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until the whole community, becoming corrupt, bursts forth into some mighty change, or sinks at once into annihilation. •Can it be,' said WASHINGTON, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue.' The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature.
“ And the commissioners cannot but hope that that Being who rules the universe in justice and in mercy, who rewards virtue and punishes vice, will most graciously deign to smile benignly on the humble efforts of a people, in a cause purely his own; and that He will manifest this pleasure in the lasting prosperity of our country.”
We cannot deem any apology necessary for the space occupied by these extracts from this admirable report: shadowing forth as it does the great features of that system of public instruction subsequently adopted, and successfully carried into execution; and laying down in language at once eloquent and impressive, those fundamental principles upon which alone any system of popular education, in a republic like ours, must be based. The leading features of the system proposed by the commissioners, were adopted and passed into a law by the legislature, during the session of 1812, with the exception of leav. ing it discretionary with the electors of the several towns after the first d.stribution of public money, to receive their share and to raise an equal amount by tax, or to dispense alike with the burden and the benefits of the legal provisions, by vote at their annual town meetings.
On the organization of the system, Gideon HAWLEY, Esq., then of the county of Saratoga, was appointed by the Council of Appointment, Superintendent of Common Schools.
On the fourth day of February, 1814, the first annual report of Mr. Hawley, as Superintendent of Common Schools, was transmitted to the legislature; in which he informs that body that in pursuance of the act for the establishment of common schools, passed on the 19th of June, 1812, he had at the commencement of the preceding year given due notice of an intended distribution of the interest of the school fund, and that by means of such notice, that act had been carried into operation so far as depended upon him; that although no official returns had been received from which an estimate might be formed of the beneficial operation of the act, yet that satisfactory evidence had been obtained, that in many cases its operation had been prévented by the refusal or neglect of towns to comply with its provisions; and that in other cases where such compliance had been made, and the act thereby carried into effect, its operation had been much embarrassed by difficulties, arising, as was believed, from the imperfection of its provisions; that notwithsianding these obstacles and embarrassments, its influence had
already proved very salutary, and that with the aid of legislative amendment, it promised to yield all that encouragement to common schools which it was designed to give. “It was not to be expected,” continues the Superintendent, “ that any system for the establishment of common schools could be devised, which in its first form should be wholly free from imperfections; and accordingly it has been found that the existing law for the establishment of such a system is, in some respects, defective in its provisions, and obscure and doubtful in its meaning." The report goes on to suggest such amendments as were deemed requisite in various particulars, not necessary to enumerate here. The operation, huwever, of that portion of the law which left it optional with the several towns to comply with its conditions and participate in its benefits, or not, as the inhabitants at their annual town meeting might determine, is worthy of special notice. We quote from that portion of the report which examines this feature of the system.
66 The fifth section of the act provides that such towns in every county as shall have complied with the law, by directing their supervisors to levy on them the sum required by the act to entitle them to their proportion of the public money, shall receive by apportionment, from the board of supervisors, the whole dividend of the county, according to their respective popula. tion, to the exclusion of such towns as shall not have complied with the law. By a subsequent part of the same section, it is further provided that the sum required to be raised on each town, to entitle it to a share of the public money, must be equal to the sum apportioned to such town by the board of supervisors. By the operation of these several provisions in the act, the case may be that a single town in a county shall be entitled to receive the whole dividend for such county; and although this sum shall be more than sufficient, (as in ordinary cases it will be,) to support all its schools, it must nevertheless be subjected by tax to the payment of an additional sum equal in amount to the sum it is entitled to receive; and this additional sum must, in law, be applied to the support of its schools, which may have had (and in ordinary cases will have had) an excess of support already. Although the case here supposed has not yet occurred, to the knowledge of the Superintendent, there is nevertheless good reason to believe it will occur; satisfactory evidence having been obtained, that in some counties but few towns have complied with the law, or shown any disposition to comply therewith. The mischief herein complained of, may be remedied by providing that the board of supervisors shall not, in any case, raise by tax on any town, a sum exceeding the sum which such town shall be entitled to receive out of the county dividend, if all the towns in the county had complied with the law.”
“ It will be found by inspection of the act, that one of its principal features is the provision which gives every town an election, either to comply with the act and receive its benefits, and bear its burdens, or to refuse such compliance, and thereby forego its benefits, and avoid its burdens. In the exercise of this choice, it has already been observed that many towns have refused to comply with the act, and it is believed they will generally persist in such refusal, and that some other towns which have already complied with the law, will endeavor to retract their compliance. By allowing such an option to every town, the operation of the act depending on the pleasure, and not unfrequently the caprice of a few individuals, will be always partial and Auctuating; it will, moreover, be embarrassed by all the difficulties which are naturally connected with instability of system and intricacy of form. It is therefore submitted whether this provision in the act may not be so amended as to make it obligatory on towns to comply with the act, and also on the board of supervisors of the several counties to levy on their respective towns, a sum equal to the sum which shall be apportioned to such towns out of the public money to be distributed.” This suggestion was adopted by the legislature, and the act amended in this and various other respects, in conformity to the recommendation of the Superintendent.
