Part I - Education in Maine Prior to 1900

State Board of Education... following organization in 1949: seated, left to right, Mrs. Frances Smith, Bath; Mrs. Maude Clark Gay, Waldoboro; Frank S. Hoy, Chairman, Lewiston; John Fitzgerald, Portland; Mrs. Leah Emerson, Island Falls. Back, Joseph B. Chaplin, Bangor; Commissioner of Education Harland A. Ladd; Joseph A. Leonard, Old Town; Percy R. Keller, Camden; William Philbrick, Skowhegan; Ernest C. Marriner, Waterville.

1970 Board of Education: Bernal B. Allen, South Portland; Commissioner of Education William T. Logan, Jr.; Charles F. Bragg II, Chairman, Bangor; Mrs. Margaret M. McIntosh, York. Back, Chester L. Dana, Jr., Bangor; Frank S. Hoy, Lewiston; Kenneth F. Woodbury, Gray; Paul V. Hazelton, Topsham; Ernest C. Marriner, Waterville; Lincoln T. Fish, Gorham; Christo Anton, Biddeford.

During the years of exploration and settlement it was natural that there was a minimum of interest in the establishment of schools in the “Province of Main” because the area was settled slowly and the threat of Indian attacks left little time for social or cultural development. During those early years children could not go out of sight of home with any degree of safety and consequently it was around 1700 before schools were maintained regularly.

Although education was slow in developing, we find in the 18th and 19th centuries the roots of a system which was to grow to fruition in later years. A study of the early schools shows that present day education is not as modern as one might think, for nearly every aspect of today’s schools can be found in the strivings for an improved program prior to 1900.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1652 claimed the Province of Main under its charter which stated that the colony had title to all lands “within the space of three English miles to the northward of the River Merrimack and to the northward of any and every part thereof.”1

The purchase of the Province of Main by Massachusetts in 1677 removed all doubts about the claim and brought it under the Massachusetts Bay Colony Laws of 1642 and 1647 which contained the first legal requirements regarding schools. In 1642, the General Court of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay had ordered “that the selectmen in every town, shall have a vigilant eye over their bretheren and neighbors, to see first, that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families, as not to endeavor to teach, by themselves or others, their children and apprentices, so much learning as may enable them, perfectly, to read the English tongue and knowledge of the capital laws, upon penalty of twenty shillings for neglect therein.”2 Thus, this ancient law was the first step toward a compulsory attendance law and a provision that neglect of duty was a punishable offense. The legislators of those days recognized the danger of youth growing up in ignorance and took positive action to avoid it.

Public schools as such were first established by the law of 1647. This law had two distinct purposes; to thwart Satan’s desire to keep men from knowledge of the Scripture and to prevent learning from being buried in the graves of their forefathers. It ordered every township “after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty householders” to appoint one person to “teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read” whose wages were to be paid by the parents or masters of the children or by the inhabitants in general and provided that “those who send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.” It also directed that when any town increased to one hundred families, the authorities should set up a grammar school to instruct youth for the university. 3

This law is remarkable because it provided the basis for the establishment of schools of a higher grade than the so-called common school. Early grammar schools were not the same as the grammar schools of today, but were more like high schools and academies. This law actually compelled the establishment of what would now be called a high school in every town of one hundred families.

By 1800, although 161 towns had been incorporated within the territorial limits of Maine, only seven had grammar schools. 4 From this it may be assumed that no more than seven had over one hundred families and that the population was relatively sparse.

In theory, at least, the provisions for higher education at public expense were much more extensive than any now existing.

Despite these basically sound laws, little attention was give to their observance until sometime after the controversies over the Maine territory were settled by the 1677 purchase. Yet they were kept alive, for in 1671 the penalty for “failure to keep a school” was increased from five to ten pounds. Apparently some towns neglected the law, for in 1673 the towns of Kittery and York were presented for not providing a school and schoolmaster as required. In reality, public education as a going and accepted concern was not definitely established in Maine until after the turn of the 18th century.

