Promises Made, Promises Broken - Education Part I
Updated: May 22, 2019
At its heart, the history of public education in Pennsylvania is a tale about the sharp dissonance between rhetoric and reality that has spanned centuries and continues today.
This assertion requires proof. It can be found by examining two periods of history: Part One of this two-part series focuses on the Pennsylvania of 200 years ago. Part Two will deal with Pennsylvania today. There are themes that link the two periods.
The words may have changed as speech became less florid over the years, but the message has remained the same over the centuries: an “informed citizenry,” as Thomas Jefferson put it, is an essential ingredient in a democracy. Without it, government of the people and by the people cannot function.
It’s also been a given that education is vital to our future. Today’s children will be tomorrow’s parents, workers, leaders – and teachers. Investment in their education today will yield dividends that will accrue to the common good over time.
“Good instruction is better than riches,” was the motto William Penn wrote in the corporate seal of the school he founded in 1689, a school that continues to this day as Penn Charter. The value of education was a belief embraced not only by the Quakers, but also by German refugees who fled to the colony to escape religious persecution in Europe.
Under Penn and the Quakers, Pennsylvania was one of the few safe havens for these Protestant sects. By 1790, fully one-third of the state’s 425,000 residents were either German or of German descent. Many sects established parochial schools wherever they settled, not only to educate their children, but also to instruct them in their religion and the German language.
Something went awry around the time of the Revolution, an obviously disruptive event that forced education into the background as people focused on other matters. Amidst the turmoil of war and its aftermath, the population expanded, but the schools did not. More and more children – especially poor children – never saw the inside of a classroom.
The challenge for these early Americans was to establish the civil institutions we take for granted today. Here is the way one historian explained the situation:
“The mass of people were too poor, too busy earning a livelihood, too severely pressed by the hardships they were compelled to endure in an American wilderness, too much absorbed in the political and religious agitations and controversies…to make the necessary effort to provide means adequate for the purpose of education of their children.” (See End Notes for sources.)
The clash between noble words and ignoble deeds had begun. All of Pennsylvania’s early governors expressed concern about the situation, fearing that the lack of education among the many would lead to stratification by class and create a nation that resembled the Old World, with its rigid divide between the Haves and the Have Nots.
Meanwhile, opponents saw intrusion of the state into education as a reminder of Europe, with its state-funded schools and religions that repressed dissenters. On a practical level, they were hostile to the idea of paying to educate others’ children.
To work against the gravitational pull of ignorance, when a new state Constitution was enacted in 1790, its authors included a one-sentence mandate. Article VII, Section One reads: “The legislature shall, as soon as conveniently may be, provide by law for the establishment of schools throughout the state, in such matter that the poor may be taught gratis.”
The weak link in that sentence was the phrase “...as soon as conveniently may be.” Over the ensuing decades, the legislature showed scant interest in fulfilling the 1790 mandate. When it did act, it took small and often ineffectual steps, seeking to address a growing problem an inch at a time. It was a classic example of a legislative body’s tendency toward what could be called radical incrementalism, a trait that continues in our modern legislature.
In the early 19th century, schools were parochial or private. Only children who paid tuition could attend. The Quakers and some German sects allowed poor children to attend their schools for free, but demand for those slots far exceeded supply. There was no money set aside for education at the state or local government level.
In 1809, the legislature finally took one of those small steps and created what came to be known as “pauper schools” to provide education for poor children free of charge with money provided by their home counties. However, the law set up a cumbersome and humiliating process that required families to register with local authorities, prove they were poor, and be declared paupers to be eligible for aid for their children. The children would then either get a seat in a private school, with local government paying, or pauper schools would be established to serve only the poor – though that was rarely done.
Few poor parents availed themselves of the offer. People didn’t want to be labeled as paupers. The money provided for educating these children was sparse, the teachers poorly paid and often incompetent.
Twenty-five years after passage of the pauper law only 17,467 Pennsylvania children were being schooled at a total cost of $48,466 to the counties, which worked out to an average of $2.77 per pupil a year. A miserable sum even then.
This system suited many taxpayers just fine – pass a restrictive law, provide a paltry amount, and declare the problem solved. To put it another way, many citizens valued riches more than good instruction.
The pauper law was denounced by a series of Pennsylvania governors as inadequate, but it was demographic reality that finally undermined the law. The state’s population more than tripled between 1790 and 1830, going from 434,000 to 1,348,000. Private and parochial schools could not handle the surge of children; nor could the neighborhood schools that parents paid to establish in some newly settled towns and villages, one-room schoolhouses overseen by poorly paid teachers, often women.
Living in Ignorance
In 1832, a Quaker-led education reform group based in Philadelphia estimated that out of the 400,000 children between the ages of five and 15 in Pennsylvania only 150,000 of them attended school.
Of the remaining 250,000, the committee stated that “many of these children never go to school at all. Multitudes are living and continuing to live in ignorance, and multitudes more receive at best…the most superficial instruction.”
A radical solution was required and the man who offered it was George Wolf, a jowly earnest reformer who served a governor of Pennsylvania from 1829 until 1835. (He is not related to the state’s current governor, Tom Wolf.)
