of public taxation for education and the passing of compulsory state laws on education, the power of the state gradually increased until with the creation of State Departments of Education and State Superintendents the power became so great that the courts held that education was a function of the state; however, the state granted the people the right to maintain private and parochial schools as one of the guarantees of the federal government.

As already implied, the most outstanding aim in these state schools always has been that of preparing for citizenship in a democracy. To leave this preparation in the control of private institutions was too dangerous for young America with her new, unassimilated, heterogeneous population. As Suzzallo so excellently points out: “The attempt of civilization to realize itself on a frontier typifies American education. It has represented the attempt to reduce the out lander, the barbarian, the foreigner to common ideals, — to standardize them and to get them to conform to our culture and civilization.”4

It seems that the leaders in our civilization have always been great believers in the almost sacredness of American institutions and culture and that it has generally been believed that foreign groups with their diverse cultures had little to add to the present order. Foreign groups must become Americanized! Many contend that this has been a short-sighted policy and is largely responsible for the criticism commonly given to Americanism. Very few educational leaders even now are emphasizing the likely contribution that can be made to our social order by preserving minority culture groups with the hope of assimilating them into the culture of the entire group and thus leavening it — so great has been and is the emphasis and faith in education by mass-production in a standardized, publicly controlled, state educational system!

Although the basis of our social order has always been individualism, this has largely found expression in the faith of the individual to make his contribution alone, by virtue of his ability, rather than through organized cooperative means Opportunities were great and no chances were lost of telling him how he could succeed if only he applied himself. There is little evidence that shows the people ever rejected education as a state function except upon religious grounds. Nor has the need for expression of individuality in a variety of schools often been argued. The ideal of democracy, stressing equality of opportunity as interpreted in the past, has worked contrary to all forms of education that might be branded as “class education” or “education of the intellectual elite.”

The state and education in England

England offers an interesting contrast. Evolution of control from the church and other bodies to the establishment of what might be called a national system of education has taken place much more slowly than in America and with more clearly defined principles operating as determinants of pol icy. Like America, individualism has always been the underlying philosophy, but due to a more homogeneous people it has been a much different type. True individualism stresses freedom, variety and experimentation, and fervently opposes standardization. In this, England, unlike America, is consistent as these are underlying fundamental principles of control of education.

The idea of a state system of schools in England never took hold because of the danger of schools being used for indoctrination purposes (political and religious) and for furthering undue uniformity by wiping out individuality. This principle was summarized by J. S. Mill about 1860 when he said that “a general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another.”5 Even then, he formulated the criterion that should govern the policy of the function of the central education authority that might well be studied in America. “A central organ of information and instruction for all the localities would be equally valuable in all departments of administration. A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede but aids and stimulates individual exertion and development. The mischief be gins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, addressing and, upon occasion, denouncing, it makes them work in fetters and bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them.”6

At present in England education is regarded as a moral affair of which the government has no right to claim a monopoly even though education should be permeated with a sense of national duty. To quote Professor Kandel: “The national organization should be broad enough to include groups of schools representing different connections, diverse ways of life, and varied traditions of judgment, leaving the choice to the parents. The chief task of the State is to enforce education under the best possible conditions and to let those who will provide it, taking care only that adequate facilities are supplied at public expense.”7 The relation of the State to education in England is characterized by flexibility, stimulus, advice, consultation, and financial encouragement and reward.

As a result of this policy there is no truly national system of schools; rather, there are “systems” of schools operating side by side independently of each other. The differentiating features are method of control and? scholastic and financial admission requirements. That social distinction counts greatly is charged by many writers.

Sir Michael Sadler has excellently summarized the emphasis in English education as “variety, set in a national framework.” An attempt is made to keep all the forms of education as efficient as possible largely by means of granting aid to schools which will give the Board of Education (a nominal board, whose work is carried out by the President, a cabinet member and political officer) the privilege of inspection and which will meet other requirements, such as awarding a minimum number of free places, and employing certificated teachers.

