By: Max Berger and Lee Wilborn

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: May 28, 2021

Education in Spanish Texas was designed to Christianize and domesticate the Indians and to provide the rudiments of learning for the children of garrison troops and Spanish colonists. Mission schools were established for the Indians, the first being at San Francisco de los Tejas Mission in East Texas in 1690. The mission schools taught Christianity, the Spanish language, and practical arts, but they achieved few permanent results for many reasons, including the difficulty in getting supplies, illness, and indifference or hostility of some of the Indians. A nonmission school was in operation at San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio) as early as the 1740s, but it, as well as all other schools started during the period, proved transitory. Legislative proclamations were issued as early as 1802 to compel parents to send their children to school. Settlements and military posts with large enough populations were called upon to provide salaries for teachers, but apparently the effort failed. Sometime after 1812 a public school was established at San Antonio. It was to be supported by public funds, but the school had a precarious existence and did not last. A private soldier, José Galán, taught school at La Bahía in 1818. The military nature of the Texas colony, the frontier conditions, the sparseness of the population, the poverty of the people, and the failure of the central government to provide financial support contributed to the failure of the few attempts at general education in the Spanish period.

The Constitution of 1824, ratified by the new Republic of Mexico, delegated control of education to the states. The Constitution of Coahuila and Texas provided for the establishment of elementary schools and seminaries in the principal towns of the state but did not include any means of support. In 1829 action was taken to provide a plan for free instruction for pupils whose parents were unable to pay tuition. The establishment of these "Lancastrian schools," which had arisen in England and were popular in the northern United States, was well received in other parts of Mexico, but none was established in Texas. In 1830 six primary schools were projected; at least one of these opened in Nacogdoches, but, overall, plans for education in Mexican Texas never materialized. Neither the towns nor the state had funds with which an educational system could be established. One of the grievances listed in the Texas Declaration of Independence was that Mexico had "failed to establish any public system of education." During the colonial period, however, several private schools operated, and some of them occasionally were subsidized by local funds. Among the Mexican towns, Bexar had the best school facilities. In 1828 the community established the Public Free Primary School, supported by private subscriptions and a municipal subsidy. Instruction was given in religion, morals, and the Three Rs. Plagued by lack of funds, supplies, and competent teachers, however, the school closed sometime during or after 1834. In the American settlements, the wealthier colonists sent their children to the United States for schooling. "Old field schools" and academies, similar to those in the South, sprang up as early as 1823. Largely because of Stephen F. Austin's interest, his colony retained educational leadership throughout the period. Thomas J. Pilgrim opened both an academy and a Sunday school in the colony around 1829. Frances Trask Thompson operated a boarding school at Coles Settlement as early as 1834, and by 1836 more than a score of private schools had been established among the Anglo-American colonists.

The Texas Declaration of Independence had condemned the Mexican regime for failing to establish a system of public education; the Constitution of the Republic of Texas therefore compelled Congress to provide such a system. During Sam Houston's administration several private schools were chartered, but problems demanding the attention of the new government prevented public education from receiving much consideration. The first definite action toward a system of public education was taken during the administration of Mirabeau B. Lamar, who requested Congress in 1838 to establish and endow an education system. As a result of his message, Congress passed bills in 1839 and 1840 that adopted a plan for a school system ranging from the primary to the university level, delegated control over this system to the counties, and granted 17,712 acres to each county for the support of schools. The plan failed to produce the desired results immediately because land prices were too low for this endowment to provide revenue. There was also some popular indifference on the county level to the establishment of schools, as evidenced by the fact that by 1855 thirty-eight counties had made no effort even to survey their school land. In spite of these setbacks, however, Lamar's vision later earned him the nickname "Father of Education in Texas." Private schools and academies of the type prevalent before the Texas Revolution continued to operate, and in the republic several institutions of higher education were chartered.

