In the late stages of and after the Revolutionary War, Americans started to argue about all sorts of things regarding the new nation: what should be the political structure, how should we govern ourselves, what the role of women should be, etc. One of those topics was education: Was there a role for education in making the new nation? Plenty of people said yes. Many readers may be familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s ideas in Notes on the State of Virginia, where he proposed that Virginia have a system of free primary education for all white males, to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people (we know what he thought "the people" meant, but I'm not going to get into his weird racial politics too deeply here other than being conscious of it). The best white boy from each district school would go on to the grammar school: By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammer schools go. (So Jefferson’s notion of meritocracy didn’t assume that the population as a whole would be fit for higher education.) And the best poor boy from each grammar school would attend William and Mary College without tuition. He acknowledged a number of purposes, but one remained supreme, and I’ll preserve his 18th century style:
But of all the views of this law none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.Others in the late 18th century had their own arguments about what national purpose education should serve: Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Samuel Harrison Smith, and Samuel Knox are among those better known to historians of education, and the latter two won an essay contest on the topic conducted by the American Philosophical Society. The larger point here is that before there were systems of education or a notion of education as a right of citizenship, people made arguments that we needed education for democracy.
The argument that education is a right that comes with democracy evolved later, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Common school reformers argued that schooling should be tuition-free, but that wasn’t necessarily tied to education as a right (more as something that would make a better society). It took arguments about the expanded franchise (for white males only) and local workingmen’s parties to make the link between citizenship rights to vote and citizenship rights to schooling: "Give us our rights, and we shall not need your charity" (Mechanics’ Free Press, 1828, quoted in Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, 1983, p. 138). The workingmen’s parties formed in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1820s were part of what labor historian Sean Wilentz called the history of civic republicanism, with skilled workers concerned about wages and the perceived decline in their social status and respect.
By the late 19th century, domestic politics had confirmed education as tied to the franchise. In European countries, that didn’t happen in the 19th century. The United States developed with one model of social citizenship rooted in public education, and European welfare states developed with another model rooted in a wide range of public institutions.
Today, we've lost this understanding, and most public debate on schooling refers to the second link between education and democracy (the right to an education), rather than the first (education that serves democratic purposes). As a result, we can talk about equal education for economic purposes, but that dominates any discussion of what democratic participation requires (except for these small matters of adequate-education lawsuits such as the one in New York). And people can talk about "my right" to an education and to a diploma, implying that the main purpose of education is private, to secure a good job.
One of the losses of the reform debates in the last quarter-century has been the denigration of public education in multiple senses. Privatization is an attack on the idea of public control of schools and an attack on the public sphere in general. But the other losses may be just as damaging. If we lose the sense of public education as having a public purpose beyond individual advancement, we are losing a significant purpose of schooling. And if we lose the sense of public education in terms of advancing the idea of a public—a group of people who decide their future together—we may be losing the whole ball of wax.
(Adapted from another writing I've done online. Most links are to Worldcat entries for books, so you can find the nearest library copy.)