By Dina Martin
While the California Legislature called for budget cuts, an ardent advocate for public education criticized wealthy citizens for crusading against taxes.
Sound familiar? The man was John Swett; the year was 1865. It was an uphill battle, but by 1867, Swett was able to report that “for the first time in the history of the state, every public school was made entirely free for every child to enter.”
John Swett, California’s fourth superintendent of public instruction, was the first to call for a state teachers’ convention, which took place in May 1863. That convention established the California Educational Society, the forerunner of CTA.
Teachers agreed to establish a journal of education, California Teacher, which Swett co-edited. He used the journal to advocate for what he believed were teachers’ common interests: curriculum development, professional standards and procedures for certification of teachers, and salaries.
He prepared a petition to the Legislature, which teachers circulated among voters for signatures. That petition was the beginning of a state school tax. In 1864 he convinced the Legislature to increase state funding and to require local districts to keep schools open five months a year.
We know John Swett as the founder of CTA, but even more, he is the founder of public education in California.
All about John Swett
When John Swett took up teaching in San Francisco after failing to strike it rich in the gold country, California was a land of opportunity with a growing population and new wealth.
A newcomer from New Hampshire, Swett became principal teacher at a Rincon Point grammar school where he directed the expansion of the school, adding gymnastics, field trips and evening courses for working adults to the curriculum. Early on, he recognized the importance of quality teachers in a school and spoke out about a need for a teachers’ organization. He was also an early critic of hiring practices. At the time, elected school boards administered tests to teachers, who then had to take them again to be rehired the following year.
According to “John Swett and the Politics of Public Education in Frontier California,” an online article by historian Ruth Sutter, “Teachers felt humiliated by questions that seemed to be carelessly posed by ignorant examiners, and felt insulted by the lack of attention to their previous work. The solution to these problems would be to put teachers on the hiring committees and to provide teachers with security, or tenure, in their jobs.”
When Swett was persuaded to run for superintendent of public instruction in 1862, he campaigned for professional standards for teachers, free schools for all children, and better and more equitable school funding. He especially wanted to improve conditions in rural schools, which were inadequately funded. He believed profoundly that education was the foundation of a democracy.
In his first report to the Legislature, he wrote: “If one State in the Union needs a system of free schools more than any other, that State is California. Her population is drawn from all nations. The next generation will be a composite one, made up of the heterogeneous atoms of all nationalities. Nothing can Americanize these chaotic elements and breathe into them the spirit of our institutions but the public schools.”
For more information on Swett, see www.californiahistorian.com/articles/John-Swett.html.