This section is from the "The Subvention In The State Finances Of Pennsylvania" book, by Frederic B. Garver.
The state superintendent met these and other similar arguments for withholding the subvention with the simple statement that a withdrawal of state aid at that time might easily cause the abandonment of the free common schools started at so great an expense to both the state and the localities. *93 The outcome of the demand for economy was the reduction of the appropriation to $200,000, an amount about equal to 50 cents per taxable.
What would have been the effect upon the school system had the grant been withheld at this time, can be best determined by a comparison of the relative shares contributed by the state and by the localities. From the table on page 65, it appears that in 1837, outside of Philadelphia, the state paid about twice as much for the support of the common schools as did the districts. In 1840 the subvention was slightly more than two-thirds as large as the levy of taxes by the districts, and in 1844 it was again slightly in excess of two-thirds of the local levy. In Philadelphia, where taxation for the support of public schools had been in operation for a much longer time than in the rural counties, the state subvention was, in 1840, about 28 per cent of the amount contributed by the county. *94 For the districts outside of that city, therefore, the withdrawal of state aid would have been, in 1844, a great hardship, and would almost certainly have caused the law to become inoperative in many localities.
Whether or not the localities were at this time so heavily burdened with other taxes as to have been unable to make up the $200,000 which a loss of the subvention would have required, or whether their failure to levy larger taxes was simply a result of indifference or hostility to the system, cannot be determined. It is certain, however, that at this time, even with the assistance of the state, local taxation was insufficient adequately to maintain the common schools. The proof of this statement is to be found, in part, in the assertions of the various state officers (already cited), that the one great need of the system was a larger state subvention. *95 In the second place this opinion is borne out by the fact that many districts were compelled to resort to voluntary subscriptions to extend the short terms that the public schools provided. *96
Further evidence of the inadequacy of taxes plus the reduced state aid to provide proper schools, is found in the introduction of "rate-bills," which permitted the directors to impose a fee charge of not more than one dollar for each child attending school, to be paid by the parent, guardian, or master of the child. *97 This method of supporting the schools, partly by taxation and partly by a fee payment, stands halfway between voluntary contributions and taxation for the entire support of education. Its introduction at this time, when the subvention was declining in amount, shows that in many districts public sentiment was not strongly enough in favor of the schools to permit levying the taxes necessary for their adequate support. Consideration of the growth of public indifference to the school system, which marked the years 1844 to 1854, must be deferred to the next chapter.
94 Superintendent of Common Schools, Report (1841), p. 12.
95 See also Superintendent of Common Schools, Report (1838), p. 19. 96 Idem (1844), p. 6.
97 See Sec. 13, Act 29 March, 1842, P.L. pp. 211-212, which permitted all the districts in Delaware County and one district in Franklin County to make use of these fee charges. For other special acts permitting rate-bills, see Act 18 March, 1844, P.L. p. 139; Act 23 April, 1844, P.L. pp. 347-349; Act 7 May, 1844, P.L. p. 571. Wickersham asserts (p. 360) that the state superintendent strongly recommended this policy in his annual report of 1842; in another place, (p. 343), he writes, "Rate-bills, so common in the public schools of our older states, and abroad, never had an existence in Pennsylvania"! Swift, p. 26, has taken Wickersham to task for this statement on other grounds, but has not pointed out the fact that these fee charges, of which Wickersham boasts the absence, were actually authorized.
The principal characteristics of this subvention are of sufficient importance to deserve a summary at this point. In passing the law of 1834 the legislature made a new departure from its previous policy in making subsidies to academies and colleges and to local governments for various purposes. These had, without exception, been either occasional lump-sum grants or subventions for a limited period of years. The common school grant, on the other hand, has from the first been a permanent subvention; that is, it was permanent in the sense that the appropriations were regarded as regularly recurring state expenses, although until the constitution of 1873 fixed the policy in the fundamental law of the state, it would have been within the power of the General Assembly to do away with the entire system, or to refuse to make the annual or biennial appropriation.
In the second place, the school subvention was a conditional grant. Any district that failed to levy a tax for the support of its schools was not permitted to receive a share of the state money, and the amount of the minimum tax necessary to secure that money was definitely fixed by law. The obvious purpose of this provision was to require the districts that participated in state aid to do something in their own behalf; the subvention was used, therefore, to stimulate local taxation for school purposes.