The Pennsylvania School System
Although there were expressions in state law for a state-wide school system, it was not until 1834 that a general school law was adopted. For example, in 1683 the General Assembly of the Colony of Pennsylvania passed an act in the Frame of Government, which expressed the ideal that all children should be taught to read and write by the age of 12.
In 1790 the Constitution of Pennsylvania was amended to require the legislature to adopt a law for the establishment of schools in the state including free schooling for the poor.
In 1809 the legislature passed a law to require each county to provide free education for “all children between five and 12 years of age, and whose parents were unable to pay for their schooling.” Most parents, however, refused to declare themselves “paupers” to obtain an education for their children and the law was considered unsuccessful in reaching poorer households.
In the early 1800's education was largely for children whose families could pay for it. At least 4,000 schoolhouses were built in the Commonwealth through volunteer or church efforts. Parents paid a “subscription” fee to maintain the schoolhouse and teacher.
In 1834 the Free School Act was adopted. It encouraged the establishment of a free school system in each community. The school system was to be supported by local taxes supplemented by state support. The law was optional, however, and three Luzerne County Townships, Hanover, Newport and Nescopeck, elected to reject the Free School Act and these three “non-accepting” towns had to maintain schools without state support.
The Free School Act of 1834 was very controversial. Several religious dominations opposed the act because the free school system would disrupt the tradition of religious-bases schools. Many schools in the state were taught in the German language and the Free School Act was viewed as a threat to the German heritage. Others argued that free education of the people was dangerous as “free schools would furnish the hot-beds wherein idle drones too lazy for honest labor would be reared and maintained.”
Copyright 2006-2008 F. Charles Petrillo