An Overview of the History of Public Education in Texas

Texans have long been concerned about the education of their children. The Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836 listed the failure of the Mexican government "to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources..." among the reasons for severing political ties with Mexico.

The first Anglo-American public school law in Texas was enacted in 1840 and provided for surveying and setting aside four leagues (17,712 acres) of land in each county to support public schools. Later, the state constitution of 1845 provided that one-tenth of the annual state tax revenue be set aside as a perpetual fund to support free public schools.

In 1845, a new school law set aside as a permanent school fund $2 million of the $10 million in five-percent U.S. Indemnity bonds received in settlement of Texas' boundary claims against the United States.

After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the new state constitution of 1876 set aside 45 million acres of public domain for school support and directed that the income from the new Permanent School Fund be invested in bonds.

In 1884, the school law again was rewritten. The office of state superintendent was re-created, the state ad valorem tax was affirmed, and the Permanent School Fund was to be invested in county and other bonds to increase income. Almost 100 years later, in 1983, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that provides for the guarantee of school district bonds by the Permanent School Fund. On approval by the commissioner of education, bonds properly issued by a school district are fully guaranteed by the corpus of the Fund.


Today, income from the Permanent School Fund provides approximately $765 million a year to local school districts.

A series of additional laws gradually granted cities and towns more freedom in the development and administration of their schools, resulting in the formation of independent school districts. By 1900 there were 526 such districts in which the high school replaced the earlier academy. Today, there are some 1,039 independent school districts in Texas.

A system of accreditation was created in 1885 when high schools sent selected test papers for examination by the faculty of the University of Texas. If found satisfactory, the school was considered to be affiliated with the university and its graduates were admitted without examination.

In 1911, a rural high school law was passed which established county boards of education and permitted creation of rural high schools and the consolidation of common school districts. This effort to make common or rural schools equal with those in the independent or urban districts took another step forward with passage of a law in 1917 authorizing state purchase of textbooks. Expansion of rural aid to schools, including state support for teacher salaries, gradually helped improve the education provided to children on the state's farms and ranches.

The drive for improved public education gained further momentum in 1949, with passage of the Gilmer-Aikin laws which created the Foundation School Program to apportion state funds to local school districts. The new legislation also reorganized the administration of public education, created an elected State Board of Education that appointed a commissioner of education, and reorganized the administration of state public school policy through the Texas Education Agency.

In 1984, the Texas Legislature passed what is commonly known as House Bill 72, enacting sweeping reforms of the public school system. House Bill 72 provided a pay raise for teachers, revamped the system of public school finance to funnel more money to property-poor school districts, and took many other steps aimed at improving the academic achievement of students.

A second major reform to the Texas Education System occurred in 1995 with the complete overhaul of the Texas Education Code. Passed by the 74th Legislature, Senate Bill 1 stripped the education code of several state-mandated rules and returned more authority to local school districts; gave the governor power to appoint the commissioner; gave the State Board of Education authority to grant open-enrollment charter schools, and established the separate State Board for Educator Certification.

Open enrollment charter schools are being established as an alternative to traditional public education schools. Today, Texas has about 185 operating charter schools that only have to comply with minimum provisions of the education code, but operate with state funds and provide alternative methods of instruction.

Equity spending among school districts has been a driving force during the latter half of the 20th Century. From 1989 to today, the system of school finance has been subject to both legislative volleys and on-going court battles between those termed "property-poor" and those termed "wealthy" school districts. In 1993, the Texas Legislature passed new legislation intent on leveling the funding field for Texas schools.

Senate Bill 7 was passed to ensure that none of Texas' school districts had more than a set amount of property wealth per student. Those districts that exceed the set limit, can choose among several options for giving away some wealth, including merging tax bases with one or more "property-poor" districts; sending money to the state; contracting to educate students in other districts; consolidating voluntarily with one or more districts, or moving some taxable property to another district’s tax rolls.

In addition to establishing financial equity for schools districts, the bill also created the state's well-regarded education accountability system. Now the model for the 2002 federal education plan, No Child Left Behind, the Texas accountability system measures and holds schools and districts accountable for student performance on assessment tests and dropout rates. Campuses and districts each year receive an accountability rating based on the percentage of all students and the four student groups (white, Hispanic, African American and economically disadvantaged) that pass the state’s assessment tests at grades three through eleven. The rating also considers the overall student dropout rate and each individual student group.

Texas students continue to be held to ever-increasing accountability standards through more rigorous curriculum and graduation requirements, and implementation of a new, tougher statewide assessment test, including the provision that third-grade students must pass the test, along with their coursework, to be promoted. In the future, additional grades will be required to pass the test, along with coursework, to be promoted to the next grade.