In 1825, New York City ended its practice of providing tax money to church-sponsored schools. Schools for Jewish and Catholic children suffered the greater loss compared to Protestants, since the government-operated public schools of that time continued to provide Christian moral instruction of a general nature, including Bible readings and daily prayer. The cost of providing schooling to a growing population of immigrants caused the Catholic school authorities in 1840 to appeal again for funding to the New York City board in charge of school taxes. In a letter dated September 21, 1840 signed by Catholic and Jewish leaders, they wrote:
[Catholics] bear, and are willing to bear, their portion of every common burden; and feel themselves entitled to a participation in every common benefit. This participation has been denied them for years in the city of New York, except on conditions with which their conscience, and, as they believe, their duty to God did not and do not leave them at liberty to comply. The rights of conscience in this country are held by the Constitution and universal consent to be sacred and inviolate. [Catholics] only claim the benefit of this principle in regard to the public education of their children….
Your petitioners have discovered that such of their children as have attended the public schools, are generally, and at an early age, imbued with the principle [that any formal teaching of religion is unprofitable]: that they become intractable, disobedient, and even contemptuous toward their parents—unwilling to learn anything of religion—as if they had become illuminated and could receive all the knowledge of religion necessary for them by instinct or inspiration….The contest is between the guaranteed rights, civil and religious, of the citizen, on the one hand, and the pretensions of the [public education board], on the other. [Poor working people], after a brief experience of the [public] schools, naturally and deservedly withdrew all confidence from [them]. Hence the establishment [by Catholics] of schools for the education of the poor. The expense was a second taxation, required not by the laws of the land but by the no less imperious demands of their conscience. They were reduced to the alternative of seeing their children growing up in entire ignorance, or else taxing themselves anew for private schools….But should your [board] designate [Catholic] schools as entitled to receive a just proportion of the public funds which belong to your petitioners in common with other citizens, their schools could be improved for those who attend, others now growing up in ignorance could be received, and the ends of the legislature [for education] could be accomplished.
In response to the letter, the aldermen of New York City reduced the religious content of the public school curriculum. Funds for Catholic and Jewish schools were not restored. Concerns that education with no religious content was inadequate or even harmful were not addressed. By making it difficult and expensive for citizens to direct their children’s education in moral values, New York City’s education board revealed a spirit of elitism. One can see traces of that mistaken attitude running through the goals of American public education from those days to the present.—Editor

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