A brief history of . . .Education in Wisconsin


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School in Clintonville, Wisconsin, about 1898-1900. Courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin. WHi (x3) 9165




Michael Frank, 1861. Courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin. WHi (x31) 3314




Baraboo High School class, 1883 (?).
Courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin. CF 3753


'Little Red School House' at 85 Mondovi Road, Eau Claire, Wisconsin,
about 1886. Miss Mary Burns was teacher. Courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin. WHi (x3) 17679


University of Wisconsin advertisement appearing in the Wisconsin Farmer, volume 10, November 1858, p. 442. Courtesy State Hisotrical Society of Wisconsin. WHi (x3) 14508

University of Wisconsin Graduating Class, 1860.
Courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin. WHi (x3)26679

Early Schools
"Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

This statement, part of the Ordinance of 1787 which established a temporary government for the Northwest Territory, provided the ideological basis for school laws passed by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1843. These laws regulated the formation of school districts, allowed for levying some local taxes for school support, and required commissioners to conduct teacher examinations and school inspections.

Early Wisconsin schools were community based and locally controlled, and often needed private funding to supplement meager public support. Communities took it upon themselves to organize for the education of their children. Often school instruction took place in the local church or some other public building, although many communities constructed facilities for use as schools. Some communities hired teachers, but often the teacher would collect at least some of her own wages directly from the families of her charges.

Public Education
The first free public school in the State of Wisconsin was opened in Southport (now Kenosha) on June 16, 1845. Michael Frank, a member of the Wisconsin territorial legislature, introduced bills authorizing the establishment of a public school system in Wisconsin in 1843, 1844, and 1845, but could not acquire the support necessary to secure passage. After realizing defeat in 1845, he introduced a bill authorizing the community of Southport to establish a free public school supported by property taxes. It was passed, although it would not become operative until approved by the citizens of Southport in a referendum vote. There was opposition to the law, but the referendum passed in April 1845. The resulting system of free public education became the model for the state public school system.

Article X of the Wisconsin Constitution, adopted in 1848, provided for free public district schools for all children between the ages of four and twenty, required local taxes for school support, provided for a school fund and distribution of the fund on the basis of school population, and provided for a state superintendent. Michael Frank was enlisted to codify the school laws, and Wisconsin's free public school system was introduced in 1849.

Michael Frank was also instrumental in establishing the first free public high school in Wisconsin, which was opened in Southport in 1849. Generally, education for those students who wished to attend a University was provided by private academies. The movement towards providing public education from elementary through University gained steam after Southport, and by 1856 eleven more high schools were established at other sites in the state. However, it wasn't until 1875 that a free high school law was passed.

Despite the citizens of Wisconsin's interest in the education of their children, many children did not attend school. According to an 1873 a report on truancy and attendance laws by State Superintendent Samuel Fallows, between forty and fifty thousand Wisconsin children did not attend school at all in 1870. Citizens cited several reasons, including the need to have older children help on farms, inadequate schoolhouses and poor teachers, and the long distances some students had to travel to reach a school--on bad roads and sometimes in bad weather. However, many argued that education should be made compulsory since paying taxes, which were used for educational purposes, was compulsory.

The first compulsory attendance law was passed in 1879. It was difficult to enforce though, and in 1889 the Bennett Law was passed. The Bennett Law required that children between the ages of 7 and 14 attend public or private school at east 12 weeks of the year, with a monetary penalty for noncompliance. There was another, more controversial component of the Bennett Law, which required children be taught in the English language. In many Wisconsin communities, due to the immigrant population, teaching took place at least partly in a language other than English due to the immigrant population. There was opposition to this requirement, and the law was repealed in 1891 and replaced with a new law dealing strictly with attendance.

Higher Education
The University of Wisconsin was established by an act of the first Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in 1838. A board of regents was appointed, and two full townships were set apart for the support of the University. However, it took many years before buildings were built, the course of study was organized, and students began to attend. It wasn't until after the Civil War that the legislature reorganized the University and the institution gained steady monetary and popular support.

For more information on the history of the University of Wisconsin, see History of the University of Wisconsin by Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1900 (from the Wisconsin Electronic Reader).

Doudna, Edgar G. The Making of Our Wisconsin Schools, 1848-1948. Madison, Wis.: State Centennial Executive Committee, 1948.

Stearns, J.W. The Columbian History of Education in Wisconsin. State Committee on Educational Exhibit for Wisconsin, 1893.

Patzer, Conrad E. Public Education in Wisconsin. Madison, Wis., 1924.

Further resources

Created on: April 17, 2000