[photo, State Department of Education, 200 Baltimore St., Baltimore, Maryland]
  • Colonial Education
  • Development of a Public School System
  • State Board of Education
  • Board of State School Commissioners
  • State Department of Education
  • 200 Baltimore St., Baltimore, Maryland, July 2003. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

    Before Maryland developed a system of public education in the nineteenth century, formal education was limited to the wealthy. They educated their children abroad or in local academies and considered education the duty of parents, not government. The British concept of "free schools," privately endowed institutions providing a classical education to upper class children and subsidizing a few charity pupils, was influential. Nonetheless, legislative appropriations to private academies incensed farmers and poor folks who resented paying to educate rich men's sons and thought taxation for school support was more of the same. Local opinion favored local control, and local politics brought poor teachers, mismanaged funds, and voter apathy. The fervor of Jacksonian democracy led to strong public educational systems elsewhere but had little effect in Maryland. Concern for education often was expressed and concensus rarely reached. Only when public outcry became insistent did the legislature act.

    Colonial Education. In the colonial period, Maryland attempted to establish free schools. The General Assembly, in 1695, assessed a tax on the export of furs to raise funds for these schools. In 1696, certain gentlemen, having subscribed quite liberally themselves, were appointed as a board of trustees and visitors to establish first a free school in Annapolis, then one on the Eastern Shore, and ultimately a free school in each of the existing twelve counties, as funds allowed (Chapter 17, Acts of 1696). Yet, only one school was founded - King William's School (later St. John's College) in Annapolis. In 1717, another financing act taxed importation of Irish Catholic servants and Negro slaves to support public education (Chapter 10, Acts of 1717). Enough funds had accrued from the various taxes by 1723 for a distribution to be made to the twelve counties. Boards of trustees were appointed in each county and instructed to purchase one hundred acres of land in a central location with a dwelling house and other conveniences for a schoolmaster, who was to be paid twenty pounds per year (Chapter 19, Acts of 1723). A 1728 law specified that the schoolmaster was to teach as many poor children as the local board determined, indicating that the "free schools" were not tuition-free (Chapter 8, Acts of 1728). Apparently, schools established under the 1723 act soon were floundering due to lack of funds and qualified teachers, despite additional revenue from fines, forfeitures, and the estates of intestate persons. In several instances, county schools were absorbed by the flourishing private academies or consolidated with schools of adjoining counties.

    Development of a Public School System. The idea that the new republic needed educated citizens had some impact in Maryland. In 1798, a prominent educator exhorted the General Assembly to establish a State board of education and a uniform system of public schools. In 1812, the State began to raise money for a Free School Fund by taxing the renewal of bank charters (Chapter 79, Acts of 1812). Legislation followed in 1816 providing for nine Commissioners of the School Fund in each county to distribute the Free School Fund (Chapter 256, Acts of 1816). Realizing that Fund monies would not be sufficient, five counties requested the first property tax assessment to pay for the education of poor children (Chapter 244, Acts of 1816). Caroline County voters were given the option of deciding whether their public school would be supported by voluntary contributions or property taxes (Chapter 250, Acts of 1816).

    Some public schools were founded; a pattern of local diversity also was established with no statewide uniformity or accountability. The legislature kept passing local laws relating to public education for each county, and sometimes for the districts within a county. State appropriations were continued to favored private academies, while the Free School Fund dribbled monies to the county boards, which could divert funds to academies, invest the funds, or actually expend them on local schools.

    A uniform system of primary school education for Maryland was attempted in 1825 (Chapter 162, Acts of 1825). Subject to referendum, the law was ratified only by a few counties and then amended repeatedly by local laws until little uniformity remained. The act called for a Superintendent of Public Instruction to prepare a statewide plan for education and oversee its execution. The levy court in each county was to appoint nine commissioners of primary schools who would divide the county into school districts, call a meeting of the taxpayers of each district, and receive the county's share of the Free School Fund, accruing under the act of 1812. Taxpayers in each school district were to elect a clerk and three trustees, select a site for a schoolhouse, and vote on a rate of tax to support the district school. The trustees were in charge of building, repairing, and furnishing their district school, as well as hiring the teacher and submitting an annual report. Appointed by the levy court, school inspectors not only were to visit each school in the county, but also to certify teachers. This requirement may have reflected dissatisfaction with unqualified teachers; however, since no education was required to be a school inspector, the standards for teacher certification potentially could be very disparate.