On the 11th of February, 1815, Mr. Hawley transmitted to the legislature his second annual report as Superintendent. The returns which had been made to him from the several counties were, however, so few in number, and in general so extremely defective in substance, and inartificial in form, that he did not deem it advisable to communicate them to the legislature, preferring to defer the performance of the duty required of him in this respect, until more perfect returns, in accordance with forms and instructions to be prepared by him, should enable him to discharge it more beneficially to the public. “The neglect of many of the commissioners of common schools, and other subordinate officers under the act,” says the Superintendent, “in not making the returns required of them by law, and the manner in which others who have undertaken to make the necessary returns have discharged their duty, betray in some cases, a want of care and interest in the concerns of common schools, and generally a very great degree of embarrassment in conducting their operations. The Superintendent has also learnt from other sources, and especially from the frequent ap plication to him for advice, that a very great degree of embarrassment has been felt by most persons who have any charge under the act for the establishment of schools. He has also observed that there has not as yet been excited that general interest in behalf of the establishment of common schools by law, which the importance of it might seem calculated to inspire. It ought not, however, to be inferred from these or any other facts which have come to his knowledge, that the system of common schools established by law will not fulfil the beneficial ends of its institution, or that the reasonable expectations of its founders have yet been disappointed. It was not a reasonable expectation that the prejudices of the community would immediately subside, and their feelings fall in with a system which, being altogether new in its provisions, was untried in its operations. Nor was it reasonable to expect of such a system, that it would immediately fulfil all the beneficial ends of its institution. The system of common schools, like every other system which arrives to perfection, must be gradual in its growth; in its infancy it should be cherished with tenderness and care, and it ought not to be lightly discarded because it wants maturity, betore it has had time to attain it. It is well known that most of the difficulties which now en barrass the concerns of common schools, and which, in the opinion of some, preclude the expectation of any beneficial result, do not arise so much from any defect in the system established by law, as from an ignorance of the duties required under that system, and the unaccustomed nature of its operations. But when time shall have removed the cause of this difficulty, as by the aid of occasional instructions it most infallibly will do, and shall have given to this system what constitutes the perfection of almost every other--a long establishmen-there is a moral certainty that the beneficial ends of its institution will be fulfilled, and the expectations of its founders fully realized.” The Superintendent proceeds to suggest a Cew additional amendments to the act concerning common schools, and concludes with some observations in reference to the investment of the school fund.
On the first day of April, 1816, the Superintendent transmitted his third annual report, from which it appeared that returns relative to the condition of the schools had been made to him from 338 towns in thirty-six of the forty-six counties then in the state; that the whole number of districts from which reports had been received by the commissioners, in conformity to law, was 2,631; that the whole number of children between the ages of five and fifteen in said districts, was 176,449; and that 140,106 had been under instruction during a portion of the year reported in the common schools. The Superintendent, however, observes : “ The returns not being complete, and many of them being defective in some one or more of their necessary requisites, it is difficult to form any certain estimate from them. Taking, however, the most correct and full returns for a criterion, it would appear that there are within the state, about five thousand districts in which common schools are established; that the number of children taught in them is at least two hundred thousand; and that the number of children between the ages of
five and fifteen years, residing in those districts, is about two hundred and fifty thousand. The city of Albany, and the city and county of New York, not being divided into school districts under the act, are not included in this estimate.” These being the first statistical returns under the act of 1812, it may not be uninteresting to contrast them with those for the year 1842, after the lapse of thirty years. The whole number of school districts is now about eleven thousand; the number of children between the ages of five and sixteen, is about six hundred and fifty thousand, of which not less than six hundred thousand are under instruction during the whole or a portion of the year in common schools.
But to resume our quotation from Mr. Hawley's report:“ The Superintendent has also had the satisfaction to learn from other sources, that the establishment of common schools by law has already produced many great and beneficial results. The number of schools has been increased; many school houses have been built; more able teachers employed, and much of that interest which ought to be felt in behalf of common schools, has been generally excited. The beneficial operation of the act has also been visible in the pecuniary aid which many schools have derived from it. A perpetual annuity of twenty dollars, which is the average sum received by each district under the act, ought not to be considered a trifle unworthy of any account. It has been very sensibly felt, especially in those districts where, from the inability of the inhabitants, or from any other cause, common schools have not been kept open for the whole year; and when the revenue of the fund shall have attained its full growth, the distributive share of each district will be so much more considerable, that the munificence of the legislature cannot fail to be more gratefully acknowledged.
* But the great benefit of the act does not lie in any pecuniary aid which it may afford. The people of this state are, in general, able to educate their children without the aid of any public gratuity; and if they fail in this respect, it is owing more to their want of proper schools than of sufficient means. The public gratuity is important, as it tends to excite an interest in the affairs of common schools which might not otherwise be felt, and is also beneficial in many other respects. But the great benefit of the act consists in securing the establishment of common schools, wherever they are necessary; in organizing them on a suitable and permanent foundation, and in guarding them against the admission of unqualified teachers. These were the great ends proposed in the establishment of common schools by law; and under the wise and liberal policy of the legislature, these cnds have been so far accomplished as to warrant full faith in their final complete attainment.”