The New York Law, 1795
The New York Law, 1795
George Clinton . New York passed a compulsory education law in 1665 which required all children and servants to be instructed in law and religion as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic. As in other colonies, most children and servants would be instructed at home; the only children sent to schools would be those destined for the ministry. In 1787 New York established a state board of regents to oversee the state’s educational system, and in 1795 Gov. George Clinton had noted with pride the “general establishment and liberal endowment of academies” yet could not overlook the way this system conferred education only “on the children of the opulent” and excluded “the great proportion of the community” from the advantages of education. To overcome this persistent class barrier to education, Clinton advised “the establishment of the common school throughout the state.”
Statute . The legislature on 9 April 1795 passed a sweeping act to create a system of public education in New York State. New York appropriated £100, 000 (approximately $3, 298, 000 in today’s currency) over a period of five years to support and maintain schools in the state. This amount was divided among the counties, from New York County, which received £1, 888 each year (about $62, 000 today), to Onondaga, which received £174 ($5, 739). The people of each town would elect a school committee of two or three members to supervise the schools and would also appoint trustees for each school who were required to submit a “return” to the committee listing all students in attendance, days each student was in class, and days each teacher was conducting class. The committee would then pay the teacher from the fund established by the law. In this way, though the state would distribute money to establish schools, it left the running and organization of schools in the hands of local communities.
Charity Schools . In New York City two different systems of education had already begun operation. The city had private academies and reading schools in addition to one free school: the African Free School, established in 1787 to teach the city’s free black children. This school, established by the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves and for Protecting Such of Them as have been or may be Liberated, led by John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, hoped to end slavery in New York. Of New York’s four thousand African Americans, about half were still slaves; the African Free School would help ease the transition to freedom and allow African Americans to be part of free society. The African Free School was followed by other “charity schools” sponsored by churches, which tried to educate poorer children and make them productive members of society. New York’s private-school teachers had hoped to be reimbursed by the state under the 1795 law; instead, the city distributed the state money to the charity schools.
Reality. The only available returns for the entire state show that in 1798 New York had 1, 352 schools in operation and that some 59, 660 children were receiving instruction for at least part of the year (the state’s total population was about 589, 000). In Westchester County the school year had a maximum of 288 days, though most students attended only for one-quarter or one-half of that time. In most cases the schools enrolled both boys and girls, and in some cases white and black children attended the same school. The teacher had an interest in having students attend: he would be paid based on enrollment, attendance, and days taught. For teaching a total of 5, 386 days, calculated from the attendance of
thirty-six pupils over one school year, Robert Gilmore was paid $41.07 (about $500 in today’s currency).
Lottery. The law of 1795 had supported a broad system of public education. In 1800 the state decided not to extend it. The state decided not to support education through taxes but instead to have a statewide lottery, which would raise $100, 000, some of which would be apportioned among private academies by the Board of Regents and the rest distributed among the common schools at the legislature’s discretion. The legislature had subsidized public education for five years; in 1800 it returned the problem of paying for education to the individuals of the state.
A. Emerson Palmer, The New York Public School (New York: Macmillan, 1905);
Robert F. Seybolt, The Act of 1795 for the Encouragement of Schools and the Practice in Westchester County (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1919).