By Patrick Farris
The origins of public education in Warren County can be traced to the county's inception.
In 1836, when Warren County was formed, it proceeded to adopt a policy of educational administration in accordance with the laws and amendments of the Literary Fund - an act that was passed by the Virginia legislature in 1810 to fund public schools.
The county was divided into five school districts and a school commissioner was appointed for each district. According to the first report of the county school commissioners to the superintendent of the Literary Fund issued Sept. 3, 1837, there were 13 common schools in operation and 350 poor children eligible to benefit from the fund. Of those, 144 were educated for a total of $256.95 for different periods during the year.
Teachers, incidentally, were not examined as to their qualifications, but were all known to be "persons of good moral character." Of interest here to us as modern readers is not only that the school year could be during any portion of the year, but that the different schools in the county held different schedules to meet the unique needs of each district. "Poor children" in the 1830s would have been the children of townsfolk, tradesmen and farmers owning subsistence or small cash-cropping farms. In other words, the "poor" were what we today would consider people of average means for those times.
"On March 6, 1846," the report continues, "the State Legislature of Virginia passed two permissive acts for the establishment of common schools. With these acts the antebellum effort for centralized State control of education may be said to have reached its highest point."
The first act called for a system of county superintendents to be elected by the county board of supervisors. The second act provided for a district public school system that was left to the option of the county to accept or reject at the polls.
"The Court of Warren County, on the 19th of October, 1846, proceeded to the appointment of five school commissioners for the five school districts in the county. For the school session ending 1846-47, the board of supervisors reported 'that it would require something like the sum of $1,300 to educate all the poor children in the county for the period of ninety days.'"
By 1848 the county's school commissioners - in only their second year in office - reported that a much larger sum than originally anticipated would be necessary to continue public education in the county, thus beginning what seems to many to be an annual conundrum for counties and municipalities everywhere of meeting the needs of public education with a smaller than necessary budget, all the while complying with the strictures of state and federal oversight.
The Literary Fund was diverted to military defense during the Civil War, putting an end to all school activities. Without any income from the Literary Fund between 1861-70, no effort was made locally to continue the primary school system during the war.
This is the first in a series of articles on education in Warren County. Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.