Robert N. Gross

Public vs. Private

The Early History of School Choice in America

Oxford University Press 2018

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in EducationNew Books in HistoryNew Books in LawNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Public PolicyNew Books Network August 6, 2018 Christine Lamberson

There are numerous political debates about education policy today, but some of the most heated surround vouchers, charter schools, and other questions about public...

There are numerous political debates about education policy today, but some of the most heated surround vouchers, charter schools, and other questions about public funding and oversight of private schools. Though many of these questions feel new, they, in fact, have a long history. Public vs. Private: The Early History of School Choice in America (Oxford University Press, 2018) examines that history, tracing early debates about school choice. Robert N. Gross, a history teacher and assistant academic dean at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, explains how public schools developed with their promoters intending them to be a new monopoly in education. Then, in the late 19th century, Catholic immigrants sought to set up private schools, leading to an era of conflict and compromise between public and private school policy. Gross shows how and why regulation become an important tool for both sides in those conflicts. Further, the book shows how schools were thought of as a public utility and become a key part of larger trends in state regulation of private entities performing public functions.

In this episode of the podcast, Gross discusses his new book. He explains the goals of public school promoters in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and how private schools challenged the dominance of common schools. Finally, we also discuss the importance of this history for thinking about regulation, public schools, and the law today.


Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor of History at Angelo State University. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th-century U.S. political and cultural history. She’s currently working on a book manuscript about the role of violence in shaping U.S. political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. She can be reached at [email protected].

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