Image of a rural schoolroom in Princetown, NY
Rural Schoolroom in Princetown, NY

The Free Common School System.
Almost yearly after 1784, the Regents and the Governor urged the Legislature to establish and endow a system of common schools. The response was a 1795 law which authorized spending 20,000 pounds annually for five years to support schools; the state aid was augmented by a local tax. About 1500 existing neighborhood schools received money from the state. The Legislature ended the program in 1800 and designated the proceeds of a statewide lottery to assist the common schools. (Lotteries were made illegal in 1822 and were made legal in 1966; again the proceeds were designated for support of education!)

In 1805 the Legislature set up a fund for the support of the common schools, allocating to the fund the proceeds from state land sales and other assets. In 1812 a landmark law established a statewide system of common school districts and authorized distribution of interest from the Common School Fund. Town and city officials were directed to lay out the districts; the voters in each district elected trustees to operate the school. State aid was distributed to those districts holding school at least three months a year, according to population aged 5-15. Revenue from the town/county property tax was used to match the state school aid. While the 1812 act authorized local authorities to establish common school districts, an 1814 amendment required them to do so. After 1814, if the cost of instruction exceeded the total of state aid plus local tax, as it generally did, the difference was made up by charging tuition, or 'rates,' itemized on "rate bills.' By mid-century New York had over ten thousand common school districts. The typical district had a one- or two-room schoolhouse where children learned reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, and geography. The 1812 common school act shaped the future of public education in New York by establishing that 1) common schools are a state function under state control; 2) funding of public schools is a joint state-local responsibility; 3) the school district-not the county or the town-is the primary administrative unit for public education.

Rate bills kept many poor children out of school, and for years concerned teachers and parents lobbied for free common schools. An 1849 statute provided for a combination of state and local funding for tuition free common schools, if the voters approved; and voters endorsed the free school law in two successive statewide referenda. The Court of Appeals then declared the extraordinary referenda to be illegal. In 1851 the Legislature repealed the free school law, but instituted a statewide property tax for schools to augment revenues from rate bills, the Common School Fund, and local property tax levies. (The 1849 law had given school districts the power to levy property taxes for instructional expenses, not just for school construction; this authority was continued.) Superintendent of Public Instruction Victor M. Rice now led the battle for free schools, and victory was finally achieved in 1867. The guarantee of a free primary and secondary education was embodied in the state Constitution in 1894: "The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this State may be educated.'

Origins of the High Schools

Beyond the "3 R's"(readin', 'ritin', 'rithmetic) offered by the common schools, more advanced instruction was available in private high schools knows as "academies" or "seminaries." The Regents monitored these schools and provided them modest amounts of aid from the Literature Fund. After 1827 aid was designated for students in all academic courses, not just Latin and Greek, thereby encouraging academies to broaden their programs beyond that of the classical grammar school. By the 1850s about 165 academies around the state provided secondary education (very few youths went on to college). However, the modern high school developed not from the academies, but from free public high schools in consolidated school districts. By the 1840s the small common school districts were obviously inadequate for growing urban areas. Ward or district schools within cities were unified by special statutes into city-wide districts. Several of the larger villages were empowered to set up "union" school districts.

In 1853 a general law authorized one or more common districts to form a union free school district This law and the special laws for city school systems permitted the new districts to establish "academic departments,' or high schools, which were to be overseen by both the Regents and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Boards of education managed the property and finances of the city and union free districts, and hired superintendents to administer systems with several schools. Budgets were approved by the municipal board in a city or village; elsewhere, by the district voters. The Legislature abolished rate bills in union free districts in 1864. The private academies could not compete with free high schools, and most soon merged with the union districts or simply closed down. The Regents at first doubted the need for public high schools, but later they promoted them by providing aid from the Literature Fund. In 1890 they hired full-time inspectors to visit and inspect high schools throughout the state. During that decade the Secretary to the Regents, Melvil Dewey, coordinated a successful drive to organize more high schools in rural areas, with the inducement of additional state aid. (Most of the union free districts later became the nuclei of central school districts.) High school enrollments would expand greatly during the 1920s and '30s, leading the Department to promote the comprehensive high school.