The Education Act of 1902 made 317 councils of various government units the Local Education Authority (L. E. A.) in England and Wales to provide adequate education where it was not already being provided. By the Act of 1918, the L. E. A. must submit periodically to the Board schemes “for the progressive and efficient development of education in their area.” These schemes are re viewed and criticized and are used as the bases for allowing grant-in-aid which is figured out on the basis of a rather complicated formula in which expenditures of the L. E. A. are classified with standard percentages given to each. At present approximately 53 per cent of the total cost of education is paid by the Board who have made provision to grant aid to parochial schools — a principle contrary to the policy in America. Religion is considered fundamental in character training, which is the basic aim of all English education, so it must be preserved.

The relationship of the L. E. A. and the Board of Education is that of cooperation and partnership, and neither is supreme over the other. Both have a place guaranteed by law; both are responsible to Parliament. Of the evolution of this relationship, Professor Reisner believes, “if one has been inclined to disparage the English system of public education, it would be well for him to examine the provisions of the Fisher Act before forming his personal opinion. England was slow in making the beginning of public education and for years was halting in its progress toward an efficient system of education. The sequel seems to indicate, however, that the English principle of respect for personal liberty and the English system of progress through compromise, are sound guides in the development of a national policy of education.”8

Although the State is the authority in the control of public schools in America, the local units are the administrators and are practically autonomous except for meeting some legal requirements. The question of just what should be the proper functions of the State has never been clearly analyzed. On this problem America might well study the English system for they seem to have evolved a new relationship between central and local authorities that retains both the elements of the benefits of central supervision and local initiative.

 The time has come when there must be a re-interpretation of this fundamental principle of American education — to see what are the advantages of state control of education and what are its disadvantages.

Present conceptions inadequate

That the Americans have failed and still fail to see the dangers of a state system of education as pointed out by Mill is clearly evident. This has resulted in underestimating the importance of private and parochial schools as possibilities of the expression of individuality of worthy minority groups and greatly narrowed the whole conception of educational administration largely to “mechanical efficiency” of public schools. Likewise, it has resulted in stressing the importance of organization and system of public schools until its efforts have been crowned by highly centralized city systems emphasizing departments, subjects, units and credits to such an extent that one of America’s best known superintendents has recently charged that “our administration of teaching makes for artificial, disconnected, inefficient learning and has taught us to think in terms of credits rather than in terms of education.”9 So great has been the emphasis on framework and machinery that administrators seem to have forgotten entirely the importance of “personality,” the psychology of “integration,” of education as “the reconstruction of experience” as the basis of growth and of “teaching as an art that must be free in its functioning.” No longer is the whole story told when one says that education is the function of the state. The time has come when there must be a re-interpretation of this fundamental principle of American education — to see what are the advantages of state control of education and what are its disadvantages. Also, to see what phases of the educational program may be controlled best by the central authority and which ones, by the nature of the educative process, must be left to the professionally trained classroom teacher.

Interpretations of Democracy as determinants

Any consideration of what are the most desirable functions that the state should assume in its control of education must be approached through an interpretation of democracy. To do this is becoming increasingly more difficult as no one is certain what the social and economic implications of democracy are. No longer is democracy limited to the political field — more especially to the right of the franchise. This has been attained by practically all citizens and yet no one would say our social order is truly democratic. An analysis of a few definitions of democracy should be an aid. To quote Bode: “To be truly democratic, education must treat the individual himself as the end and set itself the task of preparing him for the intellectual and emotional sharing in the life and affairs of man which embodies the spirit of the Golden Rule.”10

