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Reverend Horace Lyman was a County School Commissioner in Portland and a strong advocate for public education. In this letter to the editor of the Oregonian, he responded to an earlier editorial that criticized the newly-established school tax. Lyman’s letter defended the school tax and stressed that public schools contribute to the common good and should be supported by all.
In 1850, all pupils receiving formal schooling in Portland did so at private facilities, both religious and secular. At an annual meeting in November 1851, school board members discussed a direct tax to help fund a free school. Public notices advertised the meeting and welcomed citizen participation. Based on the unanimous vote of support from the citizens in attendance, the school officials implemented a school tax.
Owing to the school tax, Portland’s first free public school opened in an existing building in December 1851 on the corner of SW First and Oak streets. John P. Outhouse served as the first teacher. Supporters of the public schools found examination scores and attendance rates during the first two terms encouraging. Yet, an editorial in the Oregonian on July 3, 1852 questioned the fairness of a tax that was to be paid by all “for pedagogueing some dozen or two children.” An editorialist identifying himself only as “A Friend of our Free Schools,” offered a higher enrollment estimation of eighty scholars in the Oregon Weekly Times a few days later.
The number of children enrolled was likely not the point, however. The conversation about public schools that took place in the editorial section of the Oregonian and other city newspapers illustrates that in the 1850s the idea of paying taxes to support the education of a child that was not one’s own was not universally accepted. Lynman’s argument in this letter echoed that of Horace Mann, a national figure and public school advocate, as he stressed that an educated public benefited everyone,
United States. Works Project Administration, Oregon. History of Education in Portland. Edited by Alfred Powers and Howard McKinley Corning. Portland, Oreg., 1937.
Editorial. Oregonian. 3 July 1852.
Written by Sara Paulson, © Oregon Historical Society, 2006.