The Indiana School Law and School Administration
Author: Sheryl D. Vanderstel
Indiana School Law and the School System of 1886
A system of public education had been guaranteed to Hoosiers first by the Ordinance of 1785, then by the 1816 state constitution. Unfortunately for the students in the fledgling state, the manner in which those schools were to be funded and administrated became a political argument that lasted for more than a half a century. The 1816 Constitution allowed "for a general system of education, ascending in a regular gradation from township schools to a State University, wherein tuition shall be gratis and equally open to all." From 1816 through the 1830s, laws governing Indiana’s schools changed repeatedly. With each change came changes in the ability to tax property owners for the cost of schooling, the way schools were to be administered or how the administrators were chosen. The opponents to free public education in the state were many and the obstacles so great that few truly public schools were established in this early period. Subscription schools, operated by churches or individual communities, were established in some areas. These schools were limited to those individuals who could afford the "subscription." In 1843, those children eligible for attendance were limited even more when that year’s school law stated that "negroes and mulattos were not entitled to the privileges of schools" (Legislative: 4)
In 1840, the US Census reveled that Indiana had the lowest adult literacy rate of any non-slave state, with some counties in the state reporting an illiteracy rate of over 40%. (Boone: 88-90) By the late 1840s, many in Hoosier government and education felt that the education crisis had continued far too long. On the recommendation of the General Assembly a "Convention of Friends of the Common School" was convened at Indianapolis for three days in May of 1847. Caleb Mill, Presbyterian minister and professor at Wabash College, emerged as the leading advocate of free public education in the state. During the period 1846-1851, Professor Mills published and distributed educational "messages" to all members of the Indiana General Assembly. In these messages he elaborated on the need for public education and well trained teachers as well as the great price Indiana was paying for her uneducated electorate. Just as the Indiana School Law favoring a system of free public education was beginning to gain approval of voters, the state convened the convention to draft a new state constitution. Fortunately, the new constitution, ratified by the voters in 1851, more clearly mandated public education for the citizens of the state. (See Boone: 87-140 for further discussion of the specifics of the school debate)
The educational mandate of the new constitution still left the legislature with the thorny problem of how to establish a system and more importantly how to fund and administer the schools. The Common School Fund of Indiana was a major source of income for the schools. A number of established funds, such as the Sinking Fund, the Swamp Land Fund, and other funds of equally colorful nomenclature funneled into the School Fund. These monies, along with township and local tax sources established over the years, were responsible for the support of the public school system by 1886. (See attached – School Funding)
The administration of the schools at the state level was left to the Department of Public Instruction, headed by the elected office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction. As to the administration of schools at a local level, various systems were enacted over the years, but the County Superintendency Law of 1873 established the system that would govern the local schools of 1886. (Boone:240)
Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State School Board
The new Constitution of 1851 established the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The office was a two-year elected position and the School Law of 1852 laid out the responsibilities of the office. According to that law, the superintendent was required to: spend time in each judicial district to examine the schools; supervise school monies, receive reports from county auditors and trustees; recommend books and supervise township libraries; examine all applicants for license; make reports to the Governor and General Assembly and chair the State School Board. (Cotton: 19-20) The most extensive of these reports was the Biennial Report of the Superintendent. This report gave in detail all the workings of the entire department statewide and, by 1886, included the minutes of professional meetings, curriculum, all teacher exams and the all statistics for education in the state of Indiana. (Biennial Reports 1881-1886)
The superintendent in 1886 was John W. Holcombe, a Democrat, elected in 1882 and sworn in March 1883. He served well in the position for two terms. Educated at Harvard and receiving a law degree from the University of Iowa, Holcombe had been a teacher at Northern Indiana Normal School before working as a clerk for the Superintendent of Public Instruction Smart in the late 1870s. Elected to the superintendent’s office at 29 years of age, his youthful energy was apparent in his work furthering education in the state. He established the first statewide common school course of study, instituted district school examinations and graduation, began the celebration of Arbor Day, established uniform teachers’ institute outlines of study, and helped establish the teacher’s Reading Circles. His circulars to township trustees helped clarify their role in local education. In 1885, Holcombe wrote the most comprehensive interpretation of Indiana School Law ever published. Although much respected by the teachers and administrators of the state, his bid for a third term as Democratic candidate was denied by the state Democratic convention in the summer of 1886. After he stepped down as Superintendent, he went to Washington, D.C. where he served in the Department of Education for the rest of his career.
By 1886 the position of State Superintendent was a hotly contested political race, with all political parties putting forth candidates. The term of office was 2 years, with the candidate being nominated in the summer of even years, elected at the fall elections and taking the oath of office on March 15th of the following year. There were no qualifications for the position, but all elected superintendents up to this time were educators and all well equipped to lead the department. (School Law: 28-31) The winner of the 1886 race was Harvey M. LaFollette, the County Superintendent of Boone County, and well known to the Hamilton County educators.