Speaking of the broader aspects of democracy, Dewey says that if democracy has a moral meaning “it is found in resolving that the supreme test of all political institutions and industrial arrangements shall be the contributions they make to all-round growth of every member of society.”11 He summarizes his position by saying that society’s best guarantee of efficiency and power “is the liberation and use of the diversity of individual capacities in initiative, planning, foresight, vigor and endurance. Personality must be education. Full education comes only when there is responsibility sharing on the part of each person in proportion to capacity, in shaping the aims and policies of social groups to which it belongs.”12

In the opinion of Leighton, the democratic ideal of education “is that the whole business of education shall be so conducted as to afford to every child a full opportunity to realize his personality, as a member of society; to develop, exercise and enjoy his fundamental human capacities and social aptitudes; and by so doing to play his individual part in the life of society.”13 It would seem that the state might well study his true aim of education: “To aid the growing individual to become a self-directing, thoughtful, socially minded personality; one able to satisfy his fundamental interests and live in cooperation and fellowship with other persons.”

Hart stresses the need of more method or technique in his definition of democracy: “Democracy is an attitude of mind, a keen sense of a particular type of human relationship, a willingness to face realities in a peculiar way, a breaking down of certain types of old artificial barriers, and an opening of a whole world of humanity to new freedom of personal participation in the goods of the world and to new resources of social con tact. Education for this sort of living demands knowledge, of course; but it demands more than knowledge. It demands a sense of direction; it demands a method.”14

Method means administration: a program that will meet the demands of educational sociology and psychology as well as economics and government.

Criticisms of present state policies

In the past this lack of “sense of direction” by the state has evidenced itself in many ways and has resulted in wrong emphasis and mistaken policies.

One of these has already been pointed out as a narrow interpretation of administration to mechanical efficiency, so that there has been an undervaluation of the importance of making provision for the proper development and expression of individuality. Education has become to be practically synonymous with public schools and these have been largely standardized. There has been practically no attempt to enlist the other educational agencies in the State and to utilize these as a means for the state to improve upon child experience. “Efficiency” has been narrowly interpreted as in the case of city school administration.

Although the state has not been in a position to organize, systematize, specialize and standardize as have been city school administrators, it has failed to recognize the values of some of the educational offerings other than those it controls, and to utilize these for the enrichment of the entire state program. It seems to have been too intolerant to look for these!

A second weakness of the past state program has been an absolute lack of the knowledge of the learning process, so that there has been no differentiation between the principles of control used in dealing with the interna and externa. It has made little difference in the past whether legislatures were dealing with the curriculum or length of school term. Both have been rigidly determined by law! The state has failed to see the danger that comes from setting up standards (state laws or required courses of study) of the interna which by their very nature largely defeat the end they desire to attain. There are over 900 state laws requiring the teaching of subjects in the elementary school alone in America! These (1) emphasize the importance of unnatural departmentalization of school experience in subjects; (2) further specialization; (3) produce an inflexible, unsatisfactory type of teacher program so that she is unable to provide adequately for different pupil interests, abilities and needs; (4) largely disregard the professional training of teachers; and (5) place the emphasis of education upon “subjects” rather than “pupil personality.” Newlon thinks the tendency to pass such laws “creates an educational problem of the first order in American life.” How many state Commissioners of education are equally aware of the danger? Ryan thinks that prescribed planned-in-advance courses of study are “the worst of all the restrictions that operate in education in the world.” Yet thousands of teachers are required to follow them first and to think of pupil personality secondly. Practical administrators contend they meet the argument adequately by saying that the kind of teacher they can employ is so poorly trained she cannot be trusted. Why do not they improve her (by education) so she can be trusted? It would seem that if there is any hope of democracy it would be in the better organization and administration of schools. This will demand less autocratic methods with more emphasis on training and trusting teachers. When unsatisfactory teaching conditions prevail, it is very doubtful if legislation, either local or state, improves the condition. There is no doubt but that the state can further progress by setting up standards for the externa and thus bring the educational program of the state up to minimum standards. The harm comes when the interna are standardized.

In the administration of her schools England differentiates between the principles of controlling the interna and the externa. It seems America (both state and federal government) might well study those principles further as they seem to be administratively sound.

