A Brief Summary
It is difficult in this short article to cover the rich history of Vermont in addressing public education. Some of us who are the first generation to go to a public University, and before it to a one room country school for eight years and then a very small public high school, understand how fortunate we were, both for the experience and for the education.
Vermont’s 1777 Constitution is said to be the first in English speaking North America to mandate public funding for universal education and to provide public education for girls. It is the only governmental service that has ever been accorded constitutional status in the state. It is said that Vermont Governor William P. Dillingham in the 1890’s described “the board proposition that the education of the masses is absolutely essential to the safety of the state and U.S.” Over a period of time others have made similar statements. George Aiken from Putney, Vermont, a former Governor and U.S. Senator, once said that “advanced education is a New England Tradition.” Calvin Coolidge, the 13thPresident of Vermont from Plymouth, Vermont, stated that “education is the one thing which we cannot afford to curtail.” One source stated that the Vt. Constitution “has made education as much a Vermont tradition as maple syrup, winter sports, and the green mountains. It was the first state to constitutionally guarantee a clearly articulated system of education beginning with primary schools and concluding with a University.”
Vermont education has changed over the years, and Vermont history is full of advances that have been made at all levels, primary, secondary, and at the College and University levels. In the mid 1800’s, for example, Vermont had more than 2,000 school districts, and as many one room schools, and as late as 1913 one-half of the country’s schoolchildren were enrolled in over 2000 one-room schoolhouses like the one I attended. Educational reform has taken many approaches over time. A few of the major changes have included the following:
• The Federal Land Grant Act of 1862 signed by President Lincoln and authored by Vermont Senator Justin Morrill of Strafford, Vermont, brought University education in agriculture, the sciences, and mechanical arts to the masses. Before this, many of the private Ivy leagues, like Yale, Harvard, and Amherst had agricultural science courses, but these were limited to those who had the financial means. The University of Vermont, then a private University founded in 1791, sought and received the Federal Land Grant designation and the federal scripts of western land to sell to support this endeavor. The Act was considered a historic achievement that changed the course of Agriculture as well as education in the U.S. and in Vermont.
• Normal Schools were begun in the early 1800’s to address the shortage of qualified teachers in the state. The first one in the United States was founded by Rev. Samuel Read Hall, as Concord Academy in Concord, Vermont in1823. Others followed to include Castleton in 1867 (was also the first medical college in the state in 1818, and the first degree granting medical school in the U.S.) which began as a grammar school in 1787; Johnson began as Johnson Academy in 1828 and became a normal school in 1867.While Lyndon, in 1911, was established as a one-year normal school, the state legislature authorized it to become Lyndon Teachers College in 1955. Randolph, which began as an Orange County Grammar School in 1806, became the state’s first normal school by legislative mandate for training teachers in 1867.
• Vermont School for Agriculture in Randolph, Vermont was created by the state legislature in 1910. Theodore Vail, the President of AT&T had endowed a school of agriculture in conjunction with Lyndon Institute for practical training in agriculture. The institute was turned over to the State in 1915, and agriculture was dropped from its courses in 1921. Since the University of Vermont Land Grant had not granted a degree from the Land Grant in over 50 years (since it was first established), the need for technical training in agriculture was advocated by the Vermont Grange as well as the Vermont Dairymen’s Association. Vermont Technical College almost closed in the 1950’s due to the decline in the Vermont farm population, but added additional technical courses to serve Vermont’s workforce needs. For example, VTC’s Practical Nursing Program is the longest running one in the United States (it was started at the Thompson School of Nursing in Brattleboro in 1907).
• The Vermont State College System was incorporated in 1961 as a comprehensive,
interconnected system of public colleges to include Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Northern Vermont University (created by the merger of Johnson and Lyndon in 2018), and Vermont Technical College. In 1970, the State established the Community College of Vermont, that now has twelve locations in the state and is the second largest college in the state.
On the funding side, according to history, it has never been easy. Prior to 1890, each school district provided funding for its own grammar and high schools. A state law in 1864 made the payment of taxes to the local school compulsory for all landowners regardless of whether or not they had students in the school district. In an attempt to equalize state educational funding, the state enacted a statewide property tax in 1890 and also companion laws aimed at improving teacher training and consolidating school administration. This tax remained in effect until 1931, when it was replaced by a state income tax, with educational costs reverting to municipal property taxes and equalization methods. Changes have continued through the years with the most recent being Act 46 in 2015 that is intended to improve educational outcomes and equity by creating larger and more efficient school governance structures.
Today education at all levels in the state is being challenged. It has been estimated that Vermont’s high school population declined approximately 20 percent from 2009 to 2011, one of the biggest drops in the nation. This was attributed to Vermont’s low birthrate. In response to these demographic trends, the high costs of education and in maintaining five college locations, as well as the low level of state financial support for higher education compared to many states, a plan to close or merge many of the state colleges was scheduled this spring for a vote by the Vermont State College Board but was soon withdrawn because of public opposition. The discussion has again brought to the forefront the importance of education as articulated in the 1777 Vermont Constitution as a basic need and right. In a survey done by Advance Vermont in 2020, it shows that 40% of today’s students in Vermont are first generation college students.One-third are 30 years old or older, 80% work, 25% are parents, 55% commute, 52% receive little to no financial support from families, 35% are food insecure, and 33% experience housing issues. It is known that 70% of students attending Vermont State Colleges are Vermonters and most live close to the schools they attend. According to the same report, it is stated that social scientists like Richard Reeves at the Brooking Institution say that helping low-income students attend and graduate from college and career training is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet in advancing economic activity.
By Roger Allbee
1. Vermont’s Tradition of Education and The Vermont Constitution by Seth M. Zoracki, Albany Law Review, Vol. 69, 2006
2. Education Revolution of the Early 1890’s, by John A. Sautter. In Vermont History, Vol 76, no. 1, winter/spring 2008.
3. See footnote no. 1
4. See footnote no. 1
5. See footnote no. 1
6. Learning About Vermont’s One-Room Schoolhouses, by Erica, in Happy Vermont; Also seethe Vermont Schoolmarm and The Contemporary One-Room Schoolhouse, An Ethnographic Study of a Contemporary One-Room School Teacher by Jody Kenny, Ed Dept. St. Michaels College, 1990 by the University of Vermont, Center for Research on Vermont.
7. See the Historical Importance of Agricultural Education in the United States and in Vermont, blog whatceresmightsay.blogspot.com, Aug 1, 2011
8. Vermont Tech, The History of Vermont Tech; Also see footnote no. 7 above
9. See Advancevermont.org
10. Progressive Education-Philosophical Foundations, in education.stateuniversity.com