This section is from the "The Subvention In The State Finances Of Pennsylvania" book, by Frederic B. Garver.
A third characteristic of the subvention was the almost complete absence of central supervision of the service aided. With regard to earlier occasional grants to colleges and academies, and in the case of the grants to counties and townships for roads and bridges, the same lack of state control was also present. After the act of 1842, it is true, no district could draw its quota of state money until it had made certain reports to the state superintendent. But only in this respect did the state place the upon the localities any requirement looking toward centralization. These reports were necessary if the state was to be sure, before it paid the subvention, that the locality had complied with the requirement for a minimum of local taxation. But many important matters, such as the qualifications of teachers, the wages of teachers, the length of the school term, the school curriculum, and sanitation, which are now all more or less definitely regulated by the state, were left in the hands of the local directors. The auditing of the accounts of the school officers, and the verification of the accounts submitted in the reports to the state superintendent were also attended to by local officers. It needs no further evidence than the facts just cited to show that the purpose of the state in making the subvention was not to control the local administration of schools, either for the purpose of regulating the conduct of those schools or for the purpose of inspecting their finances. The explanation of the motives which impelled the General Assembly to introduce the subvention, must be sought in other directions.
Moreover, the laws of 1834 and 1836 do not seem to have been drafted with especial reference to the problem of tax equalization between local communities. Of course, since the original purpose of the state was to devote to the support of schools certain incidental revenues, it may be said that there was a conscious purpose to equalize revenue resources between the state and the localities. There is, however, no statement of purpose from any public officer, now available, which would justify the opinion that the framers of the laws of 1834 and 1836 sought to equalize the burden of the support of the common schools among the counties or districts of the state. Some rearrangement of the burden would, of course, result from any subvention system.
It is also impossible to state with definiteness what was in the minds of the men who agitated for the schools, and who worked and voted in the General Assembly for the bill creating the subvention. But there seems to be little doubt that the desire to induce the localities to establish a much needed service was the controlling motive. It requires no argument in this day of extended free school systems to show that elementary education is one of the services performed by local units in which the entire state has much at stake. For the state to require the districts to provide a minimum of schooling for each child would not now be considered an undue interference with local home-rule even though no compensation, in the form of a subvention, were offered.
In 1834, in Pennsylvania, the case was different, and a strong minority denied the justice of taxing all property for the support of free common schools. "The fundamental principle that it is the duty of the government by common and united means to provide for common education, is not universally admitted," wrote the state superintendent in 1841. *98 Permissive taxation without state aid had been tried in 1824 and had been immediately rejected; and although public sentiment had undoubtedly advanced considerably toward a more liberal view of the desirability of free common schools, a large majority of the people was by no means in favor of them in 1834. Almost as soon as the provisions of that act became known throughout the state, a great outcry arose against it. At the elections following the passage of the law, 502 districts voted to accept the system, while 264 rejected it directly, 57 took no action whatever, and 164 did not even make reports to the state superintendent." Nor was the opposition entirely passive; for, as Wickersham, who dwells at length upon this "fight for free schools," has recorded, literally hundreds of petitions containing thousands of signatures were sent to the General Assembly asking the repeal of the new law and the return to the pauper school law of 1809. *100 " Free schools or no free schools " was made a political issue in the state campaign of 1834, and many members came to the legislative session of 1834-35 pledged to do all in their power to secure the repeal or the modification of the law that made the system possible. A few members relying on the practice of local legislation tried to have the operation of the law suspended for their counties. But all attempts to repeal the act or to pass crippling amendments were defeated, and the modification of the clumsy provisions concerning the county convention was deferred to the following year.
98 Report (1841), p. 18.
99 Wickersham, p. 322.
100 On the matter of the petitions, see also Hazard's Register of Pennsylvania, XV, p. 205. At the session of 1834-35, 558 petitions for a repeal of the law, containing 31,988 names were received. There were also 50 petitions with 2,084 signers, for modification, and 49 petitions with 2,575 signers against repeal.