The State System of Common Schools in 1874

In 1874 the state system of common schools had been in operation for forty years. During these four decades the extreme local autonomy that marked the system created by the early laws had been slowly supplanted by local control with moderate state supervision. For the most part the supervision exercised by the state was of the legislative rather than of the administrative kind. In 1848 the establishment of free schools had been made one of the obligatory duties of the localities. *1 In 1854 the office of county superintendent had been established for the purpose of weeding out incompetent teachers, stimulating professional interest among those that remained, and guarding against irregularities in district finances. *2 Yet this officer had little discretionary power. He was only authorized to administer the regulations imposed by the legislature. Three years later the office of State Superintendent of Common Schools was separated from that of Secretary of the Commonwealth and the supervision of the schools was placed in the hands of an independent state officer who was trained in the administration of educational institutions and who had usually been an active teacher. *3 The office was thus taken out of politics and the resulting permanency of tenure, which is a matter of custom, enabled the superintendent to outline and to urge a definite policy in his recommendations to the legislature, largely unhampered by political considerations. *4

1 Supra, Chapter V, p. 87.

2 Supra, Chapter V, p. 111.

3 Although the superintendent is appointed by the governor for only four years, he is usually reappointed for several terms.

4 Separation has had disadvantages as well as advantages. As Mr. Yetter has pointed out, the fact that the superintendent was not a member of the political administration weakened the force of his recommendations to the General Assembly. The Educational System of Pennsylvania, p. 57.

The authority of the state superintendent to compel district officers to observe state regulations was not very great. He did not have large discretionary powers. As long as the district officers complied with the state laws, which regulated the length of the school term, required certain reports and made obligatory the employment of teachers considered competent by the county superintendent, the state super-intendent could not interfere. His principal power arose from his personal influence in stimulating teachers and county superintendents to do better work, and in urging modification of the school laws by the legislature.

Thus the school system in existence in 1874 was the product of many laws based upon the recommendations of administrative officials. That this system was greatly superior to that established during the thirties cannot be denied. But, in spite of the progress that had been made, many minor difficulties and several important problems remained unsettled. In 1874 the superintendent called the attention of the legislature to two classes of defects that, in his opinion, should receive the attention of that body: (1) Those that concerned the internal workings of the individual school, or what might be called pedagogical problems, and (2), those that had to do with larger or more general problems. Among the latter were defects relating to taxation, the selection of teachers, compulsory education, and central control of local school boards. *5

Among the defects of the second sort, which alone fall within the scope of this study, none was more important than the failure of the system to give an elementary education to all children. In the opinion of the superintendent a large proportion of the children did not attend the schools. *6 Stupidity, indifference and prejudice caused many parents to refrain from educating their children. Poverty was also a cause. But the chief officer of the school system did not recommended direct compulsory attendance. *7

Moreover, the laws relative to the office of county superintendent were faulty, in that large counties with many schools frequently did not provide salaries adequate to induce competent energetic men to accept the position. A number of cases were reported in which the smallest counties paid higher salaries than their larger and wealthier neighbors. The superintendent advised that the salaries of these useful officers be made to bear some relation to the services they rendered. *8

5 Supt. of Common Schools, Report (1874), pp. xiii-xv.

6 How large was the number of these children could not be accurately stated because no school census was required by law.

7 Supt. of Common Schools, Report (1874), xiii.

8 Idem, p. xiv.

A more glaring defect, the lack of uniformity in the laws relating to taxation for school purposes, and inequalities in their operation, the superintendent commented upon in a few vague sentences. The causes of these inequalities he did not state definitely, but it may be surmised, that he referred to the escape of a large part of the corporate wealth of the state from all local taxation. One difficulty dealt with specifically was the uncertainty existing as to the maximum tax that districts might levy for the support of the schools. The law of 1854 permitted them to levy as large a tax as the combined state and county rates, or thirteen mills on the dollar of assessed valuation. But the law of 1866 had repealed the state tax on real estate and it was a question whether it also reduced the maximum tax that the district might impose. *9

9 Supt. of Common Schools, Report, (1874), p. xiii.

Two other difficulties, of vast importance, were not mentioned by the superintendent in his report. One was the ever-present question of how to raise funds to meet the constantly expanding needs of the schools. The other was the inequitable method, then in use, for distributing the state appropriation.

The principal events in the history of the common school system since 1874 relate chiefly to the difficulties enumerated. New problems arose as time went on, and some questions, of minor importance in 1874, later became large issues. But the most important changes in the law pertaining to the state subvention had to do with the defects inherited from the earlier period.