The original Virginia Constitution did not provide for free schools, and the mother state was slow to address the problem. In 1829, the General Assembly authorized each county to establish district school systems and offered limited state aid for the building of schoolhouses. Monroe County opened a free school under this plan, at Sinks Grove in 1829, but discontinued the system in 1836.
Education reformers were spurred to action by the 1840 census, which demonstrated Virginia’s extensive illiteracy. A series of conventions were held throughout the state. The first, held in Clarksburg on September 8–9, 1841, was one of the most important meetings ever convened in West Virginia on the subject of education. The assembled Western Virginia educators, including Alexander Campbell and Henry Ruffner, demanded free schools. The convention highlighted eastwest differences in Virginia, criticizing the state’s educational system as top heavy with a fine university at Charlottesville for the wealthy but no provisions to educate the middle class. Ruffner called upon the General Assembly to create public schools that were ‘‘good enough for the rich . . . [and] fit for the poor.’’ In 1846, the legislature revised the district plan, allowing citizens to petition counties to establish free schools. The state still refused to appropriate funding, placing the burden of school taxation on the counties. The only counties in present West Virginia to adopt this plan were Kanawha, Jefferson, and Ohio.
In 1863, one of the first acts passed by the West Virginia legislature established a system of free schools.
This Article was written by Stan Bumgardner
Last Revised on June 21, 2012
Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.