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The History of our Public Schools
Wyandotte County, Kansas

1844
2012

 

 

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Published by the State Department of Public Instruction
120 East Tenth, Topeka, Kansas 66612
Copyright June, 1967

We are sincerely grateful to the Kansas State Department of Education for giving us permission to transcribe and provide online the history found in this publication.

Return to Index for Kansas Educational Progress, 1858-1967, by A. F. Throckmorton

Education in Kansas
1858-1914

What is thought to be the first free school in Kansas for white children only was established in 1851 at Council Grove, a trading post on the Santa Fe Trail in what is now Morris County. About fifteen children of government employees, traders and families connected with Indian affairs attended this school, which was held in the Old Kaw Mission building taught by Mrs. T. Huffaker. 

[Annotation:  "The Kaw Mission in Council Grove was erected by the federal government in 1850."    Historic Kansas, Margaret Whitmore, 1954, pg. 48]

[Annotation: The federal government did not normally erect schools for children of white settlers.  That was normally left up to the settlers, town, county, or state.  However, the federal government did, on more than one occasion, erect a school for Indian children.]

This was a stormy, unsettled period with pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces contending for control of the Kansas Territory, which was formed under provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. As evidence of these struggles, three constitutions were adopted by the voters before the Wyandotte Constitution, under which Kansas became a state, was approved. In spite of these difficulties, a legal system of schools existed in the territory although the quality of instruction and the number of schools established depended on the interest and support provided in each local community.

Life was hard in this undeveloped region where survival depended on courage, brawn, and endless toil, with academic achievement playing a minor role. The task of starting a school in the northwest part of the state in the 1870's typifies the problems faced by pioneers as they sought educational opportunities for their children: "The pioneers brought with them a desire for education and the hope of religion. School houses of rude pattern, built of logs or sod, sprang up everywhere. They were used for the dual purpose of education during the week and devotional exercises on Sunday . . . . The building of the schoolhouse in any neighborhood was an event of more than passing interest. They were frequently built before a regular organized district was set apart and before any taxes were levied for schools or school buildings."

Reports of the state superintendents of that era also give some indication of the primitive conditions under which schools operated. Superintendent Peter MacVicar, 1867-1871, made a survey of sanitary conditions in schools of the state after which he reported: "It is evident that very great neglect extensively prevails. Very many of the edifices have no outhouses at all. Only a few have one each; and rarely are schoolhouses provided each with two such conveniences."

In 1874 a compulsory attendance law was enacted upon recommendation of Superintendent McCarty, 1871-1875. The law was not very rigid as children were required to attend school only from ages eight to fourteen, and many schools operated only three or four months of the year. The school board had authority to exempt pupils from provisions of the law, and home instruction could be substituted for school attendance as a means of preparing for examination. These exemptions also were allowed in 1903 revision of the law.

Two agencies which were to make significant contributions to the expansion and improvement of education were established during this period. They were the Board of Commissioners for the management and investment of the permanent school fund and the School Textbook Committee. Both included the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in their membership.

The first legislative session after Kansas attained statehood created the Board of Commissioners under constitutional authority. The State Superintendent as secretary, the Secretary of State as chairman, and the Attorney-General have constituted the membership of this board from its creation to the present time. The permanent school fund, the earnings of which must be appropriated for the support of common schools, consists of proceeds from the sale of school lands and the estates of persons dying without heir or will. With minor exceptions, the school lands consisted of sections 16 and 36 of every township given by act of Congress to the state for the support of its schools. All of these lands have been sold and the proceeds constitute a major portion of the permanent school fund.

One concern of early state superintendents was that the educational benefits to be derived from schools not be dissipated. One such official was Peter MacVicar, who reported how speculators attempted to gain possession of these lands for their own profit through questionable practices. One weakness of the sale procedure was the authorization possessed by county treasurers to sell these lands at private sale when no bids equal to the appraised value had been received.

An action destined to have a profound effect upon education in Kansas for sixty years was taken in 1897 by Legislature, upon the recommendation of several state superintendents, when it established the School Textbook Commission. This agency was charged with the administration of a uniform statewide textbook adoption system. This act, together with later supplemental legislation, served worthwhile purposes until the World War II era, after which new techniques of instruction, better prepared teachers, and the availability of many kinds of instructional materials outmoded the use of uniform textbooks throughout the state. The state superintendent served as ex-officio chairman of the adoption agency until 1945 when its responsibilities were assigned to the lay state board of education, leaving the state superintendent without jurisdiction in this important activity. This assignment was a factor that led to the end of the state textbook adoption program sixty years after the original system was established.

