The District System & Decentralization of Schools --- a vigorous and long-lived reaction against unreasoning monarchism
Education in the United States: its history from the earliest settlements
By Richard Gause Boone (1907)
Speaking generally, most early funds were local and annual. This is especially true of New England and Pennsylvania, where the idea of local self-government was strong. For a different reason also the same statement applies to parts of the South where as in Rhode Island, education was put alongside of religion as a matter of personal and domestic concern. The district system, as will appear elsewhere, is a phase of this same early tendency to divide authority, distributing the school control among many small and independent corporations. First appearing in New England, it has, at some time, been upon the statute-books of more than half the States of the Union. It was part of the general impulse toward the sharing of administrative power, educational, political, and religious, which was a vigorous and long-lived reaction against the unreasoning monarchism which had prevailed into modern times, and been imposed upon our forefathers. p. 83-84
Each individual school was a law unto itself; uniformity was out of the question. Schools were efficient or neglected according to the local management. To a greater or less extent this must always be true, even in cities. It is the personal localized effort that brings success. p. 95
...the "district system," the extreme decentralization, p. 96
The district system of school management took its rise in the colonial period of New England, and implies the setting off of towns and townships into smaller bodies, and the erection of these into independent corporations. They were possessed of legal powers of holding property, levying taxes, etc., and filled a large place in the life of the time. The town, in New england, was the unit in all civil affairs. The recognition of its functions gave character to the only two school systems formed before the Revolution. The substitution of the district, in educational matters, and the rise of "school societies," form an interesting piece of history.
First introduced into Connecticut (1701) and half a century later into Rhode Island, the principle was incorporated into the revised Code of Massachusetts in the year 1789. It was the provision of this act, concerning "school districts," which Mr. Mann pronounced the most disastrous feature in the whole history of educational legislation in Massachusetts. Vermont seven years before, and New Hampshire in 1805, made like changes.
In Rhode Island these minor districts were called "squadrons," and were given the entire "management of their school-houses and lands, leasing out the latter, and employing schoolmasters as was most agreeable to them." Massachusetts soon (1800) authorized district taxation--a measure from whose mischievous implications the State did not free itself for seventy years. New York, with Ohio, Illinois, and other Western States, passed similar enactments. Throughout New England at the opening of the century the district had become the educational unit, while outside of New England (excluding the South), in a single generation, it predominated in half the States. The system represents the extreme in self-government. A study of its development in Connecticut will perhaps best reveal its character and influence.
An act of the General Assembly of Connecticut (1701) provided that "the inhabitants of each town in the colony shall pay annually forty shillings in every thousand pounds in their respective lists toward the maintenance of a schoolmaster." Some of the towns were large and contained parishes or ecclesiastical bodies--churches; and eleven years later it was ordered that, "for the bringing up of their children and the maintenance of a school," they (the churches) should receive the money collected among them. The ecclesiastical body thus became a civil organization holding an official relation to the management of schools sustained by public funds.
Originally, in New England, the parish was coextensive with the town; the two were coincident indeed. The citizens in the one were members in the other. The same in constituency, the same in territorial limits, and co-ordinate in functions, there was no more occasion for friction, or difference of opinion, than among the members of either. The interests of one were the interests of both. But, with the growth of towns, religious care led to their division into distinct parishes; with the diversity of religious belief came the affiliation of those of like sentiments, without regard to geographical limits. The parish had lost its fixed existence, while maintaining its functions and organization. It was under these conditions that the Connecticut law was enacted. The step was a new one, and away from the common-school idea of New England--amounting practically to the establishment of school districts within towns. Authority was divided, and the direction of education put into the hands of a class. It pointed to a delegation of authority that is ruinous. The parish was as yet, however, only a district, deriving all its power, as did other districts, from the civil body. It could initiate nothing; it levied no taxes; it changed no law. Forty years after, it was enacted that, when a town consisted of but one ecclesiastical society, the selectmen of the town should manage the schools; but that when it included more than one, a committee from each society should be empowered to manage lands and funds. By 1767 these parishes were allowed each a separate treasurer; and, before the close of the century, towns had been authorized, by the new State Legislature, to incorporate themselves into "school societies." In the revision and codification of laws, 1799, it was ordered that they should have full power "to grant rates for building and repairing; to appoint their own committees; to provide teachers; and to manage the prudentials of their schools." This seems the extreme of deterioration. So wide-spread was the influence, that few States in the Union escaped it.
