Prior to 1900, the distinction between private and public schools was mainly one of technical definitions; in practice, the distinction was often quite blurred.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1785 allotted a piece of land - the famous 16th section of each township - to be used for education. In some cases, schools were built on that land; in other cases, the land was sold to finance the construction of a school. Sometimes, the land was leased, and the revenues were used to fund education.
In many cases, the ongoing operation of schools, especially primary schools, was conducted in a way which corresponds neither to the twenty-first century notion of public education, nor to the twenty-first century notion of private education. Churches and clergy were frequently and influentially involved in the management and functioning of these schools.
Local pastors, ministers, priests, and other clerics were often chosen to supervise schools because they were frequently the only people in the county who had university educations. They had learned to read several foreign languages, were familiar with world history, and conversant with poetry and other forms of literature.
The voters of the counties were happy to see educated citizens involved in education, and didn’t mind that they happened to be associated with religious institutions. Even voters who weren’t church attenders or members of churches thought the arrangement proper. They thought that this was a contribution made by one segment of the community for the benefit of the entire community - the expertise of the clergy would benefit all citizens.
Education was provided by a sort of hybrid institution - neither clearly public nor clearly private. But it was clear that it was in no way managed by the federal government. Townships, cities, and counties managed the schools. State governments took, at first, little interest in education.
Around 1900, a shift in perceptions took place. The distinction between public and private education received more attention. Part of this shift was related to the Progressivist movement, led by men like Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson’s vision of progressivism was one of a technocratic paternalistic authoritarianism, in which a corps of elites would guide policy decisions, and the ability of voting citizens to affect policy would be reduced. Progressives wanted to utilize the educational system to sift out this elite class of leaders. Private schools, with their emphasis on charity and equality, would have to be separated from the public schools and pushed to the side. One constitutional scholar, Judge Andrew Napolitano, writes:
Public schools were an ideal place to weed out students in order to create an elite class of people, while relegating the rest to their rightful position in life. Woodrow Wilson stated in a speech to a group of businessmen prior to World War I, “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
Part of Wilson’s agenda was, of course, keeping African-American students out of universities. As president of Princeton University, he did exactly that, with shocking effectiveness. Woodrow Wilson worked to undo fifty years of civil rights progress.
Wilson’s predecessor in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt, had appointed a number of Black officials to high federal offices. Wilson mocked Roosevelt’s decision, using inappropriate and hateful racial epithets to refer to the African-Americans in Roosevelt’s administration.
While Teddy Roosevelt’s record on civil rights had some flaws, Wilson was determined to undo what good Roosevelt had done. Upon taking office in 1913, Roosevelt removed Blacks from significant federal offices, and re-segregated those branches of the federal government which had been desegregated and integrated in the prior decades.