August 26th, 2019

Senate Report: A Look Back at School District Organization

By Senator Bill Doyle

General Assembly passed a comprehensive education act in 1845, which created three new offices: the town superintendent, county superintendent and state superintendent. The first state superintendent of education under the new law was Horace Eaton.

Eaton, who was concurrently state superintendent and governor from 1846-1848, said Vermont’s 2,750 school districts were far too many; that 37 pupils per district were too few. He said that schoolhouses were in miserable condition and challenged each town to erect “a well-located, well-planned, and well-constructed schoolhouse.” Eaton criticized the teaching apparatus and said that many schools were not even equipped with blackboards. One superintendent said that the blackboards he observed were not “very large nor very black.”

“This presents the condition of things truly alarming; we might say absolutely appalling.” Eaton said the state of affairs was due “to the failure of parents to estimate the immense influence which the instruction children receive at school is to exert upon the character and destinies of their children.”

Two years later, in 1847, Governor Eaton in his inaugural address had praise for the new school law.

“It is a source of much gratification to me to be able to express my firm and decided convictions, that, under the regulations recently adopted for the supervision of our common schools, and the efforts made in connection with that supervision to improve these institutions and extend their influence, a palpable advancement has been made.

Former governor Philip Hoff also attempted to reduce the number of school districts in Vermont. “With a population of 40,000 persons,” declared Hoff, “Vermont has 800 school directors, 246 road commissioners, and 246 overseers of the poor.” Hoff suggested that the state have 12 school districts. He argued that the regionalization of highway and taxing districts would be less costly and avoid duplication.

Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee, and is the Senate Assistant Minority Leader. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail wdoyle@leg.state.vt.us; or call 223-2851.

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