With the annexation of Texas to the United States, the state provided under the Constitution of 1845 for the establishment of free schools. The constitution further stipulated that it should be the duty of the legislature to set apart not less than one-tenth of the annual revenue of the state derived from taxation as a perpetual fund for the support of such schools. The actual foundation for the present Texas school system was laid in 1854 under a school law that called for the organization of common schools, provided a system for payment of tuition for indigent and orphaned children, allowed for the convertibility of private schools to common schools, and, perhaps most importantly, set aside $2 million of the $10 million received by Texas from the sale of lands to the United States as a school fund (see PERMANENT SCHOOL FUND). In 1858 New Braunfels was reported to be the first town in Texas where residents citizens voted for a tax to support a "free" school, New Braunfels Academy. After the Civil War the Constitution of 1866 incorporated most of the features of the Constitution of 1845 and further made provision for the education of African Americans through taxation of their property. The Freedmen's Bureau brought in teachers from the American Missionary Association, primarily from the North, to teach in Black schools. Later, some White Southerners and educated Blacks taught, but the early African-American schools were often the subject of controversy and suffered discrimination and intimidation (see EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS). The Constitution of 1866 was soon supplanted by the Constitution of 1869, which eliminated the separation of taxation for the White and Black populations and reaffirmed the provisions of the fund for public education. This constitution set compulsory school attendance at four months a year and provided that the legislature should set aside one-fourth of the general revenue for public schools, assess a poll tax of one dollar, and commit all money from the sale of public land to the school fund. In 1871 Governor Edmund J. Davis signed a bill initiating a public school system in the state. Its measures included the establishment of a state board of education consisting of the governor, attorney general, and superintendent of public education. The bill became the subject of partisan politics, however, as Democrats in their efforts to regain political power tried to discredit the actions of the Republican government.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century the educational system in Texas still operated on a sporadic and localized basis. Some Texans regarded education as a private matter and resented any state involvement. Private and church schools continued to play key roles in the educational development of Texas and in some areas offered the only choice of formal schooling. Schools short of funds often faced problems of low supplies, inadequate facilities, and poorly trained teachers. Since the days before the republic some government officials had called for guidelines specifying the qualifications of teachers. By the 1870s the Peabody Fund, established by wealthy New England merchant George Peabody, began to have some positive impact on schools in the state. The fund was to be used to establish tax-supported public schools. In Texas Peabody agents promoted city schools and teacher training, and instigated a campaign to enlighten the public about education and its benefits. The Constitution of 1876 provided that "all funds, lands, and other property heretofore set apart and appropriated for the support of public schools, all the alternate sections of land reserved by the state of grants heretofore made or that may hereafter be made to railroads or other corporations of any nature whatsoever, one-half of the public domain of the state, and all sums of money that may come to the state from the sale of any portion of the same shall constitute a perpetual public school fund" (see LAND APPROPRIATIONS FOR EDUCATION). The constitution allotted more than forty-two million acres of Texas public domain to school purposes and reestablished the separation of funding for White and Black schools. It also provided for a poll tax of a dollar and a commitment of one-fourth of the occupation taxes for school support. Some legislators thought that one-fourth was too high, and later in a special session the amount was cut to one-sixth. Provision was further made for local taxation. Beginning in 1883 a constitutional amendment added a twenty-cent state ad valorem school tax. The rate was raised to thirty-five cents in 1918, when the state began supplying textbooks.

Around the turn of the century a growing movement in vocational education began, the result of increasing national awareness for the need to teach technical and trade skills to youth. Early training programs included courses in agriculture, carpentry, and industrial trades for both Black and White boys and home economics for girls. Vocational education continued to evolve and play an important educational role throughout the twentieth century (see INDUSTRIAL ARTS EDUCATION). In 1910 a scholastic census recorded 625,917 children attending school in country school districts. The numbers were broken down to 501,806 Whites and 124,111 Blacks. Many of the rural schools consisted of one-room schoolhouses with one teacher instructing a number of grade levels. That same year there were 342,552 children (272,075 Whites and 70,277 Blacks) attending school in independent school districts across the state. These districts included some 670 communities of all sizes. In 1920 Texas voters passed the Better Schools Amendment, which allowed the amount of local taxation for education to increase. The law was designed to ease the state's burden of school financing. The measure had some positive results, though some counties were slow to increase their school funding. The problem of financial inequality also contributed to inadequate funds and facilities for some schools. Sparsely settled counties, racial and linguistic differences presented by large percentages of African-American and Mexican-American students, and a wide variance in the distribution of natural resources made for considerable lack of uniformity in the state school system. In 1930 Del Rio ISD v. Salvatierra attempted to show the inferior quality of educational facilities for Mexican Americans and helped launch a movement against segregated schools, though the plaintiff, Jesús Salvatierra, lost. Advocates of desegregation gained some ground in the case of Delgado v. Bastrop ISD in 1948 when a district judge ruled against the segregation of Mexican-American children in the public school system. In 1949 the Fifty-first Legislature passed the Gilmer-Aikin Laws in an effort to raise the general level of school standards and to eliminate inequalities. Important measures of the bill included the increasing of teacher salaries, establishment of the foundation school program, and the establishment of the Texas Education Agency.