Early Schools

The towns in York County, adjacent to Massachusetts, were the earliest settled in the state. Most of the early records were destroyed during the Indian wars, so there are no records or reliable history of schools prior to 1700.

In 1701, following a vote of the town, the selectmen of York “Indented and bargined with Mr. Nath’l Freeman to ceep a free school for all the inhabitants of our town of York, for which the town to pay said Freeman for one year eight pounds in or as money and three pence per week for teaching to reade, and four pence per week for writing and sifering and no moor.”5

The town of Wells had the next oldest record, that or March 20, 1715, when it was voted “to procure a schoolmaster at the town’s charge.” Apparently the selectmen met with no success because in 1716 the town was indicted for not having a school.

The First Schoolhouses

In the beginning there was not a schoolhouse in a single town and whatever provision was made for the instruction of children must have been at some of the dwelling houses. The first recorded action was in the town of York on March 9, 1724—when it was voted that “a schoolhouse shall be built at ye lower end of ye town on ye ministerial land this year at ye town cost.”6

In Wells, the first schoolhouse was built in 1731, and in 1734 two were built. 

The description given of the first schoolhouse in Kennebunk is a far cry from today’s school facilities. “It was built of large round logs notched at the ends so as to let into each other, as logging camps are built at the present day. The walls were about six feet high, with a roof over the top, though the gable ends were entirely open. There was no windows, the light coming in freely from the ends. The only way of entering, both for masters and scholars was by climbing up on a stile at the end and jumping down into the house.”7 The description does not explain the means of egress.

The Stone School at Round Pond – 1827

Maine was settled for the most part by Puritan stock from Massachusetts, which accounts for the influence of religion and the close connection which existed between the school and the church. Early laws regarding teachers were more concerned with moral character than with educational qualifications. As evidence of this concern, an act of 1671 directed that the youth be educated, not only in good literature but in sound doctrine, and ordered the selectmen not to allow anyone to teach in the school or colleges “that have manifested themselves unsound in the faith or scandalous in their lives and have not given satisfaction according to the rules of Christ.”8

For a long time the church took care of educational affairs, receiving money from the town and disbursing it in parish meetings for parochial purposes. Teachers were given examinations and certified by the settled minister.

The remuneration paid to teachers seems small compared with the salaries now paid. Yet considering the hardships and actual poverty of the early settlers, a salary of twenty pounds per year and his “diate” in addition compares quite favorably and probably was more liberal and self-sacrificing than is true of more recent days.

School Districts

In 1789, Maine as a part of Massachusetts adopted the school district plan of local operation of schools. 9 Each town or plantation was authorized to determine the number and limits of school districts. In some cases a school was kept a part of the time in one section or district of a town and part of the time in another section to accommodate the pupils. In some towns district limits were well defined, while in others they were highly flexible.

A Little Old Red Schoolhouse

In the district act of 1789 are found a number of the principles on which education in the state was to develop in succeeding years. These principles include requiring towns to support schools, the establishment of districts as a part or subsection of a town, teaching of morals, issuance of certificates of the literary and moral qualifications of teachers, establishment of primary schools, recognition of women as teachers, and the rights of towns to manage schools by a committee. 10

Two obvious omissions or weaknesses in the act were the lack of any requirement for appropriations and no recognition of the district as a legal entity. The second weakness was recognized and corrected in 1817 when the General Court made all districts corporate entities with power to sue and be sued, to take and hold any estate, real or personal, for support of schools, and to raise money for the purpose of erecting and maintaining a schoolhouse.

When Maine became a state in 1820, 236 towns had elementary schools supported by public taxation. Also, there were 25 academies with its boundaries. The Constitution in Article VIII entitled Literature emphasized the advantages of education but directed the Legislature to require the towns to support and maintain schools at their own expense and also to encourage and endow all academies and seminaries of learning in the state. 11 This might be interpreted as an intent to delegate responsibility for public schools to local units; but in actual practice from the very beginning of statehood, the state has participated in school financing and has demonstrated by appropriate action that the support of public schools is a joint responsibility of state and local agencies.

