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Public Schools Initially a Hard Sell

Public Schools Were Initially a Hard Sell in Virginia (1865-1882)

Virginia’s public schools, created after the Civil War, were not well received by Virginians who believed that public schools were for the indigent and that students from well-to-do families should attend private academies.

In his history of Virginia public schools, Cornelius J. Heatwole said, “This was not a social order in which a wholesome and vigorous system of public education could thrive. It was necessary for these conditions to change before a system of public education could take root and become effective in a society such as obtained in Virginia.”

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Virginia's Reconstruction government drafted and proposed a new constitution that included provisions for public schools. The convention, beginning on Dec. 3, 1867, was heavily influenced by northern immigrants. Of the 105 members, nearly one-third were non-native Virginians: 14 were from New York, and three each from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and England; one each came from Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington City, Ireland, Scotland, and Canada. The convention also included 24 black delegates, nearly one-fourth of the participants.

The new constitution required the appointment of a state superintendent of instruction, the creation of a state board of education, and it required the superintendent to propose, within 30 days, “a plan for a uniform system of public free schools.”

The legislature quickly appointed the Rev. William H. Ruffner, a Presbyterian minister and educator from Lexington, as the state’s first superintendent of public instruction. Twenty years earlier, the new superintendent’s father, the Rev. Henry Ruffner, had proposed the creation of a public school system for white children similar to the successful Massachusetts system advocated by Horace Mann.

The younger Ruffner’s appointment, according to Heatwole, “proved to be a wise choice, for the work of Dr. Ruffner in inaugurating a public school system and overcoming the long, traditional prejudice of the people of Virginia against such a plan of education was a remarkable example of knowledge, wisdom, clear vision, and statesmanship.”

Ruffner’s plan for public schools was adopted by the legislature and signed by the Governor on July 11, 1870. The first schools under this new system opened in November 1870, comprising 2,900 schools served by 3,000 teachers and attended by 130,000 pupils. Most schools employed only one teacher, who served an average class size greater than 43 pupils.

From the signing of the law in July, these new schools were created in only three months. In order to accomplish this remarkable task, the state board appointed 1,400 county superintendents and trustees, who were responsible for conducting a census of eligible students, examining and hiring teachers, and determining the number and location of schools. Many of the pre-existing private academies were transferred to the public school system.

These first schools attracted about one-third of the eligible children—37.6% of white and 23.4% of black children. Schools in the mountain counties in the southwest proved to be the most accepting. Grayson County schools led the list with two-thirds of eligible children enrolled in the public schools.

Funding this new system of public schools proved difficult from the beginning.

The schools were funded by interest from the Literary Fund, first established for the education of poor children and expanded in the new constitution, as well as by a statewide property tax that was limited to 5 mills, and optional locally imposed property taxes that also were limited to 5 mills.

Startup funds were nonexistent. Although the schools began in November, no funds were expected from the state until December and the amount that local schools could expect was unknown. In the difficult first year, about $450,000 was spent on the public schools, with some localities refusing to authorize the optional local tax.

In subsequent years, both the state and local sources provided even fewer funds.

Upon complaint by Ruffner, an audit showed a misappropriation of funds by the state treasurer, who claimed that he had the authority to expend the school funds for other matters. According to historian Heatwole, this was an effort to undermine the public schools. “This attitude of the treasurer of the state was an effort to weaken and ultimately defeat the public school system so recently put into operation, and it reflected the attitude of a large element in Virginia who were from the first opposed to a public free school system for all the children in the state.”

The continued diversion during their first decade denied the public schools more than $1.1 million in state funds. This, in turn, resulted in the loss of teachers and schools. Ruffner reported in 1878 that teachers were owed $250,000 for pay, that 127 schools had closed, and that 27,000 fewer children were being educated.

And as a result of the poor conditions of the schools, public support fell precipitously. The diversion of school funds “crippled the school system more and more, until now its enemies point to it and say, ‘What a poor thing is your school system,’” Ruffner reported in 1878.

The election of 1879 proved to be pivotal for the continued existence of public schools in Virginia. The election of members of the Virginia Readjuster Party resulted in a renewed state commitment to public schools. The Readjuster Party was politically unique at the time because of its biracial makeup. According to the Virginia History Engine, “Although the Readjusters were short of a majority after the election, they were able to assemble a governing coalition after a series of November demonstrations by leaders of the Richmond African-American community pressured 14 black Republican legislators to join their caucus on December 13, 1879.”

The party’s platform included, “The money assessed to free schools shall not be stolen from the treasury and given to the bondholder, but shall be sacredly applied to our schools white and colored.'”

The party’s brief rise to power launched a new era of school funding and development in Virginia. In addition to doubling the number of schools, teachers and students, the state created the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, now the Virginia State University, to prepare black teachers.

During his 12 years as superintendent of instruction, Ruffner worked tirelessly to improve the standing of public schools among Virginians. By 1880, 10 years after the system was created, the public schools of Virginia employed 4,873 teachers, served 220,730 students, and received an annual combined total of state and local funds of $1,087,000.

Superintendent Ruffner, this minister turned educator, is considered the Horace Mann of Virginia for his work in creating a system of public schools in the first four months of his term and then fighting for their acceptance among a reluctant population, divided by race and struggling with the aftermath of war. He established the foothold of a public school system that thrives today, although still funded reluctantly by the political descendants of those who have historically opposed funding public schools.

After his 12 years as Virginia’s first superintendent of public instruction, Ruffner served two years as superintendent of the state’s first Normal School for Teachers at Farmville, later to become Longwood University. He remained an advocate for public schools and the Association throughout his life. Dr. Ruffner retired in 1886 and died in Lexington in 1908.


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