In the school year 1950–51 disbursements for the public education system in Texas totaled $199,527,347. Of this amount $95,225,919 was provided from the available school fund, $59,056,428 from the foundation school program fund, $250,000 from vocational funds supplied by the federal government, and $44,500,000 from city and $495,000 from county funds. In 1950–51 the scholastic population numbered 1,566,610, and the state had 2,505 school districts. The ensuing two decades saw major changes in education in Texas. Sweatt v. Painter (1950) challenged the previous "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and laid the groundwork for integration in schools. With the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, states were compelled to end school segregation for African Americans. San Antonio was one of the first districts to comply. School districts across the state began the implementation of integration, though some discriminatory practices continued well into the next decade. The 1954 decision was finally extended to Mexican Americans, for whom segregation had not been universal, in Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD in 1970. The federal government continued to enlarge its role in education in the 1960s. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, offered government assistance to underfunded school districts. By 1965 approximately 98 percent of Texas public school teachers had college degrees and about 40 percent had graduate degrees. The Permanent School Fund totaled more than one-half billion dollars; annual earnings were used to defray current expenses of public schools. Earning power of the fund increased through legislative authorization permitting investment in corporate securities, in addition to investments previously authorized in federal, state, and municipal bonds. In the 1964–65 school year the state had 1,253 school districts with an enrollment of 2,535,381. Countywide day schools for the deaf and special classes for non-English-speaking preschool children, emotionally disturbed children, minimally brain-injured children, and the educable intellectually disabled were initiated. In the middle 1960s a few schools in the state experimented with a longer school day and shorter school term in an attempt to educate the children of migratory workers.

By the 1970s some new major issues faced the Texas public school system. In 1970 in United States v. Texas a federal judge called for the integration of all Texas schools. Previous federal investigations had uncovered discriminatory practices in some Texas public school districts. The changing of school-district boundaries, reassessment of extracurricular activities, and increased busing of students to other schools were among some of the measures taken to enforce integration. Another issue that sparked controversy in the public school system was bilingual education. Throughout most of the twentieth century an English-only teaching requirement had been imposed. In 1973 the state legislature enacted the Bilingual Education and Training Act, which mandated bilingual instruction for all Texas elementary public schools that had twenty or more children with limited English-speaking skills. In the 1970s as the scholastic population and the cost of education increased, the number of school districts decreased. Small school districts in thickly populated areas were consolidated into larger units in order to effect a lower cost per pupil and to increase educational opportunities through providing better school facilities. Two factors then slowed the rate of consolidation. First, in many sparsely settled areas of Texas, further consolidation was difficult because of the time and distance involved in transporting children sometimes as far as 100 to 125 miles daily. Second, more than 100 small Texas schools joined forces to improve their educational programs through sharing resources and working together in a statewide small-schools project. A few schools built all or large parts of their plants underground to avoid noise, to reduce costs of construction and maintenance, and to provide less expensive, year-round climate control. Also in the 1970s much experimental work was underway in classrooms. More audiovisual aids were in use, and new approaches to learning enabled pupils to progress at their own rate of speed. Closed-circuit television, team teaching, nongraded schools, accelerated classes, and electronic laboratories were some of the innovations. School taxes were the subject of considerable controversy as school population increases necessitated more buildings, more supplies, more teachers, and more textbooks. In 1977 the state legislature formed the School Tax Assessment Practices Board to determine the property wealth of school districts. The state had 1,099 school districts and a scholastic population of 3,012,210 during the 1979–80 school year.