We must begin to look inside of the school to see the things that really count in this business of education: Children associating with teachers who are trying to direct their experiences into channels that will produce a maximum of growth and personality.

By the very nature of intelligence, personality, learning, and teaching it is impossible to establish minimum standards for the educative process without so handicapping the freedom of the teacher that good teaching is impossible. That is the lesson many school administrators and state officials have yet to learn! America fails to appreciate the importance of the well trained class teacher! She has been overlooked in this business of erecting massive school buildings, studying child accounting, setting up sound policies of business administration, floating bonds, levying taxes, etc. We must begin to look inside of the school to see the things that really count in this business of education: Children associating with teachers who are trying to direct their experiences into channels that will produce a maximum of growth and personality.

Democracy has been too long interpreted as giving the “same opportunity” because of an underappreciation of the significance of individual differences. Personality defies rule-of-thumb and formula and can be dealt with only through “intelligence” itself. As already stated, the final test of the opportunity of any pupil is determined by the professionally trained classroom teacher. Each pupil must be given opportunity to develop to a maximum consistent with the social situation. This point is interestingly put by an outstanding English educator: “The schools of a democracy should, therefore, seek to be of the utmost variety, but should eschew from the outset that provision of democratic theory which levels the best down to the standard of the average, and destroys idiosyncrasies in favor of a dull normalcy. We do not want schools to follow a formula, and the last place in which we want mass-production is in education. Because we are working quickly, and working on a very large scale, we are in danger of producing it, and mistaking it for efficiency, but true education will always remain the sphere of the artist and the craftsman.”15

This same danger is pointed out by an American educator. “Democracy, then, is freedom, — not identity or similarity. Democracy does not mean leveling down, or leading up, or any kind of leveling or standardizing process. It does not mean that one man is as good as another, but that all men are good enough to help in finding put who the best ones are. A public school which pro duces in the course of years a few potential leaders of the state or the nation is far more democratic than one which merely enables thousands to read and write and live respectable and stupid lives. Boys and girls are no more alike in their ability to advise, administer, and create than they are in the color of their eyes and hair. Democracy means the transcending of all distinctions of race, creed, occupation, or possession.”16

We do not want schools to follow a formula, and the last place in which we want mass-production is in education.

The last result of this lack of “sense of direction” has evidenced itself in the lack of any large state ideals toward which the states have continuously forged. When one thinks of all the coercion used by the various states it seems that educators themselves are the first to discard the slow but certain method of education and to resort to the faster but makeshift one of using coercion or force to attain ends. Too often have the various states in their eagerness to put across a program failed to educate their citizenry to the value of the plan so that there was resistance from the beginning and, consequently, little progress was ever made. Too often have the states themselves taken the reins in their hands in order “to run the show” and consequently stifled out the creative impulses (lying dormant among the citizens), which would bloom if only watered with the stimulus of creative leadership. In place of being the interpreter of schools to the people, who should know the facts so that they may intelligently decide what to do, too often the states have been the initiators of short-sighted, next-step programs that have lacked direction and momentum because they have failed to utilize all the deeper sociological forces that continually play upon the schools and by and large determine the very policy of the school itself, — in spite of the educator.

Suzzallo summarizes this point excellently by saying, “In America it is a characteristic habit to legislate before we educate, whereas it would be better to educate first and legislate afterwards. The complaint that we have too many laws means not only that we have too many unwise or ill considered laws, but also that we have enacted too many good laws too soon; that is, without educating public opinion to the policy. Much of current disrespect for law and government finds its explanation in the failure to precede political fiat with education.”17 Such an accusation has far reaching implications for the state and for educators in general.

