Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Kansas Education
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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.


The Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science was established at Manhattan as the Kansas State Agricultural College. Under the terms of the Morrill Act, approved by President Lincoln in 1862, Kansas was granted 90,000 acres of land for the founding of an institution "related to agricultural and mechanical arts." The institution opened its doors as a Federal land grant college in 1863.

The State school for the blind, at Kansas City, the State school for the deaf, at Olathe, and the Emporia State Teachers' College, at Emporia, were established by legislative action in the 1860's. A compulsory education law, for children between the ages of eight and fourteen, was passed in 1874. As part of the prohibition movement, provision was made in 1885 for courses in hygiene, "to be taught with special reference to the effects of alcoholic and narcotic stimulants."

Up to this time Kansas had followed the example of eastern States in school legislation, but in the 1880's the State legislature took an independent step by providing for a Statewide system of county high schools in counties of more than 5,000 population. The first was built at Chapman in 1889. Within a few years legislatures in almost every State in the Union had enacted similar bills.

In the late 1890's Kansas took the initiative by adding manual training courses to the Pittsburg public school curriculum. By the end of the century, courses in sewing, cooking, and woodworking had been introduced into the better-equipped schools in towns throughout the State. The Pittsburg State Teachers' College, established by a legislative act of 1903, pioneered in preparing manual training teachers. In the previous year the legislature also founded Fort Hays State College, which occupies a portion of the land once included in the old Fort Hays Military Reservation.

With the turn of the century, enrollment soared and the construction of school buildings boomed. The new and larger plants contained auditoriums, gymnasiums, theaters, swimming pools, and libraries. Vocational agriculture and home economics appeared in their curricula as a result of the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, providing Federal support for vocational education. The so called practical subjects stenography, bookkeeping, and business correspondence were stressed. The number of school districts multiplied with the organization of new counties until more than 9,000 of them were spread over the State.

There has been a gradual trend toward centralization of education and consolidation of schools. A State school commission was created in 1913, and in 1916 state educational, charitable, and penal institutions were brought together under a single board of administration. Nine years later (1925) all higher education institutions were put under the control of a board of regents, composed of nine members appointed by the Governor, and serving without remuneration. Consolidation of rural schools, though expedient, has not proceeded rapidly. Failure to consolidate, according to a report of the Kansas State Planning Board (Rural Schools m Kansas: March 1935) is due to the fact that "the rural school serves not only educational needs, but acts as a political and social center for the community and has a strong hold on the sentiments of the people." There are approximately 8,600 school districts, spread over the State with little regard for wealth or number of pupils, and each still possesses the individual powers designated by the Third Territorial legislature. More than 3,000 districts have a taxable value of less than $150,000, and in 1,000 districts, schools average less than six pupils.


The study referred to above reported on 8,217 schools out of 8,326 organized and operating in cities of the third class and in rural districts. It found an enrollment of 207,377 (December 1934), though the normal capacity of the schools was 331,194. The 1935 legislature passed a law permitting school districts to share the expenses of maintaining one school for two or more districts, while otherwise retaining their separate identities.

Financial difficulties resulted in a wide disparity in school taxes, and inequalities in equipment, teaching standards, and educational opportunities in general. Public schools ranged from the magnificent $2,600,000 Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, to one-room buildings, of which there were 7,000 in 1934.

The only State school aid, up to 1937, was from the proceeds of the dog tax and the interest on the permanent school fund. In this year, after decades of discussion in legislative halls, at political meetings, and on campaign platforms about the "evils of the Kansas school system," the State legislature provided that $2,500,000 be appropriated annually between 1937 and 1939 from a State sales tax for the aid of needy elementary schools. The fund is distributed by the State superintendent of public instruction.

High schools in the small towns are often centers of social activities for young and old alike. Conscientious and hardworking teachers prepare schedules of debates, dramatic and musical productions, and athletic events, which draw large crowds and generally provide for the purchase of school equipment. In the early 1930*5 high school bands developed, glorious in their bright uniforms, and plumed hats. These groups of boys and girls parade resplendently behind a high stepping student bandmaster, and enliven county and State fairs, inaugurals, and holiday celebrations. Trips with the band to surrounding towns and the State capital are cherished ambitions of high school music students.


Comparatively new in the Kansas educational system is the municipal junior college. Thirteen are maintained, with an approximate attendance of 4,000, and eight similar institutions are under parochial control.

In addition to the five State colleges financed by biennial legislative appropriations, there are eighteen private institutions of higher learning; but the enrollment of the latter group is equal to only one-third of the total for colleges. Four are Catholic institutions, three Methodist, while the Mennonites, Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Dunkards each sponsor one or more. These institutions are supported from tuition fees, private contributions, and small endowments.

Wichita Municipal University, formerly Fairmount College, was acquired by the city at a special election in 1926. It is the only municipally owned institution of higher learning in Kansas. Since 1926 its enrollment has grown from 400 to approximately 2,000, including 700 Wichita citizens in its extension department.

Adult education, through public night schools and the extension service offered by the State university and other State-maintained colleges, has developed rapidly in Kansas since the early 1920*5. Many of the larger cities offer vocational training and academic courses in public night schools, sponsored by the board of education. The Topeka night school, which opened in 1926 with an enrollment of 634, reached an attendance peak of 2,248 in 1933. In 1936 a total of 4,443 persons were enrolled in vocational education classes throughout the State.

The Statewide educational program, sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, has enabled many districts with inadequate funds to offer adult education. On August i, 1937, there were 18,709 persons enrolled in eleven types of classes at 567 educational centers. Courses included literacy and naturalization, workers' education, public affairs, parent education, homemaking, vocational education, leisure time activities, correspondence instruction, nursery schools, general adult education, and freshman college subjects.

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