Wolf was a lawyer, a former school teacher and, mostly importantly, a Jacksonian Democrat, a follower of the populist President, Andrew Jackson, who was then in the White House. Wolf had fellow reformers in the House and Senate who believed in an activist government. He made education his main priority – but he had a grander idea than simply educating the poor.
To Wolf, Article VII, Section One of the 1790 Constitution did not call simply for schools for the poor, but for creation of schools statewide, open to rich and poor alike, and paid for with state and local tax dollars. He proposed what we now call free, universal public education. It was, at the time, a jarring and alien idea.
With the help of progressive Jacksonian contingents in the legislature, a law was passed in April 1834 titled: “An Act to Establish a General System of Education by Common Schools.” The law established 984 school districts statewide.
Participation was voluntary, but the counties that agreed would get a state grant, then supplement the grant with local taxes, to establish and schools free to all. Legal challenges were mounted, but the state Supreme Court ruled that Article VII, Section One could be construed to permit creation of common schools.
As word of the law circulated around the state, ferocious opposition emerged. One historian said the battle over public schools was second in intensity only to the debate over slavery. Of the 987 school districts created by the law, 485 either voted outright against implementing it or refused to take a vote at all.
As a contemporary noted:
“In many districts the contest between those in favor of the new law and those determined to reject it became so bitter, that party and even church ties were for a time broken, the rich arrayed themselves against the poor, and the business and social relations of whole neighborhoods were greatly disturbed.”
German sects that ran schools feared the common schools as potential competitors that would draw away students and undermine attempts to preserve their religions and German as a favored language. Many Quakers and Lutherans opposed the law because they saw it as an attempt to secularize education. Still others saw it as an improper intrusion of the state into private affairs.
But, as one historian put it: “the bitterest enemies of free schools, those who fought them longest and hardest, were the ignorant, the narrow-minded and the penurious.” These opponents argued that education of the masses was dangerous and would breed idleness, vice and crime and that the taxes needed to support the schools would impoverish the hardworking and reward spendthrifts.
In a letter to his local newspaper, one opponent did not mince words in expressing his contempt for the law:
“Free schools are the hotbeds wherein idle drones, too lazy for honest labor, are reared and maintained; the free school system was originated and supported by partisans for the purpose of making places for men too lazy to work, and the school tax is a thinly disguised tribute which the honest hard-working farmer and mechanic have to pay out of their hard earned earning to pamper idle and lazy schoolmasters.”
A 19th century version of the modern Tea Party ran candidates who defeated incumbents who had voted for the law. Other incumbents decided not to seek re-election. Thousands of citizens signed petitions demanding repeal (though, ironically, many signed with an “X” or with illegible handwriting.)
A large contingent of anti-school-law legislators descended on Harrisburg determined to oppose the new law. Many incumbent lawmakers, a group never known for courage, rushed join them in overturning the law. They succeeded in the Senate, which quickly passed a law to delay implementation of the common school law for five years. Other bills called for outright repeal.
Move for Repeal
Gov. Wolf urged House members to stand fast and found an unlikely ally in that cause. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens was an Adams County Whig, a member of the opposition, but he employed his considerable rhetorical skills to defend the law.
Steven’s style was not to use flattery. He preferred invective and withering scorn. In a 3,000-word speech delivered on the House floor, Stevens slashed and burned opponents. He said that it was humiliating, in this day and age, to have to make “an argument to prove the utility, and to free governments, the absolute necessity, of education….”
To Stevens, much of the opposition to the law was “chargeable upon the vile arts of unprincipled demagogues. Instead of trying to remove the honest misapprehension of the people, they cater to their prejudices, and take advantage of them to gain low, dirty, temporary, local triumphs.
“Sir, it seems to me,” Stevens said, “that the liberal and enlightened proceedings of the last Legislature have aroused the demon of ignorance from his slumber; and maddened at the threatened loss of his murky empire, his discordant howlings are heard in every part of the land.”
Historians give Stevens much of the credit for saving the day, though he was speaking to a chamber with a solid majority of the law’s supporters. The House amended the law to make it less cumbersome for counties to set up school districts. The Senate approved the changes. The law survived.
The law called for state aid, state supervision of schools, and county and local taxation to support public education. It was a radical idea whose time had come.
One note: It took 44 years between passage of the Constitutional amendment on education and creation of common schools. It took another 38 years – until 1873 – for the last district to accept the new system and establish a public school.
Change comes slowly in Pennsylvania.
Note: Three primary source were used for this story:
Wickersham, James P. A History of Private and Public Elementary and Higher Education in Pennsylvania from the Time of the Swedes to the Present Day, Inquirer Press Co., Lancaster. Pa. 1886.
Cubberley, Ellwood P. Public Education in the United States, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, N.Y. 3rd edition 1947.
Hazard, Samuel. Hazard’s Register of Pennsylvania, Volumes 1-16, W.F. Geddes, Philadelphia, Pa. 1828-1835.
Cover Photo: “Penn’s Vision,” by Violet Oakley (c. 1910) a mural in the Governor’s Reception Room in the Capitol which depicts William Penn leading followers to the New World.
Thaddeus Stevens photo: Library of Congress.
Gov. George Wolf portrait: Capitol Preservation Committee.