Some suggestions

Several suggestions have either been stated directly or implied in the argument. One more seems to warrant special consideration. Although the battle for free schools was fought and won in the early part of the nineteenth century, the battle for suitable-sized administrative and supervisory units has only begun. Backed by the tradition of liberty, scared by the dangers of centralization and extra cash, and proud of their executive ability “to run schools,” thousands of local school board members supervise the education of millions of American children in tiny cracker box one- and two-room schoolhouses that are as well equipped to meet the demands of modern educational theory as is the pony express to carry mail at the present time. As long as education is interpreted to mean “book learning,” there is little hope that those who control small schools (enrollment of less than 500) will ever see the inadequacy of their professional leadership (in many cases an eighth grade graduate), their services (practically nothing for health), their curriculum (reciting lessons from books about different subjects), and their equipment (selected entirely on the theory of learning as absorption by “sitting” and not learning by “experiencing”). How can one expect proper and adequate supervision and educational leadership in this type of school? The job of pointing out the educational in adequacy of these institutions belongs to the educator and the central authority in any state is in the best position to see the problem as a whole and to begin to educate the state as a whole. It will take time and the educator should make use of a minimum of coercion. True to the American tradition, the control of education must always be near the local unit but that does not mean the perpetuation of the old out-worn, haphazard, district system which need no longer be retained since we have our modern means of transportation.

In all its activities the American state must learn to be more tolerant, be more understanding and sympathetic to new and different expressions of individuality and to try to exercise enough leadership so that these will not be wasted.

One of the most influential of all American educators was a product of the state organization. Would that another Horace Mann would appear to guide us out of the present dilemma! His words seem even more true now than when he wrote them in 1842, “The most influential and decisive measure for equalizing the original opportunities of men, that is, equality in the means of education, has not been adopted.”18 There is little hope that it will be adopted until the emphasis in school administration becomes less determined by the technical business field with its standards, its centralized organization, its emphasis on efficiency and more determined by the consideration of the processes of experience, intelligence and personality.

In administration, the emphasis on specialization and analysis has been carried so far that it has defeated its own purpose by stressing the importance of the disconnected parts at the expense of the whole unified field of education. To unify the whole educational program is the challenge to State leadership!



1Cooper, W. J., “Education for a New America,” New Jersey Education Review, February, 1930.

2Kandel, I. L., “The State and Education in Europe,” Teachers College Record, Vol. 31, No. 3, May, 1930.

3Bode, B. H., “Apprenticeship or Freedom,” The New Republic, Vol. LXIII, No. 309, June 4, 1930.

4Unpublished Lecture Notes, Teachers College, Columbia University.

5Mill, J. S. On Liberty and Other Essays, p. 13, Macmillan Co.

6Ibid., p. 137.

7Kandel, I. L., “The State and Education in Europe,” Teachers College Record, Vol. 31, No. 8, May, 1930.

8Reisner, E. H., Nationalism and Education Since 1780, Macmillan Co., 1927.

9Newlon, Jesse H., “Integration in High School and Junior College Curricula,” School Executives Magazine, Vol. 49, July, 1930.

10Bode, Boyd, Fundamentals of Education, p. 60, Macmillan, 1927.

11Dewey, John. Reconstruction in Philosophy. p. 186, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 1920.

12Ibid., p. 209.

13Leighton, J. A., Individuality and Education, p. 10, D. Appleton, London, 1928.

14Hart, J. K., Democracy in Education, p. 370, The Century Co., 1918.

15Norwood, Cyril, The English Tradition of Education, p. 244, John Murray, London, 1929.

16Faunce, W. H. P., “Democracy in Education,” Department of Superintendence, Official Report, 1928.

17Suzzallo, Henry, Our Faith in Education, p. 14, Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1922.

18Mann, Horace, Fifth Annual Report of the Board of Education and Secretary, p. 70.


Citation: Eginton, D.P. (1931), Education as a function of the state. The Phi Delta Kappan, 14 (3), 65-72.

DANIEL P. EGINTON was assistant supervisor in research and surveys, State Board of Education, Hartford, Connecticut.

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