The most significant change in education in the United States is the rise of state-sponsored education, especially in Northern states. While public education was not compulsory in most states, many state legislatures passed laws that set aside public funds for schools, at least for boys. In the Northeast, these schools had many precedents, especially in Puritan communities. Over time, these schools became standardized, a major reform initiated by Horace Mann, a Massachusetts reformer. He was the first chairman of the Massachusetts school board (itself an innovation) and sought to create standardized curriculum that would be used in classrooms across the state. The state established compulsory public education in the mid-nineteenth century, and other states followed suit.
Most southern states had laws on the books requiring public schools, but they were not enforced nor acted upon by government spending. North Carolina, for example, passed a law establishing schools for children in 1830, but did not actually guarantee public education until after the Civil War, when the Reconstruction constitution of 1868 established this function of government. This created a controversy among white parents, who refused to send their children to school with African-American students. In states across the South, legislatures passed laws requiring schools to be segregated by race, especially after Reconstruction came to an end in the late 1870s. Over time, public education made gains, though schools in rural areas in particularly only met for very limited school years, and compulsory education was essentially nonexistent until the twentieth century. Because states control education, in the nineteenth century as today, the extent to which public education was established, financed, and supported depended on the local context.
Education for African-Americans was controversial for many reasons, all of which boil down to racism. For one thing, many whites were not willing to have their tax money support education for black children, regarding them as inferior and fit only for manual labor. The idea that education made blacks "dangerous" to those in power, which undergirded laws denying education to enslaved people, remained into the twentieth century. Many whites, usually poor whites, objected to their children attending school with African-Americans. This attitude, unfortunately, still persists, and lies behind the de facto segregation that many researchers see in modern school districts. As Jim Crow systems were established in the late nineteenth century, education for African-Americans in the South became a focal point for leaders in both white and black communities. African-American men, women, and children saw it as the key to empowerment, and whites saw denying, or at least limiting, education for African-Americans as a key to maintaining power. At the same time, "separate but equal" laws demanded that public funds be spent on education for black children, so education by the end of the century, in the South as well as (de facto) the North was a "dual system."