If, as Tip O'Neill famously said, “All politics is local, ” then public schools must be counted among the oldest political institutions Americans possess. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630, had already hired a town schoolmaster by 1635 and opened a grammar school by 1636. In 1647 the Massachusetts General Court passed the “Old Deluder Satan Act, ” which set the pattern for local funding and control of schools for generations of New England towns: “(it) asserted that Satan, master of deception, was keeping people from true knowledge of the Scriptures. Acknowledging dissent and a fear that the learning of the church and civic elders might not survive into future generations, the law required that towns with fifty or more families must make provision for instruction in reading and writing. . . . Noncompliance could result in a fine levied against the town.” 1
The Act was passed in a climate of dissension, responded to a perceived outside threat (the wiles of Satan), was motivated by fear of decline from a “golden age” of learning (the deep scriptural knowledge of Puritan elders), and carried sanctions for non-compliance. Like many of today's school laws, its intent was reform-minded and it was deeply political.
Public schools are political in many ways. They invariably consume the lion's share of municipal budgets, insuring that voters take at least a financial interest in their success or failure. They are a significant source of publicly funded employment; and many a legislative career has been launched with election to a local school committee, the entry-level job of American politics.
But starting with the Watergate scandal and continuing through Irangate and “Monicagate, ” the American public's opinion of politics and politicians