During the second half of the twentieth century church schools and other private schools also continued to play an important role in education. Some parents viewed them as attractive alternatives to the public school system, where classes were too big and standardized-test scores were declining. Many private schools focused more on academics and the teaching of deportment and moral discipline through religious courses than on extracurricular activities and peripheral matters. In the 1980s the Texas Education Agency examined the possibility of regulation for church and private schools-a move that some advocates of private schools saw as an infringement on religious freedom.

During the 1980s citizens, educators, and politicians raised concerns about declining test scores and literacy among public schoolchildren. This resulted in a call for major public school reform. Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot was appointed to head a select committee to formulate school reform. In 1984 House Bill 72 placed stringent guidelines on teacher certification and initiated competency testing. Teachers' salaries were directly tied to performance. Stricter attendance rules were enacted, and the reforms also adopted the "no-pass, no-play" rule, which prohibited students who scored below 70 in any class from participating in any extracurricular activities. National norm testing was also implemented, as were equalization formulas for state financial aid. That same year the case of Edgewood ISD v. Kirby was filed. The plaintiffs charged that public school financing discriminated against students in poor school districts. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed on behalf of the Edgewood ISD, came out against House Bill 72. For the next several years the case was involved in a series of appeals that ultimately led to a ruling for the Edgewood ISD. During this time the state legislature attempted to reach a plan for a more equitable system of school financing. In 1990 a "Robin Hood" plan was devised by which money from wealthy school districts would be redistributed to poorer ones. This measure was defeated by voters, but similar proposals were made in an effort to avoid court deadlines for an acceptable plan. Failure to find an equitable alternative plan would result in the loss of federal education money. In 1993 the state legislature passed another school financing plan, which gave school districts a number of options to choose from in order to distribute funding more equally. Afterward, various factions still argued that school financing needed more equalization.

In 1992–93 there were 1,060 school districts in Texas. In the 1990s a popular movement sought to increase the length of the school year or possibly to implement year-round school. A few school districts had already established the latter policy by 1995, when computers had become standard teaching tools in many classrooms. Parents continued to explore other educational options, including private and church schools, educational kindergartens, education vouchers, and home schooling.


Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528–1971 (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). Max Berger, "Stephen F. Austin and Education in Early Texas, 1821–1835," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 48 (January 1945). John Michael Bodi, Educational Equity in Texas: A Historical Case Study of the Policymakers (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1994). A Decade of Change: Public Education Reform in Texas, 1981–1992 (Austin: Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin and Texas Center for Educational Research, 1993). Frederick Eby, The Development of Education in Texas (New York: Macmillan, 1925). Frederick Eby, Education in Texas: Source Materials (Austin: University of Texas, 1918). Truman Harrison Etheridge, Education in the Republic of Texas (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1942). The Final Report and Recommendations of the Select Committee on Education (2 vols., Austin, 1988). Charles W. Funkhouser, ed., Education in Texas: Policies, Practices, and Perspectives, 6th ed. (Scottsdale, Arizona: Gorsuch Scarisbrick, 1992). Hans Peter Nielsen Gammel, comp., Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 (10 vols., Austin: Gammel, 1898). John Jay Lane, History of Education in Texas (Washington: U.S. Bureau of Education, 1903). William Franklin Ledlow, History of Protestant Education in Texas (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1926). Charla Dean McCoy, The Education President: Lyndon Baines Johnson's Public Statements on Instruction and the Teaching Profession (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1975). Carl H. Moneyhon, "Public Education and Texas Reconstruction Politics, 1871–1874," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 92 (January 1989). State Board of Education, Quality, Equity, Accountability: Long-Range Plan for Public Education, 1991–1995 (Austin: Texas Education Agency, 1991). Rae Files Still, The Gilmer-Aikin Bills (Austin: Steck, 1950). Texas Almanac, 1994–95. Jose E. Vega, Education, Politics, and Bilingualism in Texas (Washington: University Press of America, 1983). James F. Veninga and Catherine Williams, eds., Preparing for Texas in the 21st Century: Building a Future for the Children of Texas (5 vols., Austin: Texas Committee for the Humanities, 1990). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Education-Private Nurseries, Private Schools).

  • Education
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Max Berger and Lee Wilborn, “Education,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

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May 28, 2021