The School Law of 1852 stated that State School Board should consist of the governor, state superintendent, secretary, treasurer and auditor of the state. By 1886 the members of the board had expanded to include professional educators. Besides the superintendent and the governor, the board included the presidents of the two state universities, president of the state normal school, and the superintendents of the three largest school systems in the state. (Cotton: 39) Together the superintendent and the board aided in the establishment of licensing regulations, teacher examinations, helped establish common school courses of study, gradation systems, graduation requirements and graduation examinations. They advised on funding regulations and additional sources of funding as well as school funding needs and teacher’s wages.
County Superintendent, the County School Board, Trustees and School Directors
The county school administration as it existed in 1886 was a result of the School Law of 1873, called the "County Superintendency Law." This law changed the office county examiner to that of county superintendent. In the new law the county superintendent was charged to visit all the schools in the county, examine teachers, and supervise county and township institutes. The law further stated he was to supervise book adoption and courses of study, hear appeals from teachers and trustees, oversee county school funding and make all state reports concerning the county schools except for financial. To accomplish all this, he worked as superintendent not less than one day for each school in the county and his salary was $4.00 for each day worked. This law was designed to bring the superintendent into a closer relationship with the schools, students and teachers. The township trustees elected him on odd years, the first Monday in June. The only requirement of office was that the elected superintendent be an elector of the county and a resident for over one year. Women were not eligible for the office, although several counties attempted to elect women. Lake County elected a woman in June 1875 but the Attorney General overturned the election. ( Boone: 246-247) Hamilton County’s Superintendent for 1886 was Ellis A. Hutchens. He was elected to serve from June 1, 1885 to June 1, 1887.
The County Board of Education was comprised of the trustees from each township in the county and the superintendents or chairmen of any city school systems within the county and chaired by the county superintendent. Trustees were elected every four years and could not succeed themselves. Candidates had to be citizens of the township they were to represent. Each trustee was personally responsible for carrying out all decisions of the county school board as well as overseeing the operation of the schools in the township. (Boone: 74-75) The establishment of the trustee and school board system was also a provision of the School Act of 1873. The county school board met semi-annually on the first of May and September "to consider the general wants and needs of the schools and school property of which they have charge and all matters relating to the purchase of school furniture, books, maps, charts, etc." (Boone: 250-251) Most county boards adopted the course of study for the schools but they had no power to make contracts or regulate taxation.
Within the township, the trustees were responsible for the location and construction of schoolhouses, school supply purchases, care of school property, as well as the employment and pay of teachers. Annually, on the first Monday in August, the trustees were to report to the county superintendent all required statistical information provided by each township teacher. The information was to include the number of schools in the township, number of male and female students, grades taught, texts used, and detailed financial reports of the township schools. Each April, the trustees were to enumerate each individual in the township between the ages of 6 and 21 and deliver the enumeration to the county superintendent. Trustees authorized student transfers and made sure that any indigent pupils of the township were provided with books. The trustee controlled township libraries, had charge over the township institutes and levied any local taxes necessary to defray township school costs. The township trustees authority was absolute under the system.
The law also allowed for the election of a school director but few directors were ever elected; usually, the trustee appointed them. The director was to be a resident of the school district and was to call and preside over and record any district school meetings. The director had responsibility for making repairs as charged by the voters. He also provided fuel and acted as the liaison between the trustee and the voters of the district. Ultimately the director was the agent of the trustee and under his orders. (Boone: 275)
Teaching Licenses and Teaches’ Examinations
All teaching in the public schools of the state were required by state law to hold valid licenses. These teaching licenses fell into different categories; each defined by education, teaching experience and successful completion of the required examination. The one common requirement for all, however, was "satisfactory evidence of good moral character." (School Law: 32) This "satisfactory evidence" was usually the township trustee’s certificate of character although it was legal for the superintendent to certify an applicant as morally fit. (School Law: 37)
The most basic teaching licenses were given at the county level. Indiana State School Law Sections 4425, 4426 and 4427 cover all aspects of teacher licensing in the counties. County superintendents were required to offer the licensing examination once every month. Before taking the exam the applicant had to obtain a certificate of character from the township trustee where the applicant resided or worked. Upon presentation of the certificate and passing the oral interview of the County Superintendent, the applicant was eligible for the written examination. Each monthly exam was provided by the Superintendent of Public Instruction and was printed in the Indiana School Journal the month following its administration. The exams were divided into nine subject categories: (1) orthography; (2) reading; (3) writing; (4) arithmetic; (5) geography; (6) English grammar; (7) physiology; (8) United States history; and (9) theory. If the candidate had taught previously in the county, points were given for experience. The length of the license awarded to successful applicants was based on the average of the nine category test scores and the scores of the individual tests. The better the overall scores the longer the license length. The highest scores were rewarded with a 36-month license; 24, 12, and 6-month licenses were also awarded. The scale was as follows:
