I am a student of history and genealogy but before that I was a lover of education, of pretty much every subject. And importantly for this blog, a product of the educational system in Florida. This post will be the first of a two-part series on the effort to establish that educational system in Florida. In this post, I am going to try to outline the process of trying to get a “common school” system in place, first in the territory of Florida and then in the state; hopefully, without putting the reader to sleep or tying my brain into knots.
To start this process of looking at how Florida came to have a common or public school system, it is best to go all the way back to 1822. This was the year Florida became a territory of the United States and the year that every 16th section of each Township was set aside to aid in the maintenance of primary schools. For any of you not clear on what Townships were, I will do a Cliff Notes version. Describing land by the geographic features and trees on property, as was the method in the original thirteen colonies and what would become Texas, Tennessee and West Virginia, quickly became a bit troublesome. If you’ve ever read a deed from one of these states, you know what I mean. A grid system was set up and used for much of the federal land that came under government control as the nation expanded. This grid system was called the Public Land Survey System. Each Township grid was divided into 36 sections, each one square mile. A more detailed explanation is located here. Because these lands were for the use of the schools, they are often the location of early school buildings.
The first organized effort to establish an educational system occurred on 22 January 1831 when the Florida Education Society was formed in Tallahassee. They were established to collect and distribute educational information and to attempt to establish a general system of instruction that would be suited to the needs of the territory of Florida. During its existence, this group doesn’t appear to have accomplished a lot, especially in the panhandle. They were recognized in later reports on the schools for increasing the awareness of the importance of an educational system. However, it appears to have been an uphill battle. In a report from 1832, the “apathy and prejudices of the people of Florida” toward education was cited as an ongoing issue.
In January of 1827, the Federal government passed an act giving the governor and the Territorial Legislative Council the power to take possession of the 16th section of each Township mentioned above and lease them by the year and to appropriate the money received from the rental of the property for use by the schools. They were also charged with preserving the lands from intrusion and trespass. The following year the Territorial Legislative Council passed a law allowing those leases.
Beginning in 1828, and going until Florida became a State, there were a series of laws passed tinkering with the school system they hoped to create. While we need to give them an “A” for effort, it appears that these laws were never really executed with any consistency. Governor W. D. Moseley’s speech to the assembly in 1846 indicated poor enforcement against trespassers and the neglected and squandered funds that were received. Just before Florida became a state the educational system could be summarized as follows:
- The administration of the schools was in the hands of a Board of Trustees for each Township, the Judges of the County Courts, and the Secretary of the Territory.
- The trustees were elected by popular vote.
- The trustees cared for and rented out the 16th section lands, appropriated the revenue, established and maintained the schools and did whatever else was needed in relationship to the welfare of the schools. They were also to report annually to the judges of the county on the number of teachers, the numbers of students, and the subjects taught.
- The judges of the county served as school superintendents. They were to see that the 16th section lands were cared for, ensure the funds derived from the lands was appropriately used and had general oversight. Their report to the Secretary of the Territory was to address the condition of common school education in their respective counties.
- The Secretary of the Territory compiled all of these reports and presented the information to the Legislative Council.
- There was no provision for the building or maintenance of schools, the length of the school term, the subjects to be taught, textbooks to be used, or the certification of teachers.
- In 1838, a law had been passed to require each county to send one young man to the Dade Institute of Florida to be educated as a schoolmaster.
- Income to sustain the schools came from four sources: a) The 16th section lands, b) The net proceeds of escheated (transfer of property title to the state when a person dies without will or legal heirs) property, c) The funds obtained from the national treasury under the surplus revenue act, and d) 10% of all territorial tax and auction duties received to be used for the education of poor, orphaned children.
The children of the wealthier class of territorial residents often went to private academies or institutes. These were mainly primary and secondary combined, but the limited records available would indicate mostly primary. Those that I’m reasonably sure were in the panhandle were: 1) Pensacola Academy, 1831; 2) Marianna Academy, 1833; 3) St. Andrews College, Washington Co, 1838; 4) West Florida Collegiate Institute 1844.
Florida had arrived at statehood, with its first Constitution adopted in March 1845. The state was limited in what it could do with the 16th section lands so in 1847 they asked Congress for permission to sell these lands and invest the proceeds in a permanent fund to support common schools. This was approved in December 1848. In 1849, the first law establishing a school system in the new state was passed. The state would establish common schools that would serve all white children of the State between the ages of 5 and 18. Overhead costs were managed by the Register of the land office, who also was to act as State Superintendent of Schools. The Judges of Probate were still to act as superintendents of schools within their counties, and a local Board of Trustees was to be elected by taxpayers annually within each school district. At the same time, a new act was passed to increase funds for the common schools. Sources of funding included: a) 5% received from the United States for sale of public lands within the State, b) Proceeds of all escheated estates, c) Net proceeds from property found on the coasts or shores, or brought into the State’s ports, that were from wrecks, d) And all other property thereafter granted for the support of common education.
Between 1845 and 1869, the state again went through a series of adjustments to the system, trying to improve it and encourage people to support and send their children for education. The War for Southern Independence (a.k.a. War Between the States or Civil War) put a temporary hold on any progress since the State found itself the location of some consistent conflict between sides, especially in the panhandle. As had occurred during the territorial period, the majority of interest for common school establishment appears to have been outside the panhandle, around St. Augustine and Jacksonville, and also Tallahassee. It is hard to tell from the limited records available whether that is because people were not interested, the men in charge at the local and county levels weren’t doing their jobs adequately, the population who were interested preferred private academies or the records have just been lost to time.
Regardless of the challenges of war time, Florida did make some progress toward public, common schools during the early years of statehood. According to a table in Everette’s book (see below), from 1840 to 1850 the number of academies and other private schools increased from 18 to 138 and the number of public, common schools increased from 51 to 97.
After the war, efforts began to provide education to the children of persons who had been freed from slavery during the war. These efforts were initially conducted primarily by northern benevolent associations such as the African Civilization Society and the Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. They had established around 30 schools by the end of 1865. In January 1865, a law was passed establishing a public education system for these children. The governor was to appoint a superintendent to organize schools and to employ competent teachers. The schools would be supported first by a tuition fee of 50 cents per month from each pupil and a tax of $1 dollar on “all male persons of color between the ages of 21 and 45”.
The State Constitution of 1868 contained an entire article on the structure and provision of education in Florida. It established a Superintendent of Public Instruction; the requirement that the legislature provide a uniform system of common schools and a university, as well as the maintenance of these facilities; specified means of financing; required that the education be free for all children; distribution to the counties of the interest from the education fund based on the number of children in each county between the ages of 4 and 21 years; a requirement that each county raise a sum not less than 1/2 of the amount received from the State for the support of education within the county; and created a Board of Education composed of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Attorney General and the Secretary of State.
Starting in the 1870 census, we see the question on whether a children had attended school within the year. We can see a variation of this question for all subsequent censuses. If you spend time studying census records on either side of your ancestor’s entry, you can begin to see literacy increasing over time for those born in Florida.
I know this blog was a bit dry, but I thought it would be helpful to understand the early years before we have some fun with the later 19th and early 20th century schools. Next time we will look inside some of the schools of the late 19th and early 20th century in the panhandle. There will be lots of photos and some analysis of education levels over time and subjects taught.
Until next time!
- History of the Public School Education in Florida by Thomas Everette Cochran, 1921.
- From Cabin to Campus: A History of the Okaloosa School System by Nancy M. Kenaston.
- Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 by Carl F. Kaestle.
- Florida’s 1838 Constitution
- Florida’s 1868 Constitution