Perhaps paradoxically, researching the past is always full of new discoveries. Recently I received an envelope of old documents from the Hoosick Falls historian. They were noted as having been in the Hazel Hill Collection and in a bag with 1985 obituaries. But they are school bills from the 1840’s from Schaghticoke! At first I was puzzled as to their content, as they seemed to show families being billed for the number of days their children attended school. Hasn’t the U.S. always had free public education? Then I found a professionally prepared handout in my files, collected by my predecessor as historian, unsourced, but dating from 1967. It gives a summary of education laws in N.Y.S. up to 1967. From the first public schools in 1812 until 1867, school funding was a combination of state aid, local property taxes, and “rate bills.” The latter were basically tuition payments. Parents paid a daily cost for each child. Of course this could make it impossible for some parents to send their children to school, or make them less able to send them full time. At the time, attendance averaged less than 50% across the state, compared to over 90% today. So, no, public education in the U.S. has NOT always been free.
The town of Schaghticoke was divided into one-room school districts at the time of the first public school law, 1812. Ideally, students could easily walk to school, where one teacher taught all grades from kindergarten to 8th. Each school had its own trustees and hired its own teacher. The school bills I received from the 1840’s are for the school whose district was made up of School District No. 2 in Schaghticoke and No. 6 in Cambridge- so the district was at the north end of the town, overlapping into Washington County. The school building was in Washington County.
portion of Beer’s Atlas of 1877 showing the district in question. The school was just over the county line in Cambridge
The bills showed that the school teacher him or herself multiplied out the number of weeks taught in each term by the salary per week, then subtracted the amount of state aid for the district from the result. She/he then recorded the names of the students and the number of days each had attended, added up the total for each family, multiplied by the cost per pupil per day and assessed the amount due from each family. Teacher Harriet P. Main submitted one bill from March to July 1845, 16 weeks and one day- or 91 days. She made $1.50 per week, for a total of $22.77. (I know the numbers don’t quite work out.) Public money received was $7.48, making $15.23 to be raised from the district. There were thirteen parents of 34 total children. For example, John Burch had two children: Calista attended 70 ½ days, Henry 65, for a total of 135 ½ days. He owed $1.24. Nathaniel Welling had three children. Richard and Leonard attended 38 days, Rachel 56 days, for a total of 132 days. He owed $1.21. Everyone on the list paid. The amounts seem tiny to us, but this was an economy without much cash. Eunisa Burch and Mary Shrieves had the best attendance: each attended 80 days. Mary and Sarah Brownell only attended four days, and their sister Ann just 14! As a former teacher, I would not have been happy that even the best attendees missed 10 of 91 days.
a portion of one of the school bills, this one from 1845
I would love to give some information on the teachers mentioned in the school bills. Sadly, I have found nothing about Harriet Main, or the other two teachers mentioned, Nancy Welling, who may have been related to the many Welling in the district, and J. Henry Walch. From what I have researched elsewhere, school teachers in the 1840’s were sometimes young men who were in the middle of going to college. At this time future President Chester A. Arthur taught for a few terms in a school not far from this one. Sometimes the teachers were young women, often recent graduates of the school in which they were teaching. Public education has certainly changed a lot in the last 150 years.