Money’s an old issue in state’s schools, new book says

Throughout its history, public education in Connecticut has enjoyed a flattering – though often misleading – reputation among citizens who wanted excellent schools but were reluctant to pay for them.

That blunt assessment comes from a new book by one of the state’s most noted authorities on education, former state historian Christopher Collier.

The ongoing struggle over school finance, from the 18th century School Fund to the 20th century legal battles over school equality, is one of many topics in Collier’s ambitious, meticulously researched history of public elementary and secondary schools.

From the description of crowded, ramshackle 19th century rural schoolhouses to the weighty battles over education finance, academic standards and school desegregation, Collier traces the development of public education in Connecticut from the Colonial era to modern times.

Collier, Christopher 7-26-10

Retired state historian Christopher Collier has written a new history of public education in Connecticut (Robert A. Frahm)

“I knew that we needed a history of the public schools,” said Collier, 80, who wrote the 893-page book after retiring as a University of Connecticut professor in 2000 and as state historian in 2004.  “I think of it as a gift to the public. . . . It was a retirement project that was fun to do.”

The product of six years of research, “Connecticut’s Public Schools: A History, 1650-2000,” is designed chiefly as a reference work for libraries and schools, but casual readers, too, can glean insights about how the state’s schools took shape. How did kindergartens start in Connecticut? When did graded schools develop? Which of two rival statewide teachers’ organizations opposed the right to strike?

“The book . . . has a lot of emphasis on pedagogy, how were things taught,” said Collier, a former junior high and high school teacher and longtime professor at the University of Bridgeport and UConn.

Collier explores matters such as the development of curriculum, the rise of the common school, the creation of comprehensive high schools, the origin of town control of schools, the focus on citizenship education, and the changes in teaching methods.

“It’s just an encyclopedic work. . . .It’s just amazing,” said Wesley Horton, the Hartford lawyer who is featured in the book at the center of two of the state’s most significant education lawsuits dealing with school finance and school desegregation.

The book, said, Horton, “points out a lot of the warts in Connecticut. I’ve always thought of Connecticut as being way ahead of the rest of the country . . . I didn’t know how cheap our Yankee forefathers were.”

Readers will find that today’s battles over matters such as school finance, curriculum reform and teacher pay are echoes of earlier struggles.

For example, the book describes Connecticut’s initial school law, the Code of 1650, as “an unfunded mandate,” a phrase often heard today in complaints by town officials about state-ordered school expenses. In 1795, the creation of a state fund earmarked for schools was envied elsewhere in the United States, but the fund failed to provide even minimal support. “Connecticut taxpayers were profoundly reluctant to actually give up any money to support the public schools, particularly when they had no children of school age of their own,” Collier writes.

The book profiles prominent figures in Connecticut education such as Henry Barnard, the 19th century legislator and educator who campaigned tirelessly, though not always successfully, to reform education in an era when many schools suffered from neglect and poor teaching.

Collier also features more obscure figures, people he refers to as “unsung heroes,” including Charles D. Hine, secretary of education in the late 19th and early 20th century. Hine brought Connecticut’s educational system into the modern era with reforms such as state teacher certification, compulsory attendance laws and a system of state-operated trade schools.

Hine was “a giant in the history of Connecticut education . . . [yet] nobody had ever heard of him,” Collier said in a recent interview.

Collier, a veteran of nearly a half century of teaching experience, said he wrote the book from his perspective as a teacher, providing detailed descriptions of how teachers of different eras taught subjects such as reading, spelling, penmanship and arithmetic.

“Throughout the book, one of the themes is what really counts is the teacher in the classroom,” he said.

(The book is available through Collier’s Clearwater Press)