Washington's "Barefoot Schoolboy Act" is passed on March 14, 1895.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 1/12/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10003
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On March 14, 1895, the Washington State Legislature approves what is commonly called the "Barefoot Schoolboy Act," which for the first time provides a uniform means of producing recurring income for the state's public schools by imposing a direct tax. Prior to the act, educational funds were derived from a welter of sources, none of which were very predictable and some of which, due to circumstance, tended to favor a few districts over others. The bill requires the state to impose an annual tax on the value of property sufficient to provide, in combination with other available funds, a minimum of $6 per year for each school-age child in the state. The Barefoot Schoolboy Act is largely the handiwork of state Representative John Rankin Rogers (1838-1901), a Populist from Puyallup. The renown he garners as an advocate for education is widely credited with his election as governor in 1897.

A Patchwork System 

The federal law that created Washington Territory in 1853, commonly called the "Organic Act," provided in part:

"That when the lands in said Territory shall be surveyed under the direction of the Government of the United States preparatory to bringing the same into market or otherwise disposing thereof, sections numbered sixteen and thirty-six in each township in said Territory shall be, and the same are hereby, reserved for the purpose of being applied to common schools in said Territory" (An Act to Establish the Territorial Government of Washington, 10 U.S. Statutes at Large, c 90 p 172).

This reservation of  land to be "applied to common schools" did almost nothing to actually organize an educational system for the state, but did provide an early source of funding. A section of land was approximately one square mile, much larger than needed to house a school. Localities were able to raise funds for education by leasing or selling off portions of  the sections granted to them by the Organic Act. Within just a few years, most populated areas had established schools of one sort or another, but the education of rural youth often remained rudimentary at best. As described by one legal commentator:

"Early schools in Washington Territory were initiated at the local level. A group of settlers would call a meeting, elect directors, and raise money for a school through taxation or voluntary contributions. Often, a tuition payment was required. School houses were crude and meagerly supplied; good teachers were scarce" (Beale, University of Washington Law Review, p. 540).

The 1860 federal census, the first to include Washington Territory as a discrete entity, counted 46 teachers in 46 public schools -- precisely one teacher per school -- teaching a total of 879 students. The same census counted 1,545 children between ages 5 and 15 in the Territory, so it appears that only about 56 percent of all children in that age group were attending organized public schools. It can be assumed that many who were not attending public schools were being home-schooled, either alone or together with neighboring children, and there were also a few private "academies," mostly church based. But clearly, public education was well short of universal and had a long way to go.

As the Territory's population increased, villages coalesced into towns and towns into cities, and public education became available to more and more children in populated areas. But those on the farms and in the woods still lagged far behind. By the time of the 1870 census, barely 52 percent of children in the Territory were listed as attending public schools. (It must be noted that the methodology of census-taking was constantly evolving, and the results from one decade to another are not always directly comparable due to different methods of grouping individuals.)

Although the numbers had greatly improved by the 1880 census, significant problems were still evident. Over 70 percent of the 20,421 children between the ages of 5 and 17 then living in the territory were enrolled in public schools, a significant gain. An unrecorded but no doubt significant number of additional students would have been receiving their education in private schools and academies or were being taught in the home. But the 1880 census also revealed structural problems in the Territory's educational efforts, most of which appear directly related to money, or rather, the lack thereof. Of the 531 public schools counted in 1880, only 487 had their own buildings. And there were only 532 teachers, still just one per school on average, and the average number of students per teacher had nearly doubled, to just over 38. As the Territory closed in on its long-sought statehood, it was clear to everyone that some better system of education, and in particular educational financing, needed to be developed.

Education as a Right

Washington Territory did not achieve statehood until late 1889, but an unsuccessful attempt 11 years earlier produced a proposed state constitution, which in November 1878 was passed by the voters by a nearly two-to-one margin. The proposed constitution was never put into force, but its call for free, universal education for those between ages 5 and 21 demonstrated that schools were high on the public's list of priorities. Despite these good intentions, the wording of this provision betrayed no great sense of urgency:

"The legislature shall, as soon as practicable, provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents between the ages of five and twenty-one years, may be educated gratuitously. One or more public schools shall be maintained in each school district within the state at least three months in each year" (Proposed "Constitution of the State of Washington, 1878: Article 11, Sec. 2)

Undaunted by not achieving statehood in 1878, the citizens of the Territory went about their business, with a vengeance, and Washington's population would nearly triple during the next decade. The Progressive movement, with its animating belief that government at every level should  be actively involved in social reform, was growing in popularity nationwide and found a particularly receptive audience in the Northwest. When the Territory's voters, this time correctly anticipating statehood, ratified a new constitution on October 1, 1889, they approved a document that at last put education at the very forefront of the government's obligation to the governed. The preamble to the article that addressed education in this new constitution could not have been more clear or commanding:

"It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex" (Constitution of the State of Washington, Article IX, Section 1).

Education was now explicitly stated to be the state's "paramount duty." Gone was the somewhat indeterminate "as soon as practicable" language of the 1878 constitution. Now it was stated simply that:

"The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established" (Constitution of the State of Washington, Article IX, Section 2).

