The first school in what became Texas was initiated by Stephen F. Austin at San Felipe in 1824.
Austin proposed that a “seminary of learning be established at San Felipe and he endowed the proposal with six leagues of land.” He hoped for a brick building.
An educator by the name T. J. Pilgrim was employed to “establish a permanent San Felipe school and to raise sufficient funds for a brick school building to accommodate one hundred students.”
The continual unrest between Texas and Mexico diverted Austin’s attention to his planned “seminary”’ Pilgrim’s school became not a brick building but a crude log cabin that would house only 40 pupils of mostly boys.
A book, Education in Austin County, the Era Prior to 1885, published by the Austin County Historical Commission in 1997, outlines the early educational history of Stephen F. Austin’s namesake county and early Texas. The book relates the several decades it took to permanently establish a public-school system.
Teacher Pilgrim, along with Isaac Pennington, the Kenney family, and scores of other early Texas teachers, found these early schools hampered by hard living conditions and generally poor regard for public education. Schools were slow to develop in Austin’s own colony as well as throughout the new Texas communities.
The book details that “Texas, in declaring its independence from Mexico in 1836, charged Mexico with negligence in providing educational opportunities to children of the colonists. Mexico retaliated, stating the accusation was unjust and unfair, as they (Mexico) had expressed a willingness to establish an educational system by providing public lands and other financial resources for school purposes to a scanty and poverty-stricken population.” They continued that, “for those colonists who desired and could afford an education, private schools provided the answer; others would go uneducated.”
The First Congress of the Republic of Texas “made no mention of public schools.” Throughout the Republic, private schools popped up with most only lasting a few weeks or months. It would be the 2nd Republic President Mirabeau Lamar who zeroed in on schooling. Education Legislation in 1839 and 1840 provided vast amounts of land for development of schools. Other than declaring land, adequate financing for the construction of schools on the land was lacking.
Again, it was left to the attempt at setting up private schools for education of the young Texans. Many communities turned to their church buildings as classrooms during the weekdays. That was complicated by finding teachers at poor wages. These teachers usually found boarding at the homes of students’ parents.
Following the Civil War, the State Constitution of 1869 created a “highly centralized school system financed by a high tax program that came at a time when the state and counties were beginning a recovery from the hardships of the War.” This plan failed to be replaced by the School Law of 1873.
Again the 1873 school law was repealed. A State School Law adopted in 1876 declared that “incorporated cities and towns by majority vote of the taxpayers could assume exclusive control over their schools, and to also levy a tax in support thereof, and caused many towns and cities to incorporate for school purposes only.”
The practice of incorporating (towns) for school purposes to obtain additional revenue (for schools) became popular. This practice providing tax revenue evolved into the public-school system of today.
Written by Betty Dunn, Two Rivers Heritage Foundation. See www.tworiversheritagefoundation.org for more info and membership.