36 months—95+ average, no score lower than 80 on fields 1-8; 90 on field 9
24 months—90+ average, no score lower than 75
12 months—80+ average, no score lower than 65
6 months—70+ average, no score lower than 60
Because the County Superintendent had the ultimate say in the issuance of all county licenses, it was legal for other factors, such as special training or a particular fitness, to also be considered in the awarding of the licenses. In areas with a large German population that had petitioned for the teaching of German in the school, the "special fitness" was the ability to teach German. An applicant who had never taught could not be awarded more than a 6-months license, but an applicant can receive no more than 1 6-months license. Many professional educators objected to the 6-months license arguing that score so low did not reflect a mastery of the subjects required in the common school curriculum. Those earning a county license could teach at any school within the county. (Educational Weekly, March 29, 1884: 9; School Law: 37)
The second license type was a State Certificate. To qualify for a license, an applicant was required to be of good moral character and to have successfully taught for 48 months with at least 16 of those months spent teaching in the state. The candidate had to demonstrate scholarship and professional ability in an interview conducted by the county superintendent. By order of the State Board of Education on October 16, 1885, the applicant then had to pass a series of 3 examinations; each administered on the last Saturday of February, March and April. The test questions were devised by the State School Board. The first test covered the areas of arithmetic, geography, physiology, reading, United States history, orthography, and penmanship. The second exam was algebra, physics, science of teaching, grammar, botany, the United States Constitution, and American literature. The third covered geometry, rhetoric, physical geography, general history, chemistry or geology or zoology, and English literature. (1885 Biennial Report: 8-9) Any person holding a 36-month license was exempt from the first test and had only to pass the March and April exams. The test day included three hours of testing in the morning, a 1½-hour lunch break, and 3½ hours of testing in the afternoon. The completed examinations were sent to the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for grading. A passing score was an average of 75 with no single score lower than 60. Anyone receiving this certificate could teach at any school in the state.
Teacher Contracts and Wages
By law, only the township trustee could make teacher contracts. In towns and cities, the city superintendent was responsible for hiring teachers. Both were able to hire teachers felt to be capable and holding valid teaching license. The 1885 School Law stated that teachers should be hired within the school year. The existing contracts for 1885 and 1886 Hamilton County are all signed in 1-2 weeks prior to the commencement of the school year. Each contract stated the district school to be taught, the length of the term, and the teacher wages per day. Also stated was the teacher responsibility for the care of the schoolhouse and the teaching apparatus therein, as well as the keeping of all the records required by law. The teacher was required to attend township institutes or forfeit one day’s wages for each institute missed without an approved excuse. The teacher was also required to give students holidays for which no pay would be received. The contracts for White River Township, Hamilton County, state that the teacher will "give one weeks vacation during the holidays." The contracts also stated that the teacher would receive 5 cents a day for "janitor’s fees." The trustees had the power to dismiss a contracted teacher if a majority of those able to vote at a school meeting demanded it or if the teacher committed an infraction of the school law or was shown to be of immoral character.
The Indiana School Law did not stipulate the wages a teacher received. In fact, the 1885 edition of the School Law did not mention teacher wages. The existing contracts for White River Township show the range of salaries for district schoolteachers for the 1885-1886 school term. The ten male teachers in the township received wages ranging from $1.99 to $2.75 a day; the four women received between $2.01 and $2.32. All received .05 daily for janitorial duties. From the surviving Trustee Account Book it seems that a teacher did not receive pay for the year until the term was concluded and the teacher had filled the required statistical reports. These wages were very low, considering the daily wages for teachers in Marion County for 1873 averaged $2.44 for men and $2.24 for women (Educationalist, November 1873:12). Benefits were literally unknown. There was no pay for holidays, days missed due to illness, or inclement weather. Pensions were just being discussed and there was much prejudice against pensions.
Boone, Richard G. A History of Education in Indiana. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892.
Chrisney, ? "What Has Been Done in Indiana for Public Education." Indiana Legislative Bureau, n.d.
Cotton, Fassett A. Education in Indiana. Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, 1904.
The Education Weekly. Indianapolis, 1884-1886.
The Educationalist. Indianapolis, 1873-1874.
Holcombe, John W., editor. The School Law of Indiana. Indianapolis, 1885.
Holcombe, John E. Thirty-fourth Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Indianapolis, 1886.
Indiana School Journal. Indianapolis, 1880-1887.
Mock, Albert. Unpublished notes on history of Indiana education. Indiana State Library, Indiana Division, Manuscripts.