Public (that is, government-funded, nonchurch) schooling caught on in the 1840s and thereafter, after the nation’s founders were gone. Many schools were not so much nonsectarian as anti-sectarian, and anti one faith in particular, Catholicism. Catholics, perceiving the public schools as devoted to teaching Protestantism, worked to set up their own institutions and asked that some of their tax money be used to defray expenses. The response was ugly: Opposition among Protestants to the growing number of Catholic immigrants, largely from Ireland, and concern that children going to Catholic schools would grow up to oppose American liberty led to riots in the 1840s and 1850s. One Philadelphia riot in 1844 resulted in thirteen deaths and the burning down of a Catholic church.
Some writers wanted to stop all immigration, but others looked to public schools to save America. An article in The Massachusetts Teacher in 1851 stated that children of immigrants “must be taught as our own children are taught. We say must be, because in many cases this can only be accomplished by coercion. . . . The children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.” The Wisconsin Teachers’ Association declared in 1865 that “children are the property of the state.”
Ironically, the public schools weren’t doing much to teach Protestantism. The intellectual leader of the public school movement was Horace Mann, a Unitarian who pushed for largely secularized publics schools and overcame opposition from Protestants by assuring them that daily readings from the King James Bible and generic moral instruction could continue. He succeeded largely because of bigotry and over the objections of theologians such as R.L. Danny (the Stonewall Jackson aide), who explained that teaching a person how to use a saw could be done in a value-neutral way, but “dexterity in an art is not education. The latter nurtures a soul, the other only drills a sense-organ or muscle; the one has a mechanical end, the other a moral.”
Nevertheless, bigotry was so rampant that some Protestants were content to try teaching in a religion-less way as long as Catholics would be hard-pressed to maintain their own school system.
Marvin Olasky, Standing for Christ in a Modern Babylon. pg.91-92