The Free School System

In the constitution of 1836, under which the State of Arkansas was admitted into the Union, under Article VII, is found the following general provision pertaining to education, viz.:

“Knowledge and learning, generally diffused through a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government, and diffusing the opportunities and advantages of education through the various parts of the State being highly conducive to this end, it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to provide by law for the improvement of such lands as are or hereafter may be granted by the United States to this State for the use of schools, and to apply any funds which may be raised from such lands, or from any other source, to the establishment of the object for which they are or may be intended. The General Assembly shall from time to time pass such laws as shall be calculated to encourage intellectual, scientific and agricultural improvement, by allowing rewards and immunities for the promotion and improvement of arts, science, commerce, manufactures and natural history, countenance and encourage the principles of humanity; industry and morality.”

This reads well, but it makes no provision for a system of free schools wherein the children of the poor can be educated along with those of the rich. It was the ruling opinion in Arkansas, as it was in all slave States, that every man should educate his own children, and that no man should be taxed to educate another’s children; consequently the framers of the first constitution of the State did not provide for the inauguration of a system of free schools, and following it the General Assembly did not “from time to time pass such laws as should be calculated to encourage intellectual, scientific and agricultural improvement,” etc. But with the abolition of slavery the way was opened for the subsequent inauguration of a method or system whereby “knowledge and learning, * * * being essential to the preservation of a free government,” might be generally diffused throughout the State.

The constitution of Arkansas, made in 1864, during the continuance of the late war, contains under Article VIII an exact copy of the aforesaid provision pertaining to education found in the constitution of 1836. It also contains a few other general provisions which may be considered to be in the general line of education, but says not a word about “free schools.” Passing on to the constitution of Arkansas made and adopted in 1868, under Article IX is found nine sections pertaining to education, the first and seventh of which reads as follows, to-wit:

SECTION 1. A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence among all classes being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain a system of free schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this State between the ages of five and twenty-one years, and the funds appropriated for the support of common schools shall be distributed to the several counties, in proportion to the number of children and youths therein between the ages of five and twenty-one years, in such manner as shall be prescribed by law, but no religious or other sect or sects shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this State. * * *

SECTION 7. In case the public school fund shall be insufficient to sustain a free school at least three months in every year in each school district in this State, the general assembly shall provide by law for raising such deficiency by levying such tax upon all taxable property in each county, township or school district, as may be deemed proper.

The other seven sections of the ninth article of this constitution defined what should constitute the common-school fund, and how the income therefrom should be distributed, and how taxes should be levied and collected for the building of school-houses, etc., etc. Here, then, is found, under the constitution of 1868, the first provisions for the inauguration of the free school system of the State of Arkansas. In accordance therewith laws were subsequently passed creating the system. Much prejudice existed throughout the State against this constitution and the party in power that adopted it. Education for the masses, however, having obtained a foothold, will itself in the course of time remove all prejudice from it, at least all that can be of injury to it. In evidence of the removal of this prejudice the XIVth article of the present constitution of the State of Arkansas, made and adopted in 1874 by the political party that was then and has ever since been in power, is here inserted in full:

SECTION 1. Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free schools whereby all persons in the State between the ages of six and twenty-one years may receive gratuitous instruction.

SECTION. 2. No money or property belonging to the public school fund, or this State for the benefit of schools or universities, shall ever be used for any other than for the respective purposes to which it belongs.

SECTION 3. The general assembly shall provide by general laws for the support of common schools by taxes, which shall never exceed, in any one year, two mills on the dollar, on the taxable property of the State, and by an annual per capita tax of one dollar, to be assessed on every male inhabitant of this State, over the age of twenty-one years. Provided, the general assembly may, by gen eral law, authorize school districts to levy, by a vote of the qualified electors of such district, a tax not to exceed five mills on the dollar in any one year for school purposes. Provided, further, that no such tax shall be appropriated to any other purpose, nor to any other district than that for which it was levied.

SECTION 4. The supervision of public schools, and the execution of the laws regulating the same, shall be vested in and confided to such officers as may be provided for by the general assembly.

Two mills on the dollar, the authorized State levy, equals 20 cents on the hundred dollars, and five mills on the dollar, the authorized school district levy, equals 50 cents on each $100; consequently the maximum authorized levy for school purposes is 70 cents on each $100 of taxable property. It must be conceded that this is a liberal provision for the support of the schools, and under the wise and liberal provisions of the constitution, laws have been passed fully providing for the operation and enforcement of a system of free schools for the masses, both white and black.

In the county of Benton the territory has been subdivided into 126 common and four special school districts, making 130 in all. Under the law, schools have to be maintained, where maintained at all, not less than three months in the year, and as much longer as the funds arising from the amount of tax levied will sustain them. In some districts in Benton County the people levy only a two-mill tax, in others more, and in some the full amount allowed, five mills; consequently the school terms vary in length, many of them being more than three months, especially in the towns and villages.

Back to: Benton County, Arkansas History

Source: History of Benton, Washington, Carroll, Madison, Crawford, Franklin, and Sebastian Counties, Arkansas. Chicago, IL, USA: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889.


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