A method of adequately funding this paramount duty remained elusive, however. Although Article 2 of Section IX referred to a "state tax for common schools," the tax was undefined and unimposed, and school funding remained largely the responsibility of counties and individual school districts. Instead of a reliable, recurring, tax-based funding source, the constitution seemed to allocate to schools only that public income that hadn't already gone to something else. The result was a mélange of potential sources, few of which were predictable and none of which were inexhaustible. Among them were:

  • Appropriations and donations by the state;
  • Funds accumulated in the treasury of the state for the disbursement of which provision has not been made by law;
  • Donations and bequests by individuals to the state or public for common schools;
  • The proceeds of all property granted to the state when the purpose of the grant is not specified, or is uncertain;
  • The proceeds of the sale of timber, stone, minerals, or other property from school and state lands, other than those granted for specific purposes;
  • All moneys other than rental recovered from persons trespassing on said lands.

There were several other funding sources designated in Article 9, Section 3 of the constitution, but they all suffered from the same overwhelming frailties -- they were by nature non-recurring (or at best unpredictable), and they were not capable of producing ever-greater income as the demands of maintaining public schools for a growing population increased. And as a practical matter, it was simply insufficient; counties and local school districts had to find means of supplementing what little was available from state funds, and this perpetuated the educational inequity between the wealthier urban areas of the state and the vast and under-populated countryside.

Enter John Rankin Rogers

John Rankin Rogers was born in Brunswick, Maine, on September 4, 1838. He moved to Boston after finishing common school and apprenticed as a pharmacist. He married Sarah L. Greene in 1861, and they later lived in Mississippi and Illinois, where Rogers worked as a pharmacist and school teacher. The family moved to Kansas in 1876 and ran a farm. In 1878 Rogers was an organizer of the Farmers Alliance, a populist group that helped farmers form cooperatives that gave them more influence in buying their supplies and marketing their products. He also served as editor and publisher of the Kansas Commoner, a Wichita newspaper affiliated with the Union Labor Party.

John and Sarah Rogers were well into middle age when they moved to the newly created state of Washington in 1890. They settled in Puyallup, where Rogers ran a drugstore, dealt in real estate, and became active in local politics, eventually winning a seat in the state legislature in 1895 on the Populist ticket.

The 1890 Educational Act

It was also in 1890 that the new legislature, in its first session after statehood, drafted a comprehensive law regarding public education. The act created an agency to administer the state's schools, set minimum standards for teachers, and established a "normal school" in Cheney dedicated to teacher training. The legislature also established a broad common-school curriculum and other requirements:

"All common schools shall be taught in the English language, and instruction shall be given in the following branches, viz.: Reading, penmanship, orthography, written arithmetic, mental arithmetic, geography, English grammar, physiology and hygiene, with special reference to the effects of alcoholic stimulants and narcotics on the human system, history of the United States, and such other studies as may be prescribed by the board of education. Attention must be given during the entire course to the cultivation of manners, to the laws of health, physical exercise, ventilation and temperature of the school room" (1889-1890 Wash. Session Laws, Ch. XII, Title IX, Sec. 46).       

The act did lead to an improved state-wide school system. Within two years of its passage, 126 new schoolhouses had been built, and nearly 75 percent of the state's 106,130 children between the ages of 5 and 21 were receiving an education in public schools. But, as beneficial as the new law was, it failed to provide a more rational system of school finance, leaving the patchwork system of before largely in place. The existence and quality of the state's schools remained dependent to a large extent on local resources, perpetuating the inequality that had dogged Washington's education efforts since early territorial days. It primarily was this failing that John Rogers sought to remedy soon after he won election to the legislature as a Populist in 1895.

The Barefoot Schoolboy Act

Rankin wasted no time. He soon drafted and introduced House Bill 67 to amend the 1890 Educational Act and, at long last, to bring a measure of certainty and fairness to educational finance.

In addition to tackling the financial issues, Rogers proposed and won passage of HB 90, which broadened the previously prescribed curriculum to provide that "not less than ten minutes each week must be devoted to systematic teaching of kindness to not only our domestic animals, but to all living creatures" (1895 Wash. Session Laws Ch. V, Sec. 1). This concern for the welfare of "all living creatures" bore a clear Populist stamp.

But it was Rogers's HB 67, entitled "Providing for Apportionment of School Fund" that was to bring him lasting renown and, according to commentators of the day, the office of governor. It provided, in relevant part:

"In addition to the provisions for the support of common schools hereinbefore provided, it shall be the duty of the state board of equalization annually, at the time of leveling tax for state purposes, to levy a tax that shall be sufficient to produce a sum which, when added to the estimated amount of money to be derived from interest on the state permanent school fund for the current fiscal year, shall equal six dollars for each child of school age residing in the state ... " (1895 Wash. Session Laws Ch. LXVIII, Sec. 1).

The legislation went on to mandate that the state auditor should annually apportion accumulated school funds "to the several counties, according to the number of children of school age residing in each" (1895 Wash. Session Laws Ch. LXVIII, Sec. 1).

