We often hear that the word “education” is not included in the U.S. Constitution. That is true, but it does not mean that the Founding Fathers were indifferent to the importance of education. The U.S. Constitution was written and signed in 1787. Before the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, the Congress passed Ordinances that expressed their commitment to the importance of public schools.

Congress enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785 to show how the new lands in the western territories should be settled. This ordinance laid out new townships into 36 sections. Section 16, in the center, was to be set aside in every township in the new Western Territory for the maintenance of public schools. (“There shall be reserved the lot No. 16, of every township, for the maintenance of public schools within the said township.”) The committee that wrote the Land Ordinance included Thomas Jefferson of (Virginia), Hugh Williamson (North Carolina), David Howell (Rhode Island), Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts) and Jacob Read (South Carolina).

Two years later came the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This ordinance provided land in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions for settlement. (This region eventually broke into five states: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois [and a part of Minnesota]).

Of particular interest is Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance, which reads in part:

Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

These two ordinances were written by the Founding Fathers and the earliest Congresses, preceding the adoption of the Constitution. In addition to their central purpose, to lay out the rules for settlement, they were meant to encourage the development and proliferation of public schools in every township in every new state. The ordinances also prohibited the spread of slavery into the new territory and the new states after 1800.

While the Founding Fathers had high regard for religion, they did not want government to establish any religion. They incorporated this view into the First Amendment, which was part of the ten amendments included in the Bill of Rights, adopted on December 15, 1791. Responsility for the development and maintenance of public schools was left to the states, as is implicit in the Tenth Amendment.

The Founding Fathers were well aware of the history of religious warfare that had divided Europe for centuries and plunged the continent into chaos again and again. They wanted this new democracy to be a place of religious freedom, where each person could live in accord with his conscience without the interference or the support of government. In a land of many different forms of Christianity, as well as Judaism, the Founders wanted vigorous and successful public schools that neither favored nor opposed any religion.

It is ironic that four of the five states created under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance–Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin–have chosen to disregard the clearly stated wishes of our Founding Fathers. The Northwest Ordinance did not set aside a section for religious schools or private schools. Section 16 in every town was for public schools.