The first school law passed in 1821 made no provision for state assistance, while establishing the minimum amount of money which a town must raise annually for the support of schools at 40 cents per capita. Interestingly enough, a minimum per capita requirement continues to the present day and, despite inflation and extension of educational opportunities, had risen in nearly 150 years to only 80 cents. The 104th Legislature in 1969 raised the minimum to $20 per capita.

The absence of state assistance and involvement with local schools probably reflected a strong prejudice of Maine citizens against anything in governmental affairs which looked like centralization of control. This state of mind was so strong that in 1822 efforts to allow the town to choose district agents were defeated, although a compromise was reached whereby the town was allowed to determine by vote whether the districts should choose their own agents.

Even in the early years the need for state participation in the support of schools became evident. Just eight years after statehood, a public school fund was set up with $200,000 received from the sale of 20 townships together with some money received from Massachusetts as Maine’s share of war claims against the United States. 12 The income from this fund was distributed according to the number of scholars. This fund was the forerunner and basis in later years for larger funds for the equalization of educational opportunity. Thus, the principle of state support was established.

The school district plan undoubtedly served an important purpose in the pioneer period, guaranteeing a school wherever there were people. But there were indications early in the 19th century that all was not well. As early as 1822 Portland found the district system and the multiplicity of school officers, committees and agents an obstacle to good schools; asked and obtained a special act abolishing school districts and granting to the school committee all the powers of district agents. 13 Bath and Bangor soon followed Portland’s lead and in 1834 a general law was enacted authorizing towns to vote to discontinue school districts in favor of town organizations.

Dissatisfaction with the district system continued to grow and came to the surface in 1843 in a report of the Friends of Education. This group contended that many of the defects of the school system resulted from its isolated condition: that there were more than 450 towns and plantations with over 4,000 separate districts in the state; that each district was a distinct and separate entity entirely independent of others; and that with nearly 7,000 teachers operating on their own account without direction the inevitable result was chaos and inefficiency. It was felt that the lack of policies was as fatal to success as it would be for a sailor to attempt to navigate with no aid from chart or compass. It was contended that success could not be expected until some central organization was devised. Such organization would correct the evils arising from the fragmentary character of the system, would join together the individual parts, and serve as a channel of communication from school to school and teacher to teacher.

Legislation presented to implement the report provided for a board of school commissioners. It passed the House of Representatives by a close vote, but was indefinitely postponed without debate in the Senate. It’s significance lies in its initial efforts to improve education on a state-wide basis. It was followed by other efforts which did bear fruit in later years.

State Superintendent Warren Johnson in 1868 called attention to some of the causes of partial failure of the common schools, among them the district system, the incompetency of teachers, and the short school year. It was along there lines that a real battle was to be fought. In 1870, whereby the town committee rather than the district agent was empowered to employ teachers. From 1880 to 1893, when the district system was abolished, the number of towns employing a supervisor of schools increased and the need for more professional supervision emerged. 

A State Board of Education

Until the mid 1800’s the State had no designated official to whom any report of the condition of the schools in the towns could be made. No statistics of schools were collected. Teachers had no associations or conventions for mutual improvement. No information was available on how the laws were being observed by the towns or how the school money was being expended.

In January 1846, a convention of teachers and friends of education appointed a committee to “carefully consider the defects in our school system, and to suggest measures for improvement.” These defects were identified as the multiplication of school districts, the inefficiency of school committees, the lack of qualifications of teachers, the absence of a systematic course of study and want of general interest in schools.

This convention is notable since its recommendation of a State Board of Education was introduced in the Legislature and became a law. 14 Maine, thereby, became a pioneer in establishing a State Board even though it lasted only from 1846 to 1852. This Board is significant as it marks an era of reform and advance in school work, even though a solid basis for a State Board was not realized until 1947. The Board consisted of one member from each county, chosen by the school committees of the several towns in the county. The Board was authorized to elect a secretary at an annual salary of $1,000. Its duties were to collect and disseminate information on the location and construction of schoolhouses, on the arrangement of school districts, and the best use of school apparatus; to consult with school committees and school agents on the best and cheapest method of introducing uniform school books, and on the expediency of establishing school libraries; to inquire and report on the advantages of normal schools; to devise improvements in teaching in the common schools, and to report to the Governor and the Legislature.

