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The Common School Movement in Colorado

By Barry Poulson

With hotly-contested school board election campaigns going on all over the state, theres no shortage of candidates promising that they can fix the public schools. But the fundamental problem with education is that the government doesnt trust us to educate our children.

This was not always the case. For the first six decades of American history, families enjoyed the right and responsibility for educating their children in private or public community based schools. But in the 1830s, this right was challenged by the state. The “Common School Movement” launched by Horace Mann in Massachusetts imposed the power of the state over the right of families and communities to educate their children.

Horace Mann and the founders of the “Common School Movement” were especially suspicious of the new wave of immigrants entering the country. Mann and his followers wanted to instill in these new immigrants the virtues of the “common man” they considered essential for the nation state.

One of those virtues was a defense of slavery. Mann fired a school teacher in Massachusetts for espousing abolitionist views.

In Colorado, the conflict between family freedom and government bureaucracy began before statehood, and continues right down to the present day.

In 1860, the City of Boulder built the Territorys first schoolhouse. The early Territorial schools were entirely financed and supported by the local community; often the family with the most children donated the land and boarded the teacher. One of the schools remaining from that early era is the Gold Hill School, in the mountains west of Boulder.

In 1873 the citizens of Gold Hill banded together to build the school. Local teamsters contributed teams and labor to haul logs gathered by the town folk. Local property taxes financed the expenditures for supplies and the teachers salary. Teachers were usually local residents who knew most of the students as friends of the family.

A second school house built on the site of this first log schoolhouse continues to serve the children of Gold Hill today. It is the oldest mountain schoolhouse in the county in continuous use.

Families took a keen interest in the quality of education their children received in these early community based schools. Teachers were expected to teach the basics required for literacy and numeracy, and also to instill the moral and ethical values of their communities.

McGuffeys Readers were the standard texts in these schools. As one of the students recalled, “The Lessons were usually interesting and often contained a moral bearingwhich no doubt had its effect on the lives of the pupils”. Families did not expect teachers to deviate from this core curriculum, one teacher was fired for substituting western novels for the required reading.

In Colorado, the Common School Movement evolved in much the same way that it had in Massachusetts. The state attempted to consolidate schools in larger school districts, and to standardize the curriculum through a common set of courses and texts throughout the district.

In 1861 the First Territorial Legislature established seventeen counties, and legislators enacted a “Common School System Law” to be administered independently by each of the new counties. Each district was governed by a three-member school board.

The crowning triumph of central control came in 1949, when the Colorado legislature passed “The School Reorganization Act.” In Boulder County, the Act resulted in the consolidation of many smaller districts, and by 1961 all Boulder countys schools were consolidated into the St. Vrain and Boulder Valley School districts.

These consolidations and mergers were vigorously opposed by parents who perceived that their local schools already provided adequate facilities and competent teachers. These parents lost in a series of court battles in which the courts sanctioned the creation of a centralized state bureaucracy governing the schools.

The Gold Hill School somehow survived this state onslaught. Gold Hill citizens were able to resist the merger of their school in a larger district. A merger would have required a long and dangerous bus trip on steep mountain roads. It would also have required the families of Gold Hill to lose control of the education of their children.

Isabelle Mayhoffer, a former county superintendent, observed that the two huge new school districts in Boulder County spent more money but accomplished no more than the school districts they replaced. And she noted that the large districts destroyed community ties: “The rural school districts were a home-like situation where the teachers were extremely sincere and most of them very capable. They had a tutor attitude toward their children. It was a love affair. (The children) loved the school and the teacher loved the children, and the community was back of them…sort of a family affair.”

Americas schools have been studied to death. It is hard to make sense of the conflicting data and interpretations of the data, often by researchers with their own agenda. But there is one fact that does stand out in virtually all of this research: small local schools that are family and community oriented perform better than the large schools created by consolidating and merging these local school districts. The few small schools that have survived, such as the Gold Hill School, consistently rank among the best in terms of student achievement, and they do so at a lower cost per student.

The obvious question is why the early settlers in Colorado were able to accomplish so much with so little; and a century later with the highest standard of living in the world we cant provide even the minimum level of schooling that our children need to become productive and responsible citizens.

The question posed each year in the Colorado legislature is how can we find more money to spend for education. The legislature ought to think less about money, and more about community. It is time to begin taking control over education away from massive monopoly bureaucracies, and returning the power to families.

Dr. Barry Poulson is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank located in Golden, Colorado. https://i2i.org

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.
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