    Baltimore City was excepted from the provisions of the 1825 act if it established its own system of public education by 1830. This precedent caused problems later, as the vigorous resistance of Baltimore City to each successive attempt at a statewide system certainly caused several efforts to fail. Baltimore City opened its first public school in 1829, charged tuition of one dollar per term, and had an impressive percentage of its children, girls and boys, enrolled in schools.

    In 1837, the General Assembly again considered public education. The interest on Maryland's share of surplus federal revenue (roughly one million dollars invested at 5 percent) was set aside to support free schools (Chapter 285, Acts of 1837). Half was to be distributed according to the proportion of the "white" population; the other half was to be divided into twenty-one equal parts with a part allotted to each county and Baltimore City. In anticipation of these funds, the House Committee on Education had looked into the expediency of establishing a uniform system of public education and the propriety of using the State's share of surplus federal revenue for education. The Committee's report in 1836 favored a general system of public instruction supported by a combination of State funds and district taxation, such as that set up by the 1825 law, which since its passage had "slumbered on the statute book" (Maryland Public Documents, 1836, O). The report then cited Anne Arundel County as an example of the successful implementation of the act, even though it had been amended to meet local needs. Also, the Committee had been unable to obtain any statistics about the Anne Arundel County schools and went by hearsay. The Committee could not agree on whether to continue support to academies and colleges or use those funds to establish a university. The majority thought that a university would benefit only the wealthy.

    Despite the Committee's belief that the 1825 act made the best provision for schools in Maryland, the legislature in 1842 directed the Secretary of State, the Treasurer of the Western Shore, and the State Librarian to draft new legislation in the form of a code for the government of common schools and for the promotion of general education. They studied the organization of schools in New England and New York and concluded that Maryland's great deficiency was the lack of an administrative head. (Under the 1825 act, Maryland's Governor had appointed a Superintendent of Public Instruction, but after 1827 no one seems to have served in that capacity.) Northern states required annual reports from each school district which were then compiled for legislative review. In Maryland, the Committee in 1836 could not get statistics from a single county; for the 1843 report, statistics were requested from all twenty-one counties. Only fourteen responded, and the information submitted was incomplete. The proposed Code for the Support of Common Schools presented to the legislature in 1843 retained much of the local structure found in the act of 1825. Following New York and Pennsylvania practice, it designated the Secretary of State as Superintendent of Common Schools. It also required local districts to raise revenues before State funds were released to them. The proposed code required of Baltimore City only an annual report and stopped appropriations to all private institutions and academies, except St. John's College and Charlotte Hall Academy. The code proposed in 1843 was never enacted.

    Debate over public education continued at the Constitutional Convention of 1850-1851. Where legislation had repeatedly failed, constitutional provision might succeed. The Convention's committee on educational matters recommended a permanent and adequate school fund, a uniform system of public school education, an elected superintendent of education, and a normal (or model) school to train teachers. Old grievances over distribution of the Free School Fund caused the proposal to be postponed. The more populous counties and Baltimore City believed a State system would continue to deprive them of their fair share of educational funds, and smaller counties did not want to change a distribution which benefitted them. The proposal was not revived.

    State Board of Education. Maryland's first provision for uniform statewide education was adopted by the Constitutional Convention of 1864 (Constitution of 1864, Art. VIII, sec. 2). Votes of Union soldiers helped ratify the Constitution of 1864, and, because an oath was required at the polls, many Maryland voters with Southern sympathies were disenfranchised. Only in effect for about two years, the Constitution of 1864 propelled public education forward, mandating a uniform system of free public education, a State Superintendent of Public Instruction, a State Board of Education, county school commissioners, an annual State tax to support free public education, and a permanent State school fund. The legislature was prohibited from passing local laws concerning education. The State Superintendent was appointed by the Governor and immediately was required to submit a plan for the organization of free public education. If the legislature bogged down in old controversies and failed to enact a bill within the new constitutional framework, the plan of the Superintendent would become law. The State tax of ten cents on every hundred dollars of property was to be distributed to the counties and Baltimore City in proportion to their population between ages five and twenty years.

