This section is from the "The Subvention In The State Finances Of Pennsylvania" book, by Frederic B. Garver.
The first great movement for free schools in Pennsylvania came at the time of the Revolution. The influence of the forces then at work caused the legislature to pass the land-grant act of 1786 and was responsible for that clause in the state constitution of 1790 which provided for the free education of the children of the poor. In 1792, and in 1794, legislative committees were appointed to devise means for a more widespread and more effective school system. But as has already been pointed out, little was accomplished. After about 1795, the movement seemed to lose force and the only important results accomplished during the next twenty years were the pauper school law of 1809 and the occasional subsidies to academies and colleges. *48
But while Pennsylvania was merely marking time, neighboring states had established elementary schools, which were, in part at least, "free" in the modern sense of the term. Massachusetts and Connecticut had permitted local taxation for the support of education as early as the seventeenth century, *49 and before 1800 these two states, together with New York, made local taxation compulsory. *50 But the two New England states permitted "rate bills" until 1827 and 1868 respectively. *51 Even in those progressive communities there seems to have been much hesitation about compelling the people to pay taxes for the support of free schools. Furthermore, over the country as a whole there was no settled conviction of the desirability of free common schools. As Professor Swift has pointed out, " Public sentiment respecting the establishment and maintenance of free schools ranged all the way from indifference, disbelief, and contempt to open hostility. " *52
In the New West the attitude of the people was one of indifference in spite of the encouragement for the establishment of schools given by the federal government in the form of land grants. In the South free schools were looked upon as a form of poor relief, and the stigma of pauperism attached to those who attended them. *53 In Massachusetts the presence of numerous academies and private schools gave evidence that the more democratic public institution was not regarded as wholly satisfactory by the entire community. The progress of public education supported by taxation was everywhere very slow.
48 For an explanation of the failure of the friends of education to secure more significant results at this time, see Wickersham, Ch. XIII.
49 Swift, A History of Public Permanent Common School Funds in the United States, 1795-1905, p. 29.
50 Idem, pp. 29-30.
51 A rate bill was a kind of fee imposed upon the parents or guardians of children for the purpose of defraying the cost of the schools.
52 Swift, p. 161.
53 Idem, p. 162.
One of the first steps toward the establishment of free schools throughout the country was the provision of permanent school funds. These funds consisted, as a rule, of a capital sum derived from various sources and productively invested, the annual income of which was used for the support of education. Permanent common school funds had their origin in the newer states in the lands granted by Congress, and in the older states in a variety of revenues and accidental sources of income. The policy was virtually forced upon the public land states, but by 1834 a majority of the older states had voluntarily adopted it. *54
Although little in the way of constructive legislation for the advancement of free schools was accomplished in Pennsylvania during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, it would be a mistake to suppose that interest in the subject had died out after the passage of the pauper school law of 1809. Agitation outside the legislature for a more liberal policy with respect to public schools had continued in a desultory fashion from the last decade of the eighteenth century; and as early as 1810 the governor suggested legislation of a more liberal character. These recommendations, which were couched in terms sufficiently vague to permit the governor to advocate almost any kind of system, continued intermittently down to 1834. *55
54 Swift, p. 96.
55 These gubernatorial recommendations must not be taken as indicating a general public demand for free schools. To a certain extent they were probably of a political nature. A member of the constitutional convention of 1837-38 in commenting on them said: "The governor never had failed to put into his message a passage recommending education. At last it came to be regarded in the same light as the religious allusions, as a a matter of ornament." Thus Clarke of Indiana County, Proceedings & Debates, V, p. 222.