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A highway sign in Rehoboth (clockwise from top-left), a plaque at Boston Latin School, and a tablet in Dedham all lay claims to being the birthplace of the public school.
A highway sign in Rehoboth (clockwise from top-left), a plaque at Boston Latin School, and a tablet in Dedham all lay claims to being the birthplace of the public school. (Sarah Brezinsky Gilbert for the Boston Globe)

Schools vie for honor of being the oldest

Several lay claim to birth of education

Boston is the birthplace of education in America -- or so the history books say. But the letterhead on Dedham's public schools begs to differ.

And then there is Rehoboth. The tiny town has plunked a white sign beside the highway declaring itself to be the cradle of the nation's schools.

Those are fighting words to Boston Latin School, which ferociously defends its distinction as the nation's oldest public school, founded in 1635.

''Rehoboth?" spat out Boston Latin's librarian, Stephen Watson. ''Who's ever heard of Rehoboth?"

Sticklers for history know the importance of being first. Boston Latin has enjoyed international recognition. Admirers from as far as Finland have visited the red-brick campus, with its sweeping library and showcase of children's classics in Latin. The headmaster gets to walk at the front of the line in academic processions. The school even has its own archivist.

Yet in Rehoboth, people proclaim they're first.

In Dedham, the assistant to the town manager, Marie Rizzo, was equally sure. ''I know," she said. ''Working for the town I hope you would know these things."

Solving the dispute is a complicated task. The Massachusetts Historical Society's librarian, Peter Drummey, said records show that Boston Latin is the oldest school, although it didn't have a building until as late as 1645. The exact date of construction is unclear; during the early years, classes were held in teachers' homes.

Yet Dedham and Rehoboth say their communities were the first to agree to pay taxes to support their schools, in the true spirit of public education. Rehoboth voted in 1643, and Dedham in 1644, to pay a tax for education, according to Drummey and Dedham officials.

Boston Latin was financed largely through donations and revenue from the rental of Boston Harbor islands until around 1649, according to a written history in the school's archives.

''In Boston everybody may have agreed that education was important, but nobody put his wallet on the table," said Robert Hanson, Dedham's former executive secretary and the unofficial historian.

''We may not be '35, but we did it through taxation and that is a fact . . . so there," said state Representative Philip Travis, Democrat of Rehoboth and former member of the Lions Club, which paid for the sign on Route 44.

Although it appears that support for public education in Rehoboth is older than Dedham, even that is in dispute. Rehoboth's town website cautions that the school was partly church-sponsored, so it might not have been entirely public. And changes from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar may have thrown off the dates, so more research is required.

Boston Latin librarians, thrust into a temporary uproar by the latest claims, are happy to let the smaller towns slug it out, secure that Latin is the oldest school. They still resent Roxbury Latin's claims that it is the oldest school in ''continuous existence" because Boston Latin shut down briefly for the American revolution. Payback for Roxbury Latin, a private school founded in 1645, came later when a Manhattan private school claimed to be older.

The broader point is that Boston didn't invent education, despite some claims, Drummey said. In 1935, Boston Latin's headmaster, Joseph Lawrence Powers, called the school's founding ''the planting of the seed from which has grown the great structure of universal public education, the bulwark of democracy. . .," according to ''A Tercentenary History of the Boston Public Latin School" by Pauline Holmes.

Drummey said plans for schools were percolating across the state because the Puritans wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible. In 1647, Massachusetts law required all towns with at least 50 households to have a school.

Towns such as Dedham say Boston's claims make them feel slighted. After all, Horace Mann, a champion of public schools and the state's first secretary of education, once served on the Dedham school committee.

''What do you think of that?" said Dedham Superintendent Antonio J. Fernandes Jr. He said he had no plans to alter the school system's letterhead, which declares Dedham the ''first tax-supported, free public school," despite Rehoboth's claims.

Rehoboth Town Manager David J. Marciello said the sign on the highway declaring the town the birthplace of education would remain. He said his adopted town never got the recognition it deserved.

''Rehoboth would have been the state capital, but it lost by one vote," said Marciello, a Massachusetts native who admitted that he had never heard of the town growing up. ''I swear to God."

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.

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