In the 1920s the idea of compulsory public education gained traction in various states, largely as a reaction against parochial schools.
State laws passed in the 1920s required children between eight and sixteen to attend a public school .
These laws were in a growing response to fear of “immigrant” values and the Catholic Church.
The Smith-Towner bill (1921) provided federal funds to public schools.
Eventually, the bill became the movement to mandate public schooling and dissolve parochial and other private schools. It focused on the public’s fear of immigrants and the need to Americanize. The movement was anti-Catholic and found support from groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan “circulated a [movie] tract that pictured a grinning, torch-wielding Catholic bishop triumphantly departing from a burning public school house whose teacher rang the school bell one last time as he lay dying in the vestibule, mourned by crying children.”
In Michigan the movement achieved a referendum on the subject in 1920, but won less than 40 percent of the vote.
In Oregon a similar measure passed in 1922.
In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down Oregon’s law (children could now legally attend a private school). The decision was widely hailed by progressives such as the presidents of Yale University and the University of Texas, the Journal of Education, John Dewey, and the National Education Association.