Then, as now, there was no income tax in Washington, and the tax to support schools was to be levied on real property, and not to exceed "four mills on the dollar"  (1895 Wash. Session Laws Ch. LXVIII, Sec. 1). The duty to collect the tax lay with the various county auditors, who were to remit the funds to the state for distribution.

Urban areas such as Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane, which already taxed their residents to support local schools, put up a spirited fight against the legislation, but to no avail. The Barefoot Schoolboy Act (it is unclear who gave the law this nickname) was passed by the state House of Representatives on February 9, 1895; by the Senate on March 8; and given final approval on March 14, 1895. A later historian summed up the necessity for and purpose of the law:

"In effect, this was the beginning of the principle of equalization in education between counties, the procedure by which wealthier counties contribute more to state educational funds than poorer counties, the difference being used to increase the amount available in the latter. This concept is accepted now in many areas of government, but at that time it was startling to many people because up until then a county that could afford money for schools and most other services provided them; a county that could not afford them did without" (Avery, at 201).

Governor Rogers

Largely through his sponsorship of the Barefoot Schoolboy Act, John Rankin Rogers became a darling of progressive politicians in the state. Under the banner of the joint Democratic and Populist "Fusion Party," in 1896 he became the state's first and only Populist governor.

During his first term as governor Rogers championed Populist causes. He continued to push for school reform and advocated for a strong central government. In 1900 he was re-elected to a second term, bucking a strong statewide Republican electoral tide. He served less than a year before dying in office on December 26, 1901, after a short bout with lobar pneumonia.

In Sylvester Park in Olympia there is a statue of John Rankin Rogers, and engraved at its base is a quote that encapsulates his Populist creed:

"I would make it impossible for the covetous and avaricious to utterly impoverish the poor. The rich can take care of themselves."

The Legacy of the Barefoot Schoolboy Act

The method of subsidizing local education through taxation on property values of course did not solve all of the state's school-funding issues. The Barefoot Schoolboy Act mandated a $6 allocation for each school-age child, whether or not he or she was actually attending school. As school populations burgeoned near the turn of the century and beyond, funds again became scarce. In 1899, the figure allotted for each school-age child was increased from $6 to $8 per child, and in 1901 it was increased again, to $10.

But the act did accomplish one major thing -- it reaffirmed the principle that the state has an absolute duty to provide adequate educational funding for its children, and it provided a method, however imperfect, to raise the revenue necessary to carrying out that obligation. Ever since the act was passed, school funding has been inextricably tied to one of the most contentious issues in politics, taxation. There is no indication that this uneasy relationship will ease any time soon.


"An Act to Establish the Territorial Government of Washington," 10 U.S. Statutes at Large, c 90 p 172 (Organic Act), Washington State Legislature website accessed January 6, 2012 (http://www.leg.wa.gov/History/Territorial/Pages/territory.aspx); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "1860 Census: First census to count Washington Territory as discrete entity; population nearly 75 percent male; Native Americans counted for first time, but badly" (by John Caldbick), and "1870 Census: First census since abolition of slavery; population of Washington Territory more than doubles in 10 years; all but one county show growth; attempts made to more accurately count Native Americans (by John Caldbick), and "1880 Census: Tenth Decennial Census illustrates dramatic growth in the population of Washington Territory, influx of Chinese workers, and gains by Native and African Americans," http://www.historylink.org (accessed January 6 and 7, 2012); Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 274-275; L. K. Beale, "Charter Schools, Common Schools, and the Washington State Constitution, University of Washington Law Review, Vol. 72, No. 535 (1997), pp. 540, 544-548; "Farmers' Alliance," Oklahoma Historical Society website accessed January 7, 2012 (http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/F/FA017.html); "About the Kansas Commoner -- Newton, Kan. 1887-1912," United States Library of Congress Chronicling America website accessed January 7, 2010 (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85029001/); "John Rankin Rogers," Washington State Secretary of State Legacy Project website accessed January 7, 2012 (http://sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/HistoryMakersDetail.aspx?Rogers/John/708); Edmond S. Meany, Governors of Washington: Territorial and State (Seattle: University of Washington Department of Printing, 1915) 85-87; "John Rankin Rogers Biography," Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections website accessed January 8, 2012 (http://www.wsulibs.wsu.edu/masc/finders/cg615.htm); 1889-1890 Wash. Session Laws, Ch. XII, Title I, Sec. 2; 1889-1890 Wash. Session Laws, Ch. XII, Title IX, Sec. 45; 1895 Wash. Session Laws Ch. LXVIII, Sec. 1; "The State of Washington: A Brief History of the Discovery, Settlement and Organization of Washington, the 'Evergreen State,' as Well as a Compilation of Official Statistics," ed. by Elwood Evans and Edmond S. Meany (Tacoma: World's Fair Commission for the State of Washington, 1893); Mary W. Avery, History and Government of the State of Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961); "Washington Governor John Rankin Rogers," National Governors Association website accessed January 8, 2012 (http://www.nga.org/cms/render/live/en/sites/NGA/home/governors/past-governors-bios/page_washington/col2-content/main-content-list/title_rogers_john.html).

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