School Aid Quota System

Between 1812 and 1851 state aid to schools came from two dedicated revenue sources, the Common School Fund (for common schools) and the Literature Fund (for academies). The funds' return did not keep pace with the needs of the schools, and between 1851 and 1901 a modest statewide real property tax provided additional revenue for school aid. After 1901 almost all state aid to school districts came from the state's general fund, until the lottery fund was set up in 1966. Starting in the 1860s more and more state aid was allocated by an increasingly complex system of "quotas," fixed amounts of money regardless of district size or wealth. There were quotas for teachers (1864), city superintendents (1864), high schools (1887, 1895), village superintendents (1889), non-resident high school pupils (1903), vocational teachers (1908), agriculture teachers (1917), etc. By 1929 there were forty different quotas, including those for the new central school districts. After quotas were figured, the rest of a district's aid was calculated according to its school-age population and average daily attendance (the sole factor after 1894). ADA was abandoned as an aid factor in 1902 (it was reintroduced in 1925), and for the first time an equalizing formula was adopted-a district quota on a sliding scale of $125-$200, depending on assessed valuation.

The general expansion of city and village school facilities and programs in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was financed mainly by local taxes. Between 1870 and 1900 total state aid increased about 50 per cent, while local school taxes increased by 240 per cent, in an era of gradual currency deflation and rapid growth in urban population and wealth. The increasing power and prestige of the state's public education system was achieved not by increasing state aid, but by raising and enforcing educational standards, most notably through the famed Regents examinations.

Fiscal Crisis of the 1920s; Rural School Centralization

One large segment of the public school system was in deep trouble. Most of the rural schools had declining enrollments and tax bases. For decades state school officials had called for consolidation of small country districts. In 1917 the Legislature abolished all the thousands of common school districts and formed them into "township units." Because there was no equalizing formula, school taxes shot up, taxpayers protested, and a year later the township system was abandoned. However, wartime inflation and the post-war agricultural depression caused a crisis in school finance. The quota system of state aid could not respond to rapid inflation and deflation, and it did little to help poor districts. The rich city districts were constrained by the constitutional limit on municipal indebtedness. During the 1920s several major studies of school finance (by the Friedsam Commission and other groups) concluded that state aid must be increased, and must be equalized to relieve poor districts and provide equal educational opportunity.

The Governor and the Legislature resolved the crisis

During the 1920s state aid to public schools increased dramatically, from under 10 per cent to about 27 per cent of total costs. (In the 1990s it is about 38 per cent.) The old quota system was mostly abandoned in 1930. The Cole-Rice Law of 1925 established equalization aid to bring per pupil expenditures up to minimum statewide standards (initially $44 for an elementary pupil, $73 for secondary). As recommended by the Friedsam Commission, legislation in the later 1920s provided even more state aid for both urban and rural districts. While the new aid formula still favored rich districts willing to pay for better schools, it governed the allocation of state aid until 1962, when a revised formula took effect. After 1945 secondary school aid was given for pupils in grades 7-8, encouraging the organization of junior high schools (promoted by the Department since the 1920s and registered starting 1925).

The Cole-Rice Law also provided financial incentives for the formation of "central rural school districts," first authorized by a 1914 statute. The generous 50 per cent transportation aid and 25 per cent building aid prompted a steady growth in the number of centralizations, especially during the economic depression of the 1930s. The Department's bureau of rural education worked with the District Superintendents to promote centralization of rural schools. The Regents' Inquiry into the Character and Cost of Public Education (1935-38) criticized the Department's piecemeal approach and the small size of many central schools. In response, centralization procedures were improved, and a Temporary State Commission on the State Education System (Rapp-Coudert Commission, 1941-47) developed a . master plan" for school consolidation (1947, updated 1958). Statutes passed in the 1950s permitted consolidation of common school districts with smaller city districts, and by the 1960s centralization was essentially complete. (A number of union free districts in suburban areas continue to operate schools.)

Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES)

During the 1930s educators envisioned a comprehensive high school that would educate all children for work and life in a democracy. However, most central schools were not big enough to offer a full array of academic and vocational courses. In 1944 a Council on Rural Education, funded by farm organizations, recommended a "new type of rural supervisory district,' responsible to school districts and responsive to needs of rural people. The result was the intermediate district law of 1948. No such districts were ever formed. The act provided for temporary boards of cooperative educational services (now called BOCES), which the Department hoped would "get people working together across district lines" and provide shared educational services in rural areas.

Nearly half a century later, the thirty-eight BOCES are major educational enterprises in their own right. A BOCES is formed by the Commissioner at the request of the school boards in one or more supervisory districts. The BOCES is headed by the district superintendent; school board representatives collectively elect BOCES members and approve the BOCES budget; and the Education Department approves BOCES service contracts. Concern that this structure insulates a BOCES from public scrutiny prompted legislation requiring the Commissioner, starting 1996, to submit an annual report to the Governor and the Legislature on BOCES finances and pupil performance. In the early years the typical BOCES service was traveling teachers for specialized subjects. After 1967 BOCES were authorized to own and operate their own facilities, and BOCES now offer vocational and special education programs as well as many administrative services for member districts.

