This section is from the "The Subvention In The State Finances Of Pennsylvania" book, by Frederic B. Garver.
The Grant in Aid to Common Schools The years 1834 to 1844 witnessed the beginnings of the common school system. As was pointed out in the last chapter, the introduction of the state system, involving free schools, taxation for the support of such schools, and non-sectarian instruction, was accomplished only in the face of bitter opposition from nearly every part of the state. And the successful inauguration of the system, crude and inadequate as it was, depended very largely upon the ability of the state to make large contributions to its support. Furthermore, owing to this opposition, the state placed very liberal conditions upon the acceptance of the grant, and did not attempt strictly to enforce them. The adoption of the system was even made optional for each district, and the chief purpose of the subvention, during the years 1834 to 1844, was to stimulate local interest in the schools.
During the period 1844 to 1873, however, the more liberal policy pursued during the first decade of the system was gradually abandoned, and the conditions attaching to the subvention were increased and more strictly enforced. In addition, after 1848 constant pressure was brought to bear upon those districts that had not accepted the system to compel them to fall into line. The act of 18489 made the establishment of free schools one of the statutory duties of the local governments. From the legal point of view the question of "free schools or no free schools" was definitely settled by that statute. It should be noted, however, that a few districts refused to organize, and in 1873 in spite of a special subsidy offered by the state in 1868 to districts opening schools for the first time, and in spite of all that the state superintendent could do to create a sentiment in favor of public schools, one district still refused to obey the mandate of the legislature. *10
The general adherence of the people to the schools having been gained, the attention of the state officers was turned, during this period, to the settlement of smaller yet vital problems. Many of these were of a technical nature and the districts were often induced to accept the solutions arrived at by state officials without the necessity of using the threat to withhold the subvention. This was done in a majority of cases by means of friendly advice from the office of the state superintendent. In larger matters, such as the length of the school term, the power of the superintendent to withhold state aid was used to compel uniformity. It has just been said that after 1848 the school system was supposed to be in operation throughout the state. But in many instances the districts complied with the law in only a perfunctory manner. And, since the state was either unable or unwilling to provide a large subvention, it was many years before it could require the establishment of efficient schools.
9 Act 11 April, 1848, P.L. p. 520.
10 See Supt. of Common Schools, Report (1873), p. xii.
The first problem, then, in the improvement of the system, was to find the funds to finance it. After the disaster which overtook state finances during the years 1840 to 1844, the state contributed a declining proportion of the total cost of carrying on the schools. The amount paid from the state treasury in 1837, $463,750, remained the high water mark of the subvention for many years. *11 In 1837 the districts reported $231,552 levied for the support of the schools, *12 or about one-half as much as the state appropriation. In 1838 as was stated in Chapter IV, the legislature enacted a law which appropriated for school purposes one dollar for each taxable inhabitant of the state. *13 The apparent intent of the legislature was to provide for the growth of the subvention at something like the same rate as the increase of population. But so great was the burden of the debt and so limited were the proceeds of the various revenue measures, that the amount paid to the districts declined absolutely from 1844 to 1849 and was less in 1860 than in 1837. An ever increasing proportion of the burden of supporting the schools was, therefore, thrown upon the district taxpayers. The following table shows the course of the state appropriation and of the amount of taxes levied locally for the support of the system from 1844 to 1854:
Amt. of State Subvention
Tax Levied Locally
11 This was the amount paid to districts outside of Philadelphia, which was not a part of the system under the control of the state superintendent. The general school laws applied to Philadelphia, but its school officers were not required to report to the state superintendent.