SCHOOL, DISTRICT. A district school is a small country school organized to serve the needs of a particular neighborhood rather than a whole township. It was the original form of public school in colonial New England and New York. As the population increased, roads and transportation improved, and wild animals became less of a danger, the population scattered over the area of the towns. Most New England towns contained several villages as well as a widely distributed farm population. A town tax in whole or in part supported the school. Those who voted for and paid the tax required that the school be accessible to their children. Initially, the moving school, in which the teacher went to the pupils, emerged. The divided school developed next, in which the school went for a portion of the year to a village. When these short school terms became permanent, the school district came into existence.
Problems in the early district schools were numerous. Short terms, poorly equipped and poorly paid teachers, sometimes unruly schoolchildren, bad hygienic conditions, a multiplicity of textbooks, too many or too few pupils, an impossibly long program of recitations for the teacher, and lack of discipline were the leading drawbacks of the district system. Nontheless, the district school was probably the only basis on which democracy could build up a public school system.
While some critics have called the district school system of the early nineteenth century the low point in American education, it at least made possible the development of a school system controlled and supported by the public that patronized it. It was against the evils of the system that Horace Mann and Henry Barnard labored in their educational reforms. Westward settlers, however, still carried the district school system from New England into nearly all the new states west of the Alleghenies. Thomas Jefferson advocated it, along with the town political organization, as the basis of a free society. In most western states, after the middle of the nineteenth century, the superimposition of either the township system or the county system or both modified the district system. In the mid-1800s, the union or county school appeared in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. By the close of the nineteenth century, good roads made possible the consolidated school, which gradually replaced the one-room, ungraded district school throughout most of the country.
Kaestle, Carl F., and Maris A. Vinovskis. Education and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
McClellan, B. Edward, and William J. Reese, eds. The Social History of American Education. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Spring, Joel H. The American School, 1642–2000. 5th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.