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The Establishment of the Free Public High School.

The present high school system in the State of Illinois has developed solely neither from the township nor the independent district system, but rather it is the product of the growth of the township idea, of the evolution of union districts under special charter, and of the development of districts under general law. The purpose of this chapter, therefore, is to consider these three phases in a general way.

Township High Schools. People of the central west have been familiar with the Northwest Ordinances which made land grants for school purposes on the basis of townships or subdivisions of them. In 1841, the legislature had gone so far as to allow the inhabitants of a township to become incorporated for the establishment of public schools. By the same act, township trustees were to be elected whose duty it was to district the territory to suit the wishes and convenience of the people in any neighborhood. However, many of the districts so established were too small to support all grades of the common school. Some localities had overcome that difficulty, by about 1850, by joining districts. Others advocated the outright adoption of a township basis for school organization.

Supt. Edwards prepared the free school bill after that plan, but the legislature decided to cling to the mongrel district-township combination. However, some attempts were almost immediately made, in 1857, to adopt a large territory as the basis for the organization of a high school:

“The inhabitants of said townships shall have the power to unite together for school purposes, and select the site or sites for school houses, and to use their surplus funds for the creation of a suitable building for a high school for the use of both of said townships. They may purchase suitable libraries and apparatus; and employ suitable teachers for such school or schools; they may arrange among themselves in respect to the number of children sent, and money furnished by each township."

The above quotation is the earliest piece of legislation that has been found for the creation of a township high school. It should be noted that the high school thus to be established was so ordered by a special charter rather than a creation of the free school law. Also, a few years later, the inhabitants of Princeton took the customary recourse of special charter organization:

“All territory now included within the boundaries of the township of Princeton, in the county of Bureau together with such territory as hereafter may be added thereto, be and is hereby established a common high school district, to be known as the Princeton High School District.” 2

The period for special charter legislation, however, ended about 1870 and the legislature incorporated the township high school plan in the general school law of 1872. Under the provisions of that law which has been amended from time to time as necessity seemed to require, seventy-one township high school districts are now in existence.

Only two districts were organized by a law of 1905 which was enacted with the expectation that more elastic provisions for township high schools had thus been created. In 1911, a law was passed which sought to make the establishment of community high schools possible. Since the Supreme Court declared the last law unconstitutional, in 1916, after one hundred ninety-one schools had been organized by its provisions, the legislature enacted the law of 1917 which contains some of the most prominent features of the legal foundation for secondary education in Illinois today.

By the provisions of the five above named distinctive township laws, a variety of high school districts were legal and have been established:

1. About half of the township districts in Illinois at the present time follow the lines of the congressional township.

1 Sess. Laws, 1857, p. 1136. * Sess. Laws, 1867, v. 3, p. 18.


2. Two or more adjoining townships could establish a high school.

3. Two or more adjoining districts were permitted to have a township high school organization.

4. Parts of adjoining townships were allowed to organize for township high schools.

5. The remainder of a township not included in a township high school district could form a township high school.

6. A school district with a population of at least two thousand might organize in township form.

7. A city with not less than one thousand or more than a hundred thousand inhabitants could use the township basis for school purposes.

8. If a township were divided by a navigable stream and there were a political town on each side, both in the same township, each town could organize as a separate township high school district.

9. The inhabitants of any contiguous and compact territory, whether in the same or different townships, might establish a township high school.

10. The law of 1917 includes the whole State as high school territory, either in the form of districts already maintaining high schools, or non-high school districts which must pay the tuition of their pupils in districts that do support high schools.

From these indicated territorial bases for the establishment of township high schools, it is at once evident that the surveyed congressional township is by no means the sole factor in the size of the high school districts. About half of the districts are determined by township lines; some follow the practice provided for in the laws of 1841, which permitted townships or fractional townships to form one school district; others follow the old method of uniting districts which began to be legally recognized about 1850; still others are similar to the general law of 1872, which permitted the city board of education to be elected when the population of the district reached two thousand. Finally, the distinctive new features have obliterated formal boundary lines so that the basal district is that of a community which is able to maintain an efficient school.


At any rate, the larger district for township organization has made it possible to supply the financial resources requisite to the education of the children of the district more adequately than can be done in smaller districts. Not only is the unit of taxation larger, but the township has the legal right to levy the full rate of taxation for secondary education which is allowed in other districts for both elementary and secondary education. Thus twice the amount of money can be raised in the same unit for high schools under the township organization, as can be raised in the same unit for secondary education under district organization.

Therefore, township high school organizations should be superior because they are able to pay higher salaries which command better qualified teachers, and because they can furnish superior equipment in buildings and grounds. The secondary educational opportunities for the children are thereby increased. But a disadvantage has arisen because of the separation and the lack of articulation between the elementary and the secondary schools under township organization. A closer unification among all the schools of the township was contemplated by the organizers and advocates of the township idea about the time when the charters were given to school districts.2a

School Districts Under Special Charter. It has been shown that a great many academies were chartered by special and separate acts of the Illinois legislature even in spite of the general corporation laws that were on the statute books at the same time. A similar practice has prevailed in relation to the common schools. When villages were incorporated some provisions were made for the establishment of education, and occasionally special charters were granted for the creation of certain school territory in and near the town itself.

The boundaries of school districts from 1850 to 1870 were almost continually changing, sometimes because better educational opportunities could be provided, at other times, because quarrels ensued over such questions as the levying of

* Mr. Edwards gave a thorough exposition of the arguments for township organization in 1855. Mr. Bateman and other leaders have since restated Mr. Edwards' arguments.

taxes, the employment of teachers, and the location and construction of buildings. One outgrowth in the change of district lines was the recognition of some of the united territory by the legislature. Some of the special charters thus granted conferred powers on the new districts that were in opposition to the free school laws. In several cases, the right to ascertain the qualities of common school teachers and certificate them was taken from the county superintendent, a power conferred on him by general law, and bestowed on the board of education for the new district.26 Moreover, the law of 1859

, stated that no teacher should be paid out of the State funds unless he received a certificate from the county superintendent. However, the special legislation granted the districts with charters the right to receive their share of the school money.

According to Supt. Etter, "in many of these districts there is not even an examination as to the qualifications required, and persons are employed to teach without authority, and in direct violation of the plain provisions of school law" He continued to say that several refused to return school statistics in the proper manner or even at all.

Although some districts tried and did evade the free school principle under special charter which granted the board the right to fix the rate of tuition in public schools, nevertheless all of them had a larger district than was common and many of them provided and carried into execution the plans for free schools of all grades. Besides, the free education of all the youth from six to twenty-one was to be provided in higher as well as primary schools whose length of term was quite above the average of the six months required by the law of 1855. Among some of the very early high schools of the State were those districts with special charters. For instance, Springfield, Galesburg, Lacon and Lee Union Center had high schools established before 1860. Finally, the board under special charter was given the au. thority to levy a tax on the whole district, but the rate of taxation was limited by the terms of the charter.


20 See Decatur, Charleston. Kickapoo and Paris special charters.

State Supt. Report, 1875, p. 141. 3a See Galesburg charter.

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