Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

Article Index

The schools of Kansas have been locally supported and, for the most part, locally controlled since the earliest days. Until 1937 when the State legislature established a State Aid Fund for the benefit of elementary schools in need of additional support, the State government performed neither of these functions except for the State supported institutions of higher learning and the educational institutions for defectives.

Yet Kansans generally have been united by faith in the power of learning to make mankind industrious, virtuous, and wise. With this faith the pioneers built their first humble school houses of logs and sod. And because of this belief 450,000 students attend the universities, colleges, junior colleges, high, and common schools of Kansas today.

The first schools were religious missions among the Indians. Approximately twenty-five were established in eastern and central Kansas between the 1820's, when the Presbyterian Neosho Mission was opened in what is now Neosho County, and the late 1850's. Religion and education went hand in hand at these frontier outposts of civilization. Members of peaceful Indian tribes came from far and near to the mission schools and often attended classes with the white children. They learned reading, writing, farming methods, and simple health measures. Ottawa University is a direct outgrowth of the Ottawa Baptist Mission founded by the Reverend Jotham Meeker in 1837, and Highland College at Highland had its origin in the Kickapoo mission established by the Presbyterian Church in 1856.

The first free schools in Kansas were held in private homes, in village stores, or wherever it was expedient. If the settlement boasted no teacher, a housewife with "learning" was drafted to take charge. School texts were scarce and the children learned their lessons from whatever books their parents happened to have. Sometimes this was the family Bible or a worn volume of Shakespeare, occasionally a copy of an eastern newspaper, and not infrequently an almanac.

In 1855 members of the first Territorial legislature adopted the Missouri statutes for use in the Kansas Territory. These provided for the establishment of public schools "free and open to whites." When the first Free State legislature met at Lawrence in 1858, these laws were revised.

Possessing the deep-rooted Yankee conception of schools as neighborhood affairs, the lawmakers created a system of school districts administered by county superintendents and a Territorial superintendent of schools. To the county superintendent they gave the power of creating and altering the school districts; the individual districts, with their personnel and tax problems, were put under the control of local school boards. For the upkeep of the new school districts, the lawmakers levied a tax upon real and personal property, requiring each district to maintain schools entirely from its tax-derived revenues.

Each succeeding legislature has added to the Kansas school laws until today the system is a patchwork. The State constitution, drawn up in 1859, provided for "equal educational advantages for white and colored," and for "males and females alike." An additional clause provided for a State university at some "eligible and sensible point," and for months after the admittance of the State into the Union the problem of location agitated many ambitious Kansas towns.

The University of Kansas was founded at Lawrence in 1865. According to the original plans, the institution was to have been divided into male and female branches the latter separate from the college proper and taught by women. But when classes began in 1866, with fifty men and five women enrolled, facilities were so limited that segregation was impracticable, and the university opened as the first coeducational institution of higher learning in Kansas.

Education at college and university level, in name at least, was a matter of great importance to early Kansans. Among the New England pioneers who came West to emancipate "bleeding Kansas" were many ardent young college graduates. Education in their minds ranked next in power to the press and the church, and they envisioned seats of learning comparable to the famous universities of the Eastern Seaboard and of Europe. Eastern churches hastened to strengthen their hold upon the new country by founding colleges, competing with town promoters for choice locations and subsidies. Eighteen universities and ten colleges were chartered by the Kansas legislature between 1858 and 1863. Only Highland College, at Highland, Baker University, at Baldwin, and St. Benedict's College, at Atchison, survive.