Development Of Education in Wisconsin

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Development Of Education In Wisconsin

by Jane Glenz

Education has always been a key ingredient in democracy. This fact was recognized early by Americans, even in the rural areas or on the frontier. However, one person once observed the following about rural education in America: “The average farmer and rural teacher think of the rural school as a little house, on a little ground, with a little equipment, where a little teacher at a little salary, for a little while, teaches little children little things.” There is some truth to this but a little was better than none at all and that’s the attitude that many in Wisconsin took. This is why Wisconsin has always ranked at or near the top in education.

There were no formal schools in Wisconsin before 1800, although some missionary schools for Indians had started and private tutoring was available at forts in LaPointe (near Ashland), DePere, Prairie du Chien and Green Bay. It wasn’t until Wisconsin’s first farm settlers entered the southern part of the state in the early 1800’s that organized systems were developed. Most of these people were either from New England or from Germany and Norway. These groups, as part of their cultural heritage, saw church and school as equally central to their idea of community. So school became the second institution that helped to draw a pioneer society together often appearing almost simultaneously with a community’s first institution, the church.

Free schools, or public schools, were not at all common in the United States until after 1865, but were well established in Wisconsin. Each area built the school itself and then taxed the people to pay for it. They usually charged a fee of $1 or $1.50 a month for each family to send their children to school. The first tax supported and entirely free school in Wisconsin began on June 30, 1849, in Southport (Kenosha). It was pushed by a man named Michael Frank editor of the local newspaper. He thus has earned the title of “Father of the Wisconsin Public School.”

In 1849, the first year of statehood, about 32,000 youngsters attended public schools for an average of 71 days, or approximately 45 percent of the school year. The average length of the time schools kept open during the year was four months, or about a month longer than was necessary to qualify for apportionment of the income from the school fund. By 1866 the statistics showed that 66.5 percent of those of school age attended an average of 128 days of school. This did not include those in parochial schools.

The public schools were run by the State Department of Public Instruction headed by the State Superintendent who was and still is elected by the voters of the state for a four-year term. Each town had a town supervisor who was elected by the people for one year. He often lacked any educational qualifications yet it was his job to examine, license and employ teachers and provide guidelines for the schools. For many years the Wisconsin Teachers Association protested this and finally in 1861, they were able to get the position of County Superintendent created and the Town Superintendent was done away with.

In 1850, Wisconsin had a total of 1197 schoolhouses. Of these 38 were brick, 51 stone, 540 frame and 568 built of logs. Almost every other schoolhouse in the state was a log structure. A blackboard was equipment of first importance in a schoolhouse, never-the-less, 595, or nearly one-half of the schoolhouses, were without them while 969 schools had no maps.

The textbooks that were most often used were Brown’s Grammar, Adams’ Arithmetic, Sandar’s Readers, Webster’s Speller and Morse’s Geography. Altogether twelve different grammars, thirteen arithmetics, ten readers, seven spellers and six geographies were used in different schools throughout the state.

Most free or public schools contained only grades 1 – 8. There were very few high schools before 1875. In 1853, Racine opened the first one and had the first graduating class in Wisconsin in 1857. There were 10 graduates. In 1873, 30 cities had high schools.

In 1875, Herman Nabor of Shawano introduced to the state legislature a law creating the formation of high school districts with the state paying one half the cost of the institution for free schools. By 1880, as a consequence of this legislation, there were 100 high schools in Wisconsin.

In 1879, the state passed the first Compulsory Education Law requiring children 7-15 to attend school 12 weeks out of the year. Most states provided for compulsory education up to the sixth grade but Wisconsin set the standard as eighth grade. It also said education would be provided to children from ages 4 to 20. In 1921, the law was changed so that children had to attend at least 1/2 day of school up to age 16. The old law required only eight hours of schooling a week. Even though the law was on the books, it was a difficult law to enforce, especially in the rural areas. As a result, attendance at schools was very poor.

In 1890, the state felt there was a definite need for a different curriculum for students in grades seven through nine because, “a child at this age is in the process of finding themselves (sic) and needs a training and a testing suitable neither to the grades below or the grades above.” As a result of this attitude, the “junior high” was born. In 1916, there were 14 junior highs and by 1938 this number had risen to 60.

To provide special training of teachers, Wisconsin began a normal school building program in 1865, opened the first normal school at Platteville in 1866. Other state LaCrosse, 1905; and Eau Claire 1916. In these schools tuition was free to students who were residents of the state.

Two and four year courses for teaching were given. Completion of the two year course enabled teachers to teach in the rural schools; four year course completion admitted them to a state university and a five year course allowed them to teach a subject in high school. Most who attended these normal schools only had an eighth grade education to begin with.

