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and board do with reference to those of the entire State, subject, however, in a more or less tangible manner to the State authorities. The school law of many of the States declares specifically that these county officials are subject to such rules and instructions as the State superintendent or State board may make, and frequently also directly commands them to carry the same into effect. This subjection of local officials to State authority seems to be made quite effective by the fear of losing the State appropriation, also in some cases by central appointment of these officials, and still more so in a few cases by the power of suspension and removal granted to the central authorities.
In New England the town school committees or supervisors occupy the same place with reference to the schools of the town as do the country authorities with reference to the schools of the county in the States just noted. In many States having the above county school organization there are township officials occupying an administrative position midway between that of the county and “district" authorities, and exercising in the township extensive powers of regulation with greatly varying degrees of subjection to county authority. The powers of " district” officials will be considered in the next chapter.
In some States the central educational department makes quite detailed and elaborate regulations for the localities concerning such subjects, for example, as length of daily sessions, hours for beginning and closing school, hours when teachers must be present, length of intermission, excuses for tardiness and absence, cleanliness of pupils, keeping of school registers, minimum passing grade for all · local teachers' examinations, etc., etc.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE “DISTRICT SYSTEM”
IN 1789 the general court of Massachusetts enacted the following seemingly innocent and salutary law: "And whereas, by means of the dispersed situation of the inhabitants of the several towns and districts in this commonwealth, the children and youth cannot be collected in any one place for their instruction, and it has thence become expedient that the towns and districts, in the circumstances aforesaid, should be divided into separate districts for the purpose aforesaid. Be it therefore enacted,” etc.: Fifty years later Horace Mann, commenting on this law, declared it to be "the most unfortunate law on the subject of common schools ever enacted in the State of Massachusetts."
Before considering the evil effects of the above law thus severely condemned, it may be well to note that its content was not really new: it simply legalized existing usages. During the 17th and 18th centuries, as the exigencies of rapid migration and settlement widely scattered many of the farming settlements, the people had hastily solved the new educational problems thus presented in a very primitive and crude manner, without calculating the consequences. As it became impossible for the children of the township to go to the school, the school went to the children. We therefore begin to frequently read of “moving schools.” This process was often called in military fashion “squadroning out the schools." By a gradual transition small school-houses were
'Act, 1789, chap. xix, sec. 2.
erected in the different “squadrons," and the towns became definitely divided into “districts," each district being allowed to draw its share of the school money and expend it in its own way. Thus by the middle of the 18th century the earlier “township system” practically ceased, and the era of the “district system” began. For more than fifty years, therefore, bciore the law of 1789, towns had been forming "districts." The importance of this law lies in the fact that by sanctioning, it greatly encouraged this splitting up of towns into districts, and the “district system” thus received a new impetus. And yet to be quite accurate we should note that no powers were conferred on the district by the law of 1789. The district was not made a corporation, and was not distinctly authorized to furnish school-houses, elect officers, contract with teachers, nor indeed to do any act whatever concerning the schools. Furthermore, not a single duty in regard to schools was imposed upon the district. Of course this state of affairs could not long continue, and in Soo the power to tax was conferred upon the people of the district. The next step was to make school districts corpcrations with full power to sue and be sued, to make and enforce contracts, etc. This was done in 1817. The final touch to this process of minute subdivision of power was given in 1827, when school districts were empowered to elect prudential committees, to whom were confided the care of school property and the important trust of selecting and contracting with teachers. At last the school district has become a full-fledged political institution, and American sovereignty split up into the minutest conceivable fragments. Surely the principle of " local self-government” here reaches its most extreme and absurd development. And unfortunately the evil effects of the “district system” were not con'Laws of Wass., Feb. 28, 1800.
? Ibid., June 13, 1817. 3 Ibid., Mar, 10, 1827.
fined to Massachusetts. The spirit of the law of 1789 and its sequels was altogether too much in harmony with the extreme American predilections of the time toward local self-government, to prevent it being rapidly transplanted into the other New England States, thence via New York into nearly all the other Northern States of the Union; and this was mostly accomplished before the worst features of the "district system" had been demonstrated in Massachusetts or known outside of that State. This rapid adoption by other States, therefore, of the Massachusetts "district system” in the earlier part of this century marked the extreme limit of decentralization in American school administration. The latter half of the century, on the other hand, is witnessing a very general undoing of this faulty early administrative development. I point to this very general downfall of the “district system" as one of the important and salutary tendencies towards centralisation in American State school administration, which is characteristic of the times.
What, then, to be more definite, is the “district system,” and what are its attendant disadvantages and evils? To what extent are they being recognized and avoided in the recent school administration of the different States? This is a term applied to a system under which a State becomes divided into nearly or quite as many independent units of school government as there are individual schools to be governed, except in cities and incorporated towns, where all the public schools of the community are generally under one management. Each “district” has its separate body of officials, intrusted, to a greater or less extent, with the management of its school affairs. These officials, variously called "school committees," "school visitors," "school directors," "school trustees," "school boards," "school commissioners," etc., are generally elected by the voters of their respective districts, for terms varying in different States from one to four
years. Their duties in the various States are quite similar, viz., the levying of local school taxes and expending of the same, the employment of teachers, the provision and maintenance of school-houses and other school property, the selection of text-books and regulation of courses of study, and the general supervision of the school or schools of the district. Too often these officials have no qualifications whatever for these important duties, and are always comparatively irresponsible in the performance of the same.
It will aid us not only in trying to understand the evils of the “district system,” but also in judging the extent to which these evils are now being recognized, to note the objections most frequently urged against it in the school reports of various States. The following are some of the most important evils of the system which I find quite generally recognized :
(1) It fosters a very narrow provincialism, and is fatal to a broad and generous public spirit in school administration. The constituencies of the district officials are generally so small as to represent little more than individual caprices and prejudices rather than real public sentiment or policy. The parsimony of the typical school directors has long since become proverbial. Speaking of this one writer very wittily, but quite correctly, says: “Questions involving the fate of nations have been decided with less expenditure of time, less stirring of passion, less vociferation of declamation and denunciation, than the location of a fifteen-by-twenty district school-house. . . . I have known such a question to call for ten district meetings, scattered over two years, bringing down from mountain farms three miles away men who had no children to be schooled, and who had not taken the trouble to vote in a presidential election during the period.”! It thus appears that under the “district system” public sentiment is very likely to be neutralized by private selfishness.
16. H. Martin, The Evolution of the Mass. Public School System, pp. 93-4.