New York City and Other City School Districts

The New York City public school system began to take shape under private control. In 1805 a group of Quakers and civic leaders organized and endowed the Free School Society to educate children not served by private academies or charity schools. After 1825 the renamed Public School Society received all the city's state school aid. It built up a system of "monitorial" schools which employed the regimented methods of instruction devised by Joseph Lancaster in England. Catholics protested the Society's Protestant learnings, and in 1842 the Legislature established a parallel system of publicly operated schools for New York City, to be governed by ward trustees and overseen by a city board of education. The city system absorbed the Public School Society facilities in 1853. A large Catholic school system developed in the later nineteenth century. By the 1920s about ten per cent of the state's school-age population attended private academies, most of them urban Catholic schools.

After consolidation of the City of Greater New York (1898), the city rapidly established a public high school system throughout the five boroughs. For a few years each borough had its own appointive school board, and there was also a city-wide board of education. The revised city charter of 1902 established a single school board appointed by the mayor. The powers of the New York City superintendent of schools were considerably increased by the general city school law passed in 1917. However, the Board of Estimate and the City Council retained many fiscal controls over the schools. About thirty assistant or field superintendents oversaw operations of the city schools, and there were advisory local school boards. Studies of the New York City school system by the State Education Department (1933) and the Rapp-Coudert Commission (1944) found massive administrative inefficiencies, and no great improvement occurred in following decades. After the New York City school decentralization crisis of 1967-68, the Legislature established some new players: in place of the superintendent, a strong chancellor of the city school system; new community school districts, now thirty-three in number, whose elected boards and appointed superintendents have substantial authority over their public schools (except for the high schools); and an interim city school board, later made permanent Since 1969 New York City school board members have been appointed by the Mayor and the borough presidents.

The 1917 city school law repealed hundreds of obsolete statutes relating to city school districts and established a uniform system of school administration in city districts statewide. As permitted by a 1949 constitutional amendment, statutes passed in 1950 and 1952 gave smaller city school districts (under 125 thousand population) fiscal and political autonomy from municipal government. The smaller city districts became fiscally "independent," having their own taxing power, like the central and union free districts. However, the five largest cities (over 125 thousand population, i.e., New York, Yonkers, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo) continue to be 'dependent" school districts; their budgets are part of the regular city budgets, and city and school taxes are levied together. School budgets in city districts have been adopted without voter approval, though public budget hearings are held. Legislation passed in 1996 authorizes smaller city districts to hold votes on school budgets.

State Aid Since the 1960s

The national movement for school finance reform has touched, but not yet transformed, the state school aid system in New York. As recommended by the Diefendorf Commission, a new state aid formula was enacted in 1962, providing relatively more aid for less wealthy school districts, with a roughly even split between state and local financing for schools statewide. Aid was to be given in four main expenditure categories: operations, buildings, transportation, and size correction. The equalizing effect of the Diefendorf formula was diminished by new special aids for disadvantaged and disabled students, and by minimum aid levels for all districts, including "save-harmless" provisions guaranteeing stable aid in case of declining enrollments or increasing property values.

The Fleischmann Commission of 1969-72 criticized New York's inequitable school finance system and called for a complete state takeover of financing of public schools, to be supported by a statewide real property tax. A revised, interim state aid formula was enacted in 1974; it added a second tier of compensatory aid for under-performing and handicapped students. In 1978 the Supreme Court declared, in the Levittown v. Nyquist case, that New York's entire school finance system was unconstitutional because it did not afford pupils equal protection under the law. The Court of Appeals reversed this decision in 1982, deferring to the Legislature's responsibility to finance public education. The highly complex state aid system has continued basically the same since, despite several studies and numerous technical changes. General aid to school districts is calculated using 'resident weighted average daily attendance' (RWADA), an equalizing aid for school district consolidation; excess cost aid for pupils with handicapping conditions (1976, 1980); supplemental school aid to districts having low personal income (1980); aid for pupils with compensatory needs (1974) or limited English proficiency (1982); and various other aids for specific programs.

Administering general and special state aid to schools (currently about $10 billion a year) is a critical Department function. Separate teams administer general state aid and categorical aid to schools. Automation has transformed the complex tasks of maintaining school statistics and calculating aid. The Basic Educational Data System (BEDS), developed during the mid-1960s, produces fiscal, enrollment, program, and personnel reports for both public and private elementary and secondary schools. The System to Account for Children (STAC), developed in 1983-85, is used to allocate special aid to school districts, state agencies, and counties for educating children who are disabled, in an institution, or homeless. Since 1989 the Regents have been required by law to submit to the Legislature an annual statistical report on the condition of the state's education system-including a statewide profile and statistics on individual school districts, using data from BEDS and other sources.


Last Updated: November 25, 2008