Class Actions

Michelle Rhee’s overhaul of the D.C. school system is the latest entry in a long history of attempts to improve public education in the U.S. Some highlights:

1635John Cotton, a Puritan minister, establishes America’s first public school, Boston Latin, with fewer than 10 students.


1852 – In Massachusetts, Horace Mann helps pass the first compulsory attendance law in the nation for children of elementary-school age. New York follows in 1853.

1857 – The National Education Association, the first national teachers group — and now the largest labor union in the United States — is founded. The Amercan Federation of Teachers follows in 1916.

1897 – The National Parent Teacher Association is founded. It now has about 5.5 million members, down from 12 million in the late 1960s.

1946 – The Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act subsidizes low-cost or free lunches for qualified students.

1946 – The country’s first organized teachers strike begins in St. Paul, Minnesota, in single- digit winter weather. More than 1,000 teachers picket in front of the 77 schools in the district for nearly six weeks. Many students join their teachers.

1954 – With Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court finds that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”


1965 – The Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides federal funds to expand educational opportunities for low-income students. It has been reauthorized since, including most recently as part of No Child Left Behind.

1968 – McCarver Elementary in Tacoma, Washington, becomes the nation’s first magnet school, inviting students from anywhere in the city to enroll. This is seen as a way to end de facto segregation.

1970Test scores are reported to the government and the public for the first time and become a tool for measuring school performance.

1980 – Several federal offices are combined into the Department of Education.

1983 – A Nation at Risk, a federal report, indicates very low academic achievement and declining American test scores. It spurs most states to mandate curricula and more frequent testing.

1990 – Milwaukee is the first city to offer vouchers to its students to attend schools outside the traditional public-school system.


1991 – Boston’s Thomas Menino becomes the first mayor to assume control over a public-school system. He appoints a seven-member committee, which then names a superintendent. Voters reaffirm mayoral control in 1996.

1992 – The nation’s first charter school, City Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, opens with roughly 40 students in attendance.

2002 – George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act, with goals of increasing parental choice and accountability for states and schools.

2007 – On June 1, President Bush signs legislation that hands control of Washington’s public schools to Mayor Adrian Fenty. The following week, Fenty appoints Michelle Rhee to head the D.C. schools.