    In 1865, the first State Superintendent of Public Instruction proposed the establishment of free primary schools, grammar schools, one high school per county, a normal school, and a university, as well as separate schools for Negroes, the blind, deaf, handicapped, and the imprisoned. Attendance would be compulsory. The General Assembly adopted portions of his plan. In 1865, Maryland shifted from local control of schools to a highly centralized system whereby the State Board with the State Superintendent selected textbooks, set the curriculum, certified teachers, approved school building designs, and distributed State funds. Appropriations to academies were continued just until county high schools could be established. Taxes assessed against Negroes were set aside for schools for Negroes under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education, although few, if any, were started. In 1865, Maryland began a formal system of segregated schooling that continued for ninety years.

    Board of State School Commissioners. Opposition to State control came from the formerly disenfranchised voters of 1864 and from Baltimore City. They perceived the change as too sweeping, the cost too great. In 1868, the legislature returned control of educational matters to the counties (Chapter 407, Acts of 1868). Issues concerning local schools were to be referred to the voters, who elected both the Board of County School Commissioners and the Board of School House District Trustees. The State continued to fund the schools, however, through the ten-cent tax on every hundred dollars of property. The Principal of the State Normal School could receive reports from county boards and Baltimore City and make recommendations to the Governor and General Assembly, but had no authority. The reactionary law of 1868 was amended in 1870 (Chapter 311, Acts of 1870). A Board of State School Commissioners was created, appointed by the Governor. Under the new law, circuit court judges appointed boards of county school commissioners, who, in turn, selected district school commissioners. Free public schools were mandated for Negro children in 1872, under the control of the existing county and district boards (Chapter 377, Acts of 1872). The office of Superintendent of Public Instruction was revived in 1900 with limited duties of collecting and diffusing information (Chapter 428, Acts of 1900). School attendance was made compulsory in 1902 for children between the ages of eight and twelve; children over age twelve were not required to attend school if they were gainfully employed and could read and write (Chapter 269, Acts of 1902).

    State Department of Education. At the legislature's behest, an educational survey was undertaken in 1914 after release of disturbing illiteracy figures for Maryland. Basically an indictment, the survey report had a major impact on shaping education in Maryland. The surveyors found inadequate buildings, frequent truancy, and badly trained teachers, supervised by political appointees poorly educated themselves. Funds were ample but distributed without regard for accountability. The Superintendent's office had almost no staff and no authority to implement changes. The survey demonstrated the need for efficient administration and supervision of schools and public school funds. In response, the General Assembly created the State Department of Education, headed by the State Board of Education, and administered by the State Superintendent of Schools, backed by professionally qualified staff (Chapter 506, Acts of 1916). Appointed by the Governor with no regard for political affiliation, county boards of education in turn named the county superintendent of schools and district school boards. Professional standards were set for State and county administrators, and standards for teachers were written into law. Policy was formulated at the State level and administered by professionals. Ages for compulsory school attendance were extended, minimum salaries for "white" teachers increased, and the school year lengthened in Negro schools.

    In 1918, Maryland accepted provisions of the federal Smith-Hughes Act which added vocational education to the curriculum. State law was amended subsequently to establish a State Equalization Fund to aid poorer counties in 1922; create the State Teachers Retirement Fund in 1927; initiate education for all handicapped children through State and federal funding in 1929; and build schools for baby boomers with the School Construction Loan Fund of 1949. Desegregation of Maryland schools began in 1955.

    The basic foundations were laid in 1916 for the current State Department of Education, which became a cabinet-level department in 1976 (Chapter 539, Acts of 1976).

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