Growing out of these applications of the principle of decentralization were two evils that were vicious in every way, and call for special mention.
The first, though an incident of the system in Connecticut, and not found in most States, was the farming out of school revenues to religious bodies. [The claims, on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, for participation in the control of school revenues, suggest that the question has a present significance also.] It was subversive of the civil and social unity. It was yet one more encroachment of the ecclesiastical upon the civil and personal life, because of which Puritan and Huguenot had left their European homes. So disastrous have been felt to be its implications, by the newer States and in recent years, that seventeen of the thirty-eight States have seen fit to incorporate into the body of their Constitutions the provision that "no religious sect or sects shall ever control any part of the common-school or university funds."
But, aside from its ecclesiastical aspects, the district system seems generally to have worked mischief except in an occasional thriving and homogeneous community. Along with the unequal distribution of wealth, the system leads to great inequality in the means and provisions of education; to short terms or poor teachers, or both; and in imposing upon indigence and improvidence the education of its own, tends directly to class distinctions. In Massachusetts, for example, it is said that one third of the State's taxable property is found within a radius of ten miles about Boston. Without apportionment equalizing the revenues, schools in the more distant parts must be very insufficiently supported.
The system, moreover, in its ultimate development makes each school an independent organization, assigns mixed classes to the same teacher, obstructs gradation, and, besides being a wasteful practice financially, ignores the plainest pedagogical principles of instruction. During the administration of Horace Mann, certain townships "abolished their districts, assuming control of their schools in a corporate capacity," but twenty years later it was said: "So fully are most citizens attached to this system, so fully persuaded that centralized power is dangerous, that the township ought not to be intrusted with the entire care of schools (although its officers preside in every other department), and that the reserved right of having an agent to have the care of their school-houses, and to employ the teachers of their children, is a privilege of vital importance and not lightly to be relinquished--that there was little hope for better things." [Twenty-eighth Report of the MA Board of Education.]
In New York, but two decades ago, there was an almost entire disappearance of the township. Whatever local taxes were raised came through the districts; of one of which it was said (1865) "it had not taxed itself nor raised once cent by rate" during three years of the previous four. These small and weak but more or less independent districts in parts of New England, Delaware, some of the States West, and one or two others South, have constituted the greatest hindrances to the maturing of school systems. Strength comes from co-operation; differences are equalized, and public administration is made to contribute to a homogeneity that is civil no less than political safety.
But the influence of this division of authority is sometimes felt in States where the right to levy school-taxes has not been reserved to the district. With more or less of central organization, it frequently occurs that the right to select, examine, and hire teachers, rests in the neighborhood, while the township authorities are held to answer for the school's success. Inferior teachers, and favoritism in their selection, indifference in some neighborhoods, and the frequent shifting of instructors, are very serious evils, and all cluster about district management.
The great diversity in State administration, and in local administration among the States, makes any attempt to classify them as to local organization impracticable. In some, both township and district control are combined in respect to different though more or less conflicting functions. Nevertheless, there are certain general distinctions apparent. In twelve States the district system predominates, though in most of them the union of districts is legalized. In general this form characterizes the older colonies, or those whose institutions are of the New England cast. The organization by counties prevails in the South, as it did in the days of Jefferson. In eighteen States, chiefly Western, the township is the unit most civil affairs, education included.
Not until 1856 were "school societies" and parish educational corporations abolished in Connecticut, and many years later the union of districts authorized. In Massachusetts the change occurred less than twenty years ago, and in Rhode Island soon after. In the reorganization of schools during the middle of the century, while this change came after State management and supervision, and partly as a result of these, it was also in part an outgrowth of causes which led to these, and so exhibits one form of the wide-spread tendency of the period toward centralization. p. 96-101
In most of the States the services of the superintendent are supplemented by a general Board of Education, of which he is, ex officio, a member, and whose two chief functions are the examination of teachers, directly or indirectly, and the management of the State school-funds. Of the thirty-eight States, twenty-three have such boards. Three others---Arkansas, New Hampshire, and West Virginia--provide bodies corporate for the control of the funds.... p. 107