October 29, 2022 | Last updated Apr 27, 2023

Nebraska’s first school newspaper celebrated a radical idea: free schools

Published weekly by Omaha high school students starting in 1859, the Free School Advocate celebrated an idea that was was not yet fully embraced across the US: free public education.

By David L. Bristow, Editor

 

Published weekly by Omaha high school students, the first issue of the Free School Advocate appeared on December 21, 1859. It may be Nebraska’s first school newspaper. Students contributed news, essays, poems, fiction, and humor, and student editors copied everything in neat longhand. Each edition’s single copy was read aloud to students.

This detail from an April 1860 edition celebrates an idea that was not yet fully embraced across the US: free public education. The idea wasn’t new, but it had spread slowly. The “common schools movement” of the mid-nineteenth century borrowed Prussian ideas such as teacher training and age-graded classrooms.

The verse above expresses the ideal:

 

FREE EDUCATION

Our glorious Motto, bear it on

O’er mountain, plain and sea:

“For every daughter, every son

“Our public schools are free.”

 

Nebraska teems with wealth untold,

Yet her proudest boast shall be,

Not that her mountains are rich in gold

But that her SCHOOLS are FREE.

 

The line “every daughter, every son” had its limitations. Racial discrimination limited opportunities for non-white children. And districts with a small tax base found it difficult to afford adequate schools.

Incidentally, the bit about gold and mountains wasn’t a joke. At the time, Nebraska Territory’s western boundary extended into present-day Colorado, which saw a major gold rush starting in 1859.

 

(Image credit: History Nebraska RG4298.AM)

 

Posted 3/29/2021

 

Reference:

Joanne M. Marshall, “Common Schools Movement,” (2012). In J. A. Banks (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. doi: 10.4135/9781452218533.n131.

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