47 Great Moments in Education Equality

A timeline of events that have helped close the equality gap in education.

While we’re still working toward education equity, our nation has made great strides during the past two centuries. For example, thanks to the ConnectED Initiative, the FCC E-Rate program, and the efforts of organizations like EducationSuperhighway, we should soon be able to take advantage of the promise of educational technology to reach every student.

Check out our timeline of 47 great moments in education equality.

1785: The Land Ordinance of 1785 states that the western territories are to be divided into townships made up of 640-acre sections, one of which was to be set aside “for the maintenance of public schools.” From these original land grants eventually came the U.S. system of “land grant universities,” some of which still exist as state public universities.

1787: The Northwest Ordinance is enacted by the Confederation Congress, providing a plan for western expansion and banning slavery in new states. Article 3 of the document begins, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” It also stipulates that a section of land in every township of each new state be reserved for schools.

1787: The Young Ladies Academy opens in Philadelphia and becomes the first academy for girls in America.

1790: The Pennsylvania state constitution calls for free public education for children in poverty.

1817: A petition presented in the Boston Town Meeting calls for establishing a system of free public primary schools.

1817: The Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opens. It is the first permanent school for the deaf in the U.S.

1820: The first public high school in the U.S. opens its doors in Boston.

1827: Massachusetts passes a law making all grades of public school open to all students free of charge. The same year, Massachusetts passes another law requiring towns of more than 500 families to have a public high school open to all students.

1829: The New England Asylum for the Blind, now the Perkins School for the Blind, opens in Massachusetts, becoming the first school in the U.S. for children with visual disabilities.

1837: Eighty students arrive at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the first college for women in the U.S. Its founder and president is Mary Lyon.

1837: The African Institute opens in Cheyney, Pennsylvania. Now called Cheyney University, it is the oldest institution of higher learning for African Americans.

1849: Elizabeth Blackwell graduates from Geneva Medical College, becoming the first woman to graduate from medical school. She later becomes a pioneer in the education of women in medicine.

1854: The Boston Public Library opens to the public. It is the first “free municipal library” in the U.S.

1854: The Ashmun Institute, now Lincoln University, is founded on October 12, and becomes the “first institution anywhere in the world to provide higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent.” Distinguished alumni of Lincoln University include Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall.

1867: George Peabody funds the two-million-dollar Peabody Education Fund to aid children in poverty in the southern states.

1867: Howard University is established in Washington D.C. to provide education for African American youth “in the liberal arts and sciences.”

1889: Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr found Hull House in a Chicago neighborhood, primarily to serve recent European immigrants. Among its many services for immigrants are a kindergarten and a night-school for adults.

1905: The U.S. Supreme Court passes a law requiring California to extend public education to all children of Chinese immigrants.

1919: The Progressive Education Association is launched with the mission of reforming the American education system nationwide.

1922: The International Council for Exceptional Children is founded at Columbia University Teachers College. This is the first organization to address the needs of gifted children.

1931: Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove (California) School District becomes the first successful school desegregation court case in the U.S., forbidding the school district from placing Mexican-American children in a separate “Americanization” school.

1946: The landmark case of Mendez vs. Westminster and the California Board of Education ruled that educating children of Mexican descent in separate facilities is unconstitutional. This case in Los Angeles set a precedent for Brown vs. Board of Education.

1954: On May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, in Topeka, Kansas, ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Brown v. Board of Education, a combination of five cases from different parts of the country, is a historic first step in the long, ongoing journey toward equality in U.S. education.

1957: Federal troops enforce integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, as the Little Rock 9 enroll at Central High School.

1960: First grader Ruby Bridges is the first African American to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. She becomes a class of one as parents remove all Caucasian students from the school.

1965: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is passed on April 9 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The Act provides federal funds to help low-income students, resulting in the initiation of Title I and other bilingual education programs.

1965: The Higher Education Act is signed at Southwest Texas State College on November 8, increasing federal aid to higher education and providing for scholarships, student loans, and the establishment of the National Teacher Corps.

1965: Project Head Start, a preschool education program for children from low-income families, begins as a two-month summer program. This program continues to be the longest-running anti-poverty program in the U.S.

1968: The Bilingual Education Act, Title VII, is passed.

1969: Herbert R. Kohl’s book, The Open Classroom, helps to promote open education, an approach emphasizing student-centered classrooms and active, holistic learning. The conservative back-to-the-basics movement of the 1970s begins at least partially as a backlash against open education.

1971: In the case of Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Pennsylvania, the federal court rules that students with mental retardation are entitled to a free public education.

1972: The Indian Education Act becomes law and establishes “a comprehensive approach to meeting the unique needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students.”

1972: The case of Mills v. the Board of Education of Washington, D.C. extends the PARC v. Pennsylvania ruling to other students with disabilities and requires the provision of “adequate alternative educational services suited to the child’s needs, which may include special education …” Other, similar cases follow.

1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 becomes law. Though many people associate this law only with girls’ and women’s participation in sports, Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in all aspects of education.

1972: The Marland Report to Congress on gifted and talented education recommends a broader definition of giftedness that is still used today.

1974: In the Case of Lau v. Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the failure of the San Francisco School District to provide English language instruction to immigrant Chinese-American students is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A new law requires school districts to provide equal opportunities for all students, including those who do not speak English.

1974: The Equal Educational Opportunities Act is passed, prohibiting discrimination and requiring schools to overcome barriers, protecting the rights of all students, including those with limited English proficiency.

1975: The Education of All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) is passed. This federal law requires that a free public education is available to each student, taking into account any special needs.

1980: The Refugee Education Assistance Act is passed to accommodate the thousands of Cuban and a Haitian refugee families fleeing to Florida.

1982: In the case of Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Texas law denying access to public education for undocumented school-age children violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The court also rules that school districts cannot charge tuition fees for the education of these children living in poverty.

1994: The Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) is signed into law by President Bill Clinton on January 25. This Act reauthorizes the ESEA of 1965 and includes reforms for Title I. Funding for bilingual and immigrant education is increased, as well as funding for public charter schools, dropout prevention, and educational technology.

1996: James Banks’ book, Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge, and Action, is published. It is an important contribution to the growing body of information about multiculturalism in education.

2002: After many years of controversy, Title VII is repealed and replaced by the No Child Left Behind Act.

2003: The Higher Education Act is amended and reauthorized, expanding access to higher education for low- and middle-income students, providing additional funds for graduate studies, and increasing accountability.

2009: The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 is passed. More than $90 billion is made available for education, including the Race to the Top initiative, a program designed to reform K–12 education.

2012: President Barack Obama announces on February 9 that the applications of ten states seeking waivers from some of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law are approved. An additional 27 states apply for waivers by the end of the month.

2015: On December 9, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approves the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), signed by President Obama on December 10, replaces No Child Left Behind and allows more state control in judging school quality.