Chapter XVII. From La Escuela of Spanish California to the Schools of the Twentieth Century

In no line has California advanced so far beyond the days of the padres as in her schools. In the early settlements there were no educated people but the priests at the missions and the Spanish officers with their families at the presidios. Later, clever men of good families came into the territory, took up land, and made their homes on the great ranchos, but among these there were few who would take the time or trouble to teach the children; so life to the young people was a long holiday. The sad result was that they grew up so ignorant as to astonish the educated strangers who visited the coast.

At the missions the padres had schools where they taught the young Indians something of reading and writing, religious services and songs, and the trades necessary for life. This, with their duties in the church and the extensive building and planting of the mission settlements, took all the time of the hard-working priests. Occasionally, an educated woman would teach her own children and those of her relatives, but like most attempts at home education, it was so interrupted as to amount to little.

In 1794 a new governor came from Spain who was so shocked at this state of affairs that he at once ordered three schools opened. The first, December, 1794, was held in a granary at San Jose and was in charge of a retired sergeant of the Spanish army. The children had been so long free from all restraint that they did not like to go to school, and their parents did not always take the trouble to insist. There were some reasons for this, as the masters did not know much about what they were trying to teach, and the use of the ferule and scourge (the latter a whip of cords tipped with iron) was frequent and cruel. There were no books but primers, and these were hard to obtain. The writing, paper was furnished by the military authorities and had to be returned when the child was through with it, that it might be used in making cartridges. These schools were for boys only, girls not being expected to learn anything except cooking, sewing, and embroidery.

Slowly the state of things improved, and in 1829 in the yearly report to the Mexican government, it was stated that there were eleven primary schools in the province with three hundred and thirty-nine boys and girls. One of the best of these schools was that of Don Ignacio Coronel of Los Angeles.

In 1846 the first American school was opened at Santa Clara by Mrs. Oliver Mann Isbell. It provided for children from about twenty emigrant families and was held in a room of the Santa Clara mission on the great patio. The floor was of earth, the seats boxes; an opening in the tiled roof over the center of the room allowing the smoke to escape when, on rainy days, a fire was built on a rude platform of stones set in the middle of the floor. Wherever the Americans lived, they would have schools, although their first buildings were bare and inconvenient, with no grace or adornment either inside or out. In some out-of-the-way places, whole terms of school were spent most happily under spreading live oaks.

In the making of the first constitution, educational matters were not forgotten; one section providing that there should be a common school system supported by money from the sale of public lands. On account of the minerals the lands so allotted were supposed to contain, it was believed that they would sell for such vast amounts that the state would have money sufficient for the grandest public schools that ever existed. In fact these lands brought in altogether, after a number of years, less than a quarter of a million dollars. The act provided also that the schools be kept open three months in the year. An effort was made to extend this period to six months, but was defeated by Senator Gwin.

Considering the state of the country when the public schools were begun, and the short time in which they have been developed, the California free schools are a credit to the state and to the men and women who have helped to make them what they are. No community is so poor and remote but that it may have its school if the inhabitants choose to organize for the purpose. Hardly can the settler find a ranch from which his children may not attend a district school over which floats the stars and stripes.

Money for educational purposes is now raised by state and county taxes on property, this sum, in cities, being largely increased by the addition of the city taxes. High schools have only recently been given state aid, and that moderately; the larger ones still depending, in a great measure, upon the special tax of the city, district, or county, according to the class to which the school belongs. The state supports one Polytechnic school, that at San Luis Obispo, where there are three courses, agriculture, mechanics, and domestic science.