Teaching institutes were also conducted in many cities including Shawano. Training schools for teachers of rural schools grew out of the teachers institute system and began under legislative authority in 1899. (Shawano held classes for this in the basement of Lincoln School. For more details, read the interview with Mrs. Cattau). Completion of these programs allowed the teacher to teach at the rural schools.

Pay for teachers was not good. Most of the time pay was set by the boards and depended on the wealth of the district. However, in 1913 a minimum wage for teachers was set by law — $40 a month. If boards paid less, they would not get state aid. In 1921 this was raised to $75 a month.

Teaching was one of the few occupations open to women. In 1874 certificates for women teachers outnumbered men 2 to 1 and by 1890 it was 4 to 1.  Teachers, unlike other professionals had to maintain a very strict moral code.

Following is a list of 1872 rules written by a New York City principal:

    • In 1853 the Wisconsin Teachers Association was created to help teachers and in 1911 a retirement plan was started.
    • Teaching was one of the few occupations open to women. In 1874 certificates for women teachers outnumbered men 2 to 1 and by 1890 it was 4 to 1.
    • Teachers, unlike other professionals had to maintain a very strict moral code. Following is a list of 1872 rules written by a New York City principal:
    • Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
    • After 10 hours in school, the teachers spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
    • Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
    • Each teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not be a burden to society.
    • Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor, frequents pool or public halls or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intentions, integrity or honesty.
    • The teacher who performs his labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents per week in his pay.

Things did not improve much as can be seen from the following copy of a 1922 woman teacher’s contract as reported in the Walworth (Wis.) Times:

    • Miss _______________ agrees:
    • Not to get married. This contract becomes null and void immediately if the teacher marries.
    • Not to have company with men.
    • To be home between the hours of 8 pm and 6 am unless in attendance of a school function.
    • Not to loiter downtown in ice cream stores.
    • Not to leave town at anytime without the permission of the Chairman of the Trustees.
    • Not to smoke cigarettes. This contract becomes null and void immediately if the teacher is found smoking.
    • Not to drink beer, wine, or whiskey.
    • Not to ride in a carriage or an automobile with any man except her brother or father.
    • Not to dress in bright colors.
    • To wear at least two petticoats.
    • Not to wear dresses more than two inches above the ankles.
    • Not to dye her hair.
    • To keep the school room clean.
    • Not wear face powder, mascara, or to paint the lips.

The pay for men and women was not the same. In 1874 men were paid an average of $47.44 per month and women were paid $32.13. There was not much advancement for women either. In 1873 all county superintendents were men. By 1891 10 of 70 were women but women were paid $582.50 and men $823.50. In 1891 of the 175 high schools only one high school, Plainfield, had a woman principal.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the districts of the state began to consolidate. This was done reluctantly by many because they hated to lose their identity but if they didn’t comply, the state cut off state funding. In 1940, there were 7,424 districts in Wisconsin. Today, after consolidation, there are 436. Shawano began in 1949 when Richmond and Belle Plaine Districts were attached to the Shawano District. In 1950, Herman, Willow

Creek, Waukechon, Navarino, and Wescott were added. In the early 1960’s many of the rural schools were closed and the students were transported to Shawano (see section on rural schools). By 1968, all rural schools in the Shawano district were closed.

Today the State sets general policies and minimum standards. It also provides state aid for poor districts.

The State Superintendent is generally in charge of running the districts. His duties include certifying teachers, enforcing state standards, administering state aid and running CESA ( Cooperative Education Service Agencies). The County Superintendent of Schools was abolished in 1963 and replaced by the CESAs. They have no supervisory, administrative authority over the schools and no power to tax the districts. Today the county government has nothing to do with schools.

Table I

State Superintendent of School

1849 – 1993

NameYears of Service
Eleazer Root1849 to 1852
Azel P. Ladd1852 to 1854
Hiram A. Wright1854 to 1855
A. Constantine Barry1855 to 1858
Lyman C. Draper1858 to 1860
Josiah L. Pickard1860 to 1864
John G. McMynn1864 to 1868
Alexander J. Craig1868 to 1870
Samuel Fallows1870 to 1874
Edward Searing1874 to 1878
William C. Whitford1878 to 1882
Robert Graham1882 to 1887
Jesse B. Thaver1887 to 1891
Oliver E. Wells1891 to 1895
John Q. Emery1895 to 1899
Lorenzo D. Harvey1899 to 1903
Charles P. Cary1903 to 1921
John Callahan1921 to 1949
George Earl Watson1949 to 1961
Angus B. Rothwell1961 to 1966
William C. Kahi1966 tp 1973
Barbara Thompson1973 to 1981
Herbert G. Grover1981 to 1993
John Benson1992 to