Schools in US Cities
- Ansley T. EricksonAnsley T. EricksonHistory Department, Columbia University - Teachers College
“Urban infrastructure” calls to mind railways, highways, and sewer systems. Yet the school buildings—red brick, limestone, or concrete, low-slung, turreted, or glass-fronted—that hold and seek to shape the city’s children are ubiquitous forms of infrastructure as well. Schools occupy one of the largest line items in a municipal budget, and as many as a fifth of a city’s residents spend the majority of their waking hours in school classrooms, hallways, and gymnasiums. In the 19th and 20th centuries urban educational infrastructure grew, supported by developing consensus for publicly funded and publicly governed schools (if rarely fully accessible to all members of the public). Even before state commitment to other forms of social welfare, from pensions to public health, and infrastructure, from transit to fire, schooling was a government function.
This commitment to public education ultimately was national, but schools in cities had their own story. Schooling in the United States is chiefly a local affair: Constitutional responsibility for education lies with the states; power is then further decentralized as states entrust decisions about school function and funding to school districts. School districts can be as small as a single town or a part of a city. Such localism is one reason that it is possible to speak about schools in U.S. cities as having a particular history, determined as much by the specificities of urban life as by national questions of citizenship, economy, religion, and culture.
While city schools have been distinct, they have also been nationally influential. Urban scale both allowed for and demanded the most extensive educational system-building. Urban growth and diversity galvanized innovation, via exploration in teaching methods, curriculum, and understanding of children and communities. And it generated intense conflict. Throughout U.S. history, urban residents from myriad social, political, religious, and economic positions have struggled to define how schools would operate, for whom, and who would decide.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. residents struggled over the purposes, funding, and governance of schools in cities shaped by capitalism, nativism, and white supremacy. They built a commitment to schooling as a public function of their cities, with many compromises and exclusions. In the 21st century, old struggles re-emerged in new form, perhaps raising the question of whether schools will continue as public, urban infrastructure.