The public school movement was always more than simply an effort to have schools provided at taxpayer expense. Nor was it simply an effort to have an educated electorate as the franchise was extended to more people, as is sometimes alleged. The most zealous of the reformers were determined to use the power of the state by way of the schools to break the hold of religious tradition and the inherited culture and to change society through the child’s training. These American reformers were influenced by European educational reformers such as Rousseu, Pestalozzi, and others who taught that the child was naturally good and needed only an environment within which to unfold. American Transcendentalists usually held similar ideas. They were influenced also by the Prussian schools, where a thoroughgoing system of state-controlled compulsory education was well established. The common school, Horace Mann wrote, “is the greatest discovery ever made by man. . . . Let the common school be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine-tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged; men would walk more safely by day; every pillow would be more inviolable by night; property, life, and character held by a stronger tenure; all rational hopes respecting the future brightened.”
The public school movement is especially significant, because it was the first major effort in the United States which succeeded in linking the power of government to an effort to reform and transform society. It was hardly the last, however. It should be said, too, that local communities continued to control the schools throughout the 19th century, and the schools were generally kept within the framework of local belief and traditions. The early reformers did little more than set the stage for more determined ones later on.
Clarence B. Carson, A Basic History of the United States, Vol. 3: The Sections and the Civil War, 1826-1877, pg.90-91