For much of its history, the American educational system – specifically primary and secondary schooling – was almost exclusively a state and local concern. This changed with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which established the federal government as a major funder of schools with the intent of fighting poverty, guaranteeing equal access, and shrinking achievement gaps. Subsequent federal laws – Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 – followed.
Largely forgotten, however, was an effort made generations earlier – in the 1880s – to assert federal authority over primary and secondary schools. Justin Peck (Wesleyan University) and I explore this effort, led by Senator Henry Blair (R-NH), using modern methods of political economy.
The Blair Education Bill would have made Congress a source of funds and oversight for the nation’s schools, and targeted money to those states most in need of federal support. At the time, per the 1880 census, more than 72 percent of “illiterates” in the country lived in the South. And Southern state governments collectively spent less than a fifth of what non-Southern states did on education.
Blair also saw his bill as a solution to what ailed the Republican Party at the time. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, and the “redemption” of Southern governments by the Democrats, Republicans found themselves scrambling for ways to remain relevant in the ex-Confederate states. While many Republican politicians sought to reach out to economically conservative Whites (ex-Whigs) on issues like internal improvements and tariffs to rebuild the GOP brand in the South, Blair saw a “policy window” around education, which he believed could be used during a time of “insecure majorities” to construct a new national coalition composed of Southern freedmen, White Southern Democrats, and Northern Republicans.
Blair, though, was not simply a strategic entrepreneur. He passionately believed that a republican form of government would only survive if the public could read and write. And he believed that civil rights for African Americans would only truly be protected if both Blacks and Whites in the South were educated. Schooling, in his mind, would enlighten the White masses and (in time) erode their anti-Black prejudices. On the floor of the Senate, Blair was even more blunt, contending that universal education was required for ending the “last part of the Civil War against the forces of ignorance.”
In 1881, Blair first introduced his bill “to aid in the establishment and temporary support of common schools.” It proposed $105 million in federal appropriations over ten years – equal to $2.667 billion in 2020 dollars – allocated in proportion to the number of illiterates over ten years old living in a given state. This provision guaranteed that approximately 75 percent of all money appropriated would go to Southern states. The bill also mandated that recipient states appropriate funds equal to those provided by the federal government. In its first year, the federal government would spend a total of $15 million; in each subsequent year the total amount appropriated would decrease by $1 million.
Blair structured the bill in this way to allay concerns that he sought a federal takeover of the nation’s schools. He claimed that the allocation formula would allow states to use federal funding as a way to jumpstart self-sustaining public education systems. Permanent federal intervention would not therefore be necessary. In order to ensure that the funds would be spent wisely, the bill created a federal supervisor for each state who was empowered to recommend a rescission of funds as punishment for fraud or misuse.
In an important concession to Southerners, the Blair Bill demanded literal adherence to the idea of “separate but equal” – more than a decade before the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). It stipulated “nothing herein shall deprive children of different races, living in the same community but attending separate schools, from receiving the benefits of this act, the same as though the attendance therein were without distinction of race.” This provision, however, guaranteed that White children would only receive federal funds if states ensured that schools serving Black children would receive an equal proportion of total funds spent. If states did not provide equal allocation to Black schools, they would have to forego federal support.
Some of Blair’s fellow Republicans opposed his distribution formula. Senator John Logan (R-IL) summed this up: “the proposition to distribute this money according to illiteracy is a proposition to ask a certain number of states to pay taxes to educate others. I do not think the country is in favor of any such proposition.” Southern Democrats were also highly suspicious of federal intervention into state functions. And Blair could only win their support through yet another concession – by allowing for state administration of funds.
Despite the concessions to Southern Whites, many Black citizens supported the Blair Bill. For example, Frederick Douglass and other notable Black public intellectuals were among those calling on Congress to enact the bill. Black teachers’ associations in some Southern states also pressed elected officials to support it. And while Black civic organizations and leaders were not uniformly supportive, many believed federal education funding to be a “ray of hope.”
The Blair Bill would go on to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate three times: in 1884 (48th Congress), 1886 (49th Congress), and 1888 (50th Congress). But the bill was stymied each time in the Democratic-controlled House. Speaker John Carlisle (D-KY) actively opposed the Blair Bill, based on a larger political strategy. Carlisle sought a reduction in tariff rates, and resisted any Republican efforts to tap into the large national surplus that the protective tariff created. He viewed new federal funding for education as one such initiative.
Finally, in 1890, a real chance for success seemed to be at hand. The GOP swept the 1888 elections, and the Republicans would control the House, Senate, and presidency in the upcoming (51st) Congress. And incoming president Benjamin Harrison had supported the Blair Bill while in the Senate. Everything seemed to be in place for the Blair Bill to be enacted.
But Blair would be disappointed. Over the 1880s, Republicans had become increasingly frustrated with Southern politics. State and congressional elections in the South did not go their way, often because of fraud and intimidation of Black voters by Democrats. And the ex-Confederate states provided no electoral votes for Republican presidential candidates in 1880, 1884, and 1888. Thus, with unified Republican control of government, attempts to rebuild the Republican brand in the South moved from longer term solutions (education) to immediate ones (the enforcement of Black voting rights via a new Federal Elections Bill).
With the more aggressive Republican strategy, Democrats in the South looked askance at any Republican-initiated federal programs – even (what had been) bipartisan ones, like the Blair Bill. As a result, as the table below documents, a majority of Southern Democrats now voted against the Blair Bill in 1890 (51st Congress).
Perhaps more important, many Republicans now opposed the Blair Bill. In his first annual message, President Harrison chose not to provide an endorsement. And a growing number of Republican senators, led by Join Coit Spooner (R-WI), argued that Southern state governments – thanks to the growing Southern economy – could now be expected to fund their own schools. These Republicans were no longer willing to ask farmers of the Midwest and West to contribute to the education of Black and White residents of the South.
Underlying Spooner’s sectionalism argument was Logan’s distributive argument made years earlier. As the GOP became more aligned with big business and focused on expanding its influence in the West, national Republican leaders were unwilling to support a federal education program that would disproportionately help citizens – both Black and White – in the South. In our research, Justin Peck and I find that a state’s illiteracy rate was a positive and significant predictor of a senator’s vote on the Blair Bill – controlling for senator ideology.
The Blair Bill was one of the last efforts by the Republican Party to act on behalf of African Americans in the South during this era. By the late 1880s, the Northern public had grown tired of debates over civil rights policy, and the GOP’s turn westward dampened the political power of the remaining Republicans in the South. And beginning in the 1890s, Southern state governments began adopting statutes and constitutional amendments to legally disenfranchise Black voters in ostensibly race-neutral ways, as a means of insulating themselves against further federal encroachment
From a 21st century perspective, Blair’s proposal to provide federal aid to primary and secondary schools is problematic based on its separate-but-equal provision. But had Blair been successful, later political battles over a variety of issues might have played out differently. For example, because the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 reflected principles central to late-20th century liberalism – bureaucratization and centralized administration – its implementation was judged according to procedure and process rather than a focus on student or school results. Delaying federal intervention until the 1960s, in other words, had consequences for how a federal education program was implemented. Summing things up, Thomas Adams Upchurch has written: “The defeat of the Blair bill marked a tragic turning point in both African American history and the history of education in America.”