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A Survey of Attitudes Towards Education in the Early 20th Century

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This was a paper I wrote after reading early 20th century local newspapers and discovering little change in the American discourse about education. I thought the comparisons between national spending on war and education were incredibly insightful. Please leave your thoughts and comments if this is interesting. I can write more.

American Economic History
ECON 375 – Hansen

What is perhaps most interesting about the history of education and its finance in the US is not how it was accomplished and the laws in place, but some of the attitudes towards its finance and itself in general.
An oil company in Philadelphia, Crew Levick, ran an ad in a newspaper there boasting about the proportion of taxation borne by businesses in the city, claiming that the property tax on “her 380,000 homes” was less than half the total amount spent on education, with the rest paid by businesses. The attitude is proud and they portray themselves as more than happy to support institutions of such quality.

There are always opposing viewpoints though. In Oregon, the 1922 Compulsory Education Act was on the ballot, which made attendance of public schools compulsory, effectively outlawing private organizations, and The Evening Herald of Klamath Falls ran a page that had two strong advertisements against the act. Both made comparisons to the schools of newly communist Russia and made appeals against the large tax increases necessary to fund it. The Oregon state budget for 1921-1922 was $45,456,377 (not adjusted). One ad claimed a tax increase per year of approximately one million dollars with an additional three million for new construction. Speaking relatively, this is a modest tax increase for a fairly substantial reform. However, the criticisms and judgments of the opposition ads had real merit, as the law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1925.

Washington state Senator Frank J. Wilmer wrote an article that appeared in the Pullman Herald on February 17, 1922 regarding taxation of farm land in Rosalia, WA. He makes arguments for the depressive effect of the tax on agriculture production and present economic stagnation and then suggests a decrease of fifty percent in the rate to stimulate growth. However, his largest issue with this tax decrease is the major loss of funding for education, which constituted fifty-one percent of each tax dollar spent. He argues that little can be afforded to be lost from education as it is very necessary to maintain quality facilities and retain quality teachers, and so, suggests a board determine salaries based on the basis of factors affecting service. His position on education is so strong he in fact says “Roads are not so vital as education. Stop building if we please.” when discussing the proportion of tax for roads. To solve the problem of limited revenue and the high expenditure necessitated by quality education, his suggestion is a state income tax with no exempt securities, based on ability to pay, claiming it would levy taxes more fairly since many of those with the highest ability to pay who commonly avoid present tax structures.
(Wilmer’s article is far from rare. He was a tremendously prolific writer. Washington State University has seven feet of shelf space of just his papers and other documents, counting 3650 pieces. Of these there are 95 regarding issues in education, so his interest in and mastery of the issue is substantial.)

In Utah in 1921, an article was run in The Logan Republican with professor Mosiah Hall discussing the value and thus deserved public support of education. Hall claims an efficiency return of 100% for high school and states with pride regarding increasing enrollment and stronger public valuation of education.He cites variation in local tax revenue to students per capita, from $6.90 to $57.10, depending on district as a motivation for the state financing of $25 per capita provided by a constitutional amendment in 1921. He also references the state support elsewhere in the United States as generally “endeavoring to provide a state fund covering approximately one-half of the expenses of maintaining their schools”. He then states that Utah is not at the peak in this financing, with California providing $30 per capita for elementary schooling and $60 for high school students.
Professor J. W. Crabtree in the December 1st, 1904 issue of The Valentine Democrat provides an interesting comparison between the United States and other nations in Europe. He provides figures for per capita(from total population) military expenditure and education.

“France spends $4 per capita for her army and 70c for education; England $3.72 for army 62c for education; Prussia $2.04 for army and 50c for education; Italy $1.52 for army and 36c for education; Austria $1.36 for army and 62c for education; Russia $2.04 for army and 3c for education. The United States 39c for her army and $1.35 for education.
England 6 to 1 for war!
Russia 68 to 1 for war!
The U.S. 4 to 1 for education.”

Other than this set of claims, Crabtree mostly romanticizes education and argues its philosophical and practical importance, which helps develop as the other sources have of a perception of American reverence of education. I found his claims thought provoking for development causality. Such a discrepancy in data must have some sources. My first instinct is to invoke geography and national borders. The United States has no preeminent foreign border tensions or threats to its sovereignty and so has no strong disincentive to reduce its military expenditures, and so it did. With such reduced threat, uncertainty is reduced in tandem and investments of all kinds have a higher long term return, including investment in human capital. With less general concern about foreign interference it follows that the culture of the nation should be relatively more focused on other issues, and given the safety of investment, that the U.S. would develop its reputed culture of business and education is not altogether surprising. Essentially, America invested so heavily in education because it could safely afford to do so.

The beliefs and constituent interests surrounding education in from the turn of the 20th century through the twenties are so similar to those now it is almost quizzical. Professor Hall referenced the state of education in Utah being of such importance that even from the initial settling of the state, schooling was provided in tents or anywhere available. The issues of taxation for provision of public education were generally agreed upon though bickered over on nearly the same differences as today. The ideal of public education provided with private education available was exactly the same then as it is now. The notion of local property taxes being the primary funding of education in combination with additional state revenue and federal aid has barely evolved since 1904 or earlier. The necessity of state state aid to diminish the effects of wealth inequality by locality on educational quality was argued at the latest in 1904 by Hall. The sources I have used draw upon sources older than themselves, implying a continuity of educational institutions that has changed little over many generations. This is a perfect example of the inertia of informal institutions in a society.


The Pullman Herald. February 17, 1922. Page 9-10. Pullman, Washington.
The Logan Republican. December 20, 1921. Section 1, Page 3. Logan, Utah.
Evening Public Ledger. November 14, 1919. Page 23. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Valentine Democrat. December 1, 1904. “Lecture of Prof. J.W. Crabtree”. Valentine, Nebraska.
The Evening Herald. January 11, 1921. Page 3. Klamath Falls, Oregon.
The Evening Herald. November 4, 1922. SECOND SECTION, Page 12. Klamath Falls, Oregon.

(All retrieved via The Library of Congress – Chronicling America online service)

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