The reports deplored the consequences resulting from too many independent districts and, without doubt, paved the way for the elimination of individual districts in favor of town-operated schools in 1893. The reports emphasized the inadequacies of teacher personnel, poor facilities, and inequalities in the length of school terms.

William G. Crosby, who later became Governor, was the first secretary of the Board. The report to the Legislature in 1847 contains the first reliable statistics about the schools of Maine. The average wage of male teachers per month was $16.71; for female teachers the wage was $1.52 per week exclusive of board, which was an increase of $.06 per week over the previous year. The average school year was 21 weeks and one day; there were 201,992 persons of legal school age, which is not too different from recent years. The Board recommended the establishment of “Teachers Institutes” to assist teachers in acquiring some knowledge of their work, and a law was passed in 1847 establishing such institutes. These institutes were the beginning of teacher education in the state. They were to cover at least 10 working days and $2,600 was appropriated to defray expenses of room, light and lectures. Thirteen institutes were attended by 1,686 teachers in 1847.

Reports indicate that these first institutes were revelations to teachers. They quickened thought, aroused professional pride, and stimulated an interest in study. Most of the teachers were young men and women eager to learn and ambitious to excel in their work. Several county teachers’ associations, which have continued to present day, were formed as an outgrowth of the institutes.

Despite the initial unique and timely contributions of the Board and its secretaries, it was abolished in 1852. This action seems inconsistent when viewed in retrospect and recognizing that William G. Crosby, the first secretary, was a talented lawyer, a scholar and effective speaker. His successor, E. M. Thurston, has been described as an eminent teacher skilled in public affairs. The Board created an interest in schools never known before; it excited a desire for better teachers, and emphasized the importance of an education.

Dr. William Corthell, State Superintendent of Schools 1876-78 and Principal of Gorham School Normal School, 1878-1905

As W. J. Corthell wrote: “It raised the dead corpse of the old school into an active growing life.”15 This seems like an auspicious beginning and it is difficult to explain the Board’s demise after six years of apparent success. Perhaps the peculiar formation of the Board was at the root of the trouble. Perhaps election of the Board by school committees was too far removed from the control of the political powers in the state. Corthell, who studied this period closely, reported: “It died not because it was a political power but because it was not, and whatever power it had educationally could not be used politically.”

The Legislature replaced the Board with county commissioners who were directed to spend at least 50 days in visiting schools in their counties and to report to the legislature on the character of the teachers and the order and condition of the schools and schoolhouses. The county commissioners were named, but there is no record of any work accomplished and apparently no reports were ever made. The failure of these county officials to act negated any tendency to establish a county system of education. From that day on the county in Maine has had no educational functions.

State Supervision

The initial step in the development of state supervision of public school education was of a statistical nature and came in 1825 when towns were required to make reports to the Secretary of State once every three years. 17 The returns were incomplete and of doubtful value and obviously were a far cry from today’s system of data collection. During its short period of existence the State Board collected information on school districts.

The abolition of the State Board and discontinuance of the position of secretary left the state without a chief state school officer, but this gap was filled two years later in 1854 by passage of an act establishing the office of state superintendent of schools. He was to be appointed by the governor with the approval of the council and was “to devote his time to the improvement of common schools and the general interests of education.”18

An annual salary of $1,200 was set by statute. The position continued uninterruptedly from that time on, although the title was changed in 1897 to state superintendent of public schools and later in the 20th century to commissioner of education. 19

The first state superintendent was Charles H. Lord of Portland, who served in 1854 and seems to have spent his time visiting various parts of the state and observing the schools. He reported on the lack of punctuality in attendance, want of parental interest, poor discipline, and incompetence of teachers. He proposed the enlightenment of the public, and a normal school for training of teachers.