In 1858, the Territorial Legislature created the office of county superintendent, and gave that official the authority to certify teachers. One year later he was assigned the task of organizing school districts in the territory. The Wyandotte Constitution, under which Kansas became a state, followed the pattern set by the Territorial Legislature, and reinstituted the office of county superintendent, which served for one hundred years as a foundation stone in the state's educational structure. He was authorized to continue organizing school districts by dividing the county into a convenient number of such units. With convenience as the only stated criterion to guide county superintendents, schools were established within walking distance of most pupils. The general practice was to build schoolhouses at two-mile intervals, each within a district governed by a three-man board. By 1896, thirty-five years after Kansas became a state, 9284 districts had been formed. The operation of this system required a veritable army of board members, which at that time numbered more than 27,000. As late as 1945 board members outnumbered the teachers in the state by several thousand.

The basic principles upon which the Legislature developed a statutory framework for governing school districts were brought to Kansas by thousands of immigrants from the New England states, who were familiar with the town meeting form of government. Within this kind of structure school district issues, which included the election of board members, determination of how much was to be spent for operation of the school, and some decisions of a trivial nature, were by law placed in the hands of an annual meeting of electors of the district, who conducted business in town meeting fashion.

Only a handful of electors attended the typical annual meeting but, when patrons and taxpayers had been aroused by some highly controversial issue, everyone made it a point to be there. Then the meeting could, and often did, get out of hand and proceed to crucify an unpopular teacher or board member. Before this type of school government was abandoned, districts in urban areas with population running into the thousands found the annual meeting to be an anachronism painfully illustrative of how difficult it is to revise governmental procedures.

The elected board employed the teacher, kept the building in repair, and purchased the meager supplies sometimes provided for the school. Most board members faithfully performed their duties, but in hundreds of one-room school districts they paid little attention to Roberts Rules of Order, failed to keep minutes of their meetings, and made many decisions outside legally called sessions of the board. It was not unusual for two board members to employ the teacher, simply notifying the third man of their action. Many boards were dominated by one man, who assumed that his election gave him a kind of divine right to dictate policies of the school without the formality of a board meeting. There were enough of these practices, and other exceptions go good school government, to condemn the system of fragmenting responsibility for the state's educational program among thousands of ineffective districts. This type of school government, found among all districts except those in first and second class cities, remained in effect until a district unification program eliminated the annual meeting.

The county superintendent not only created school districts, but certified teachers, conducted programs for upgrading instruction, kept statistical records of the schools under his supervision, gave assistance to the state superintendent, answered questions about school law, made needed changes in school district boundaries, conferred with school boards, and supervised educational activities in the county. In fact, he was the chief school officer of the county from pioneer days and continued to fill that role until importance of the office declined when rural population shifted to urban areas, and a more efficient plan of school district organization developed. Unfortunately, adequate support of the county superintendent was withdrawn at a faster rate than responsibilities of the office were eliminated.

By 1900 most of the legal structure within which Kansas education developed during the ensuing forty-five years had been established. The Constitution had created the offices of State and County Superintendent, and a Board of School Fund Commissioners to manage the permanent school fund. By that date, the Legislature had formed a State Board of Education to certify teachers; made provision for a uniform system of textbook adoption under the direction of a commission; and carried out the requirements of Section 2 of Article 6 of the Constitution by establishing a system of common schools and schools of higher grade, embracing normal, preparatory, collegiate, and university departments.

The State Agency for Education

Although the first Kansas schools were established prior to organization of the territory under the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, it was 1858 before the first Free-State Legislature created the office of Territorial Superintendent of Common Schools. The pro-slavery Legislatures of 1855 and 1857 had made no provision for such an office. James H. Noteware, the first superintendent appointed under this act, served only nine months. He was followed by Samuel Wiley Greer, who was the first elected territorial superintendent. The third man to hold this post was John C. Douglass, who was in office only one month before the first state superintendent, William Riley Griffith, replaced him in February, 1861.

Little is known about Superintendent Noteware's work as he left no record of his official acts, except a textbook recommendation. On the other hand, Superintendent Greer, who traveled extensively over the territory and recommended many educational improvements, has been credited with initiating the work of the Kansas education superintendency during his term of office from October, 1858 to January, 1861. In general, duties of the territorial superintendent consisted of visiting schools, conducting meetings, preparing report forms, collecting statistical information, recommending textbooks, acting upon appeals from school districts, and distributing funds to the counties according to the number of children of school age.

The state superintendent was the official state agency for education from the creation of that office until the first state board of education was organized under legislative authority in 1873. The duties of this board were limited by law to issuing state diplomas and certificates to teachers. The diplomas, granted upon examination, were valid in any school district of the state during the life of the teacher. Prospective teachers who could not qualify for a diploma might meet requirements for a certificate upon passing an examination but, unlike diplomas, the certificates, which were of two grades, were valid only three and five years, respectively.

