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A Brief History of Texas Public Education

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 3/19/2024

March is a month that showcases much of our nation’s history, with commemorations including National Women’s History Month and Texas Independence Day. Traditionally, school districts and other organizations around the state have celebrated the first full week of March as Texas Public Schools Week, coinciding with commemorations of the Texas Revolution.

It is important to be reminded of the history of public education in the state, especially since it remains a hot-button issue in Texas politics. Once Texas declared its independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836, and became its own country—shortly before being admitted into the United States—a public education system was created to serve the families of the newly formed Republic of Texas.

After Texas’ Declaration of Independence, the first public school law was enacted, providing nearly 18,000 acres of land in each county for public schools, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). This was after Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar advocated to Texas’ Congress to set aside land for schools, which the Texas Almanac says has earned him the unofficial title of “Father of Education in Texas.” In 1845, one-tenth of the annual state tax revenue went to public schools in a perpetual fund.

However, it was not until 1854 that Gov. Elisha M. Pease signed the law that set up the Texas public school system, which used $2 million out of the $10 million the new state gained after it gave up land in the Compromise of 1850. In 1876, 52 million acres of Texas public land was set aside for schools, according to Texas Almanac.

In 1949, the Texas Education Agency was created with a governor-appointed Commissioner of Education administering the school system. This also laid out the responsibilities of the State Board of Education, which creates policies for public education, according to Texas Almanac.

The first school census in 1854 showed there to be 65,463 students in the state. As of the 2022-23 school year, 5.5 million students were enrolled in Texas public schools, according to TEA. This data indicates just how much Texas and our public education system have grown since.

Equity for school districts has been an ongoing issue since 1989. Legal back and forth eventually resulted in the passing of Senate Bill 7 in 1993. This bill made it so no school district had more than a set amount of property wealth per student, according to TEA. School districts that exceed the limit will have different options to give away some of that wealth.

In 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind Act changed the Texas accountability system to hold schools and districts accountable for student performance and dropout rates, according to TEA. That rating is still used today.

To learn more about the history of public education in Texas, you can read TEA’s article and Texas Almanac’s article.

Read more about Texas education history in the 2003 Winter Issue of ATPE News.