In 1868, the duties of the state superintendent were enumerated more distinctly; the salary was raised to $1,800 exclusive of traveling and other necessary expenses and the office was given a “local habitation” which it had not had before. This “habitation” was located in the capitol in Augusta. The duties of the superintendent were to supervise all the public schools, advise and direct town committees, disseminate information, hold a state teacher’s convention each year, prescribe the studies to be taught in the common schools, and supervise the normal schools.

In the early years the tenure of the state superintendent was short due in part to political changes and undoubtedly to the inadequacy of salary. In the 46 years between 1854 and 1900, no less than 12 persons held the position with one, Nelson A. Luce, serving for 15 years, from 1880 to 1895.

Teacher Education

The early standards for teachers seem somewhat out of line with the actual status of teaching, for according to a law of 1789 “no person shall be employed as a schoolmaster unless he shall have received an education at some college or university and if he was to teach in a grammar school he must be skilled in the Greek and Latin languages.”20

The Teacher Institutes established in 1847 by the State Board of Education were the beginning of teacher preparation. In the absence of anything better, they filled a need for a time but were abolished by the Legislature in 1860 in favor of a so-called normal training program in 18 designated academies. For this service $100 the first year and $200 thereafter was to be paid to each academy. The trustees of these schools were to provide suitable rooms and good teachers for at least 50 pupils. The plan, a simple solution to a complex problem, was soon found to be impractical and the law was repealed in 1862. It was evident that some better means than institutes and academy programs must be found to prepare teachers. The Legislature was appraised of the need for normal schools by the early secretary of the State Board and thereafter by each State Superintendent. Resolutions calling the attention of the Legislature to the need were passed by the teacher’s conventions. The constant urging at length produced results.

The first normal school was established in Farmington in 1863, when the trustees of Farmington Academy offered the academy property to the State for a normal school. This offer was accepted and resulted in the establishment of the State’s first normal school the following year. A second normal school, Eastern State at Castine, was opened in September 1867 and a third at Gorham, known as Western Normal, was opened in 1878 on the site of the Gorham Female Seminary.

The Madawaska Training School, which later became Fort Kent State College, was opened in 1878 to prepare teachers for the French population of the St. John’s Valley area of northern Maine. Two other normal schools were established at Presque Isle and Machias soon after the turn of the 20th century, in 1903 and 1909 respectively. In the early years these normal schools were under the control of the Governor and Council, but were transferred to a board of trustees in 1873.

The board of trustees continued to be responsible for the state’s normal schools and teacher colleges until 1949 when it was superseded by the State Board of Education. In 1968, the state colleges became a part of the University of Maine.

State Finance

The second Legislature established the minimum to be raised by each town and plantation, annually, at 40 cents for each inhabitant. 21

The next evidence of state financial support came in 1828 when 20 townships of public lands were sold and the proceeds of approximately $200,000 were used to establish a common school fund, the income from which was to be distributed according to the number of scholars. This fund was the forerunner and basis for funds for equalization of educational opportunity in later years. 

In 1883, the banking corporations were required to pay to the State one-half of one per cent semi-annually on their capital stock. This has significance, as it was the first state appropriation from tax money for school aid. The amount was not large compared with present day sums, for during the period 1833 to 1849, the revenue average only $31,511 per year. Adding this to the municipal tax of 40 cents per inhabitant, the total amount of school funds available for the operation of public schools in 1849 was $289,961. The bank tax did not prove to be a stable source of revenue due to a tax on state banks imposed by the Federal government, and it seemed likely that this school resource would disappear entirely. To supply the deficiency in 1863, the sums to be raised by taxation were increased to 75 cents per inhabitant, and in 1868, to $1.00. The Legislature of 1872 provided a broader basis for support by the enactment of a tax of one mill per dollar on all property in the state for common schools. The proceeds of this tax were to be paid to the state and distributed to towns and cities according to the number of scholars between four and twenty-one. The same session reduced the per capita tax from $1.00 to 80 cents where it remained until 1969.

Looking backward, it might be observed that the condition of the public schools at the end of the 19th century was not due to adherence to well developed planning, but resulted more from natural growth, a zeal for the advantages of an education, and the beneficence of those who had the legislative power.

PART II Development of the State Department of Education 1900 - 1970