A concluding provision of the act creating the State Board of Education reflects the frugal mind of the Legislature. Included in the law was the limitation: "That the provisions of this act shall be carried out without expense to the state." It was not until twenty years later that $300 annually was appropriated to cover the expense of members in attending meetings of the board.

Evidence of hard times and reverses for education in the first two decades of the state's history are revealed in the First Biennial Report of Superintendent Allen B. Lemmon in 1878. According to this record, 1875 legislation was prejudicial to schools. County superintendents' salaries were reduced, and in 1876 there was an attack on the three normal schools. The Legislature refused to make appropriations for any of them and thereby forced the closing of the two at Concordia and Leavenworth. The Emporia Normal was able to continue as a private enterprise. The state superintendent also received rough treatment during this period when the Legislature reduced his annual postage allowance from $225 to $150 so the Fifteenth Annual Report of 1876 could not be distributed. To top off all this retrenchment, the state superintendent was required to return to the Commission of Insurance the desk he had borrowed from him.

The relationship between the state superintendent and the state board of education from its organization in 1873 until 1915, when the Legislature created the State Department of Education, was not clearly defined by statute. In some instances the board made policy which was administered by the superintendent, but in many activities the board carried out the department's administrative functions, thus relegating the state superintendent to a kind of chore boy, except as he was able to exert leadership outside specific statutory authority, and fill his roles as a member of the state board of education, the school fund commission, and the textbook adoption agency.

This relationship is discussed in a study of the State Department of Public Instruction by John L. Eberhardt at the University of Kansas, and published in 1955. "Both the board members and the state superintendent par6ticipated in administering such programs as the preparation of courses of study for country institutes and the public schools, and in the accreditation of colleges. In many cases both the superintendent and the board seemed responsible for developing policy. The actual practice for dividing duties and allocating responsibility remains obscured in the informal practices. Coordination of effort was achieved, apparently with success, by the dual role of the state superintendent as the leading member of the state board of education and as an independent officer responsible for the Department of Education.

Until 1870 the state superintendent had no staff, professional or clerical. Besides writing letters, attending to the clerical work of the office, conferring with officials on legislative and educational problems, and providing leadership for the schools, State Superintendent Goodnow, 1863-1867, reports that he visited 29 counties, traveled more than 4,000 miles, and lectured from one to four times in each county. He made detailed recommendations regarding school district organization, and worked against legislation that tended to misappropriate funds derived from the sale of school lands. He contended that the new state should build a university, an agricultural college, and a normal school rather than encourage weak denominational schools at the expense of strong state institutions. Superintendent Goodnow also advocated that school districts be compelled to use uniform textbooks. When one considers that there were no telephones, automobiles, improved roads, or clerical assistance for the office, it becomes obvious that the state superintendent did not schedule his program in a forty hour week.

The first appropriation funds for clerical services in the state superintendent's office was made in 1870, and an assistant state superintendent was provided in 1879. Expansion of the office did not keep pace with educational development or the state's growth along other lines. In 1910, 40 years after the first clerical assistance had been allowed the state superintendent, his staff was limited to the assistant superintendent, an inspector of normal training high schools (this position was dropped in 1912), a bond clerk, a statistician, an index filing clerk, and one stenographer. The state agency for education did not rate very high during most of the first century of its existence.

Although he had a limited staff, the list of activities engaged in by the state superintendent during the period from 1861 to 1914 is an imposing one. It included collecting statistical data regarding schools from county and city superintendents by means of quarterly and annual reports on forms prepared by the superintendent; engaging in field work, which was required by law during early years of the period; lecturing at county institutes and teachers' meetings; holding conventions for county superintendents; issuing reports; publishing school laws and interpreting them; cooperating with the Kansas State Teachers Association and other groups; keeping an eye on school lands and the methods used in selling them; and, until 1873, serving on governing boards of state institutions of higher education. He also acted as administrative officer of the state board of education; accredited colleges; conducted examinations; prepared courses of study; served as chairman of the School Textbook Commission, as secretary of the School Fund Commission, and as a member of the State Board of Education; and, most important of all, provided educational leadership for the state.

The state superintendent of public instruction has always been a busy individual but, until recent years, he has not had fund, personnel, or facilities with which to help carry the responsibilities placed upon him by the Legislature and citizens of the state. Moreover, the salary paid this official has never commensurate with the burdens placed upon him. Until 1947, the highest salary paid a state superintendent was $3,000 per annum, a figure set in 1915. Today, some students of government content that the chief state school officer is one of the two or three most important officials in state government. Apparently, the word hasn't gotten around.

Return to Index for Kansas Educational Progress, 1858-1967, by A. F. Throckmorton

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History Site created on December 02, 2002
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