School’s Out Forever

The End of a Tradition

By Khaliela Wright

As this school year drew to a close and my seventeen-year-old son prepared to embark on his senior year, we pondered what he was going to do after high school.

When I was his age, I knew I would be attending the University of Idaho. I never considered any other schools. His future, however, is less certain. While my son busied himself with thoughts of the future, I found myself ruminating over Idaho’s educational past.

America’s well-laid foundations for free public education were not lost on early Idahoans, as I discovered when I decided to research the early days of the University of Idaho. It was established during the fifteenth session of the Legislature of the Territory of Idaho by the Organic Act of 1889, which said, “No student who shall have been a resident of the state for one year next preceding his admission shall be required to pay any fees for his tuition.” I think it’s significant that even before statehood was granted, this concept of a tuition-free university was established. And once statehood was achieved, the Idaho Legislature incorporated the Organic Act into the state constitution.

The precedent had been set by our country’s Puritan founders, scholars who attended Oxford or Cambridge, and who communicated with intellectuals all over Europe. Nothing in English statute required townships to provide for schools or the literacy of children, yet by the 1670s, all New England colonies had passed legislation that mandated literacy for children, regardless of gender. The consensus across the colonies was that education should be free for all. The Massachusetts code declared, “Children not taught to read would grow ‘barbarous.’” In this regard, I wholly agree with our Puritan ancestors, having found my own children to be much more interesting and far less barbarous after they learned to read. In George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, he advised future leaders to “promote . . . institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” He saw the importance of educating the American public as a means to grow the country economically and to create a well-informed populace, which would be necessary to America’s newly founded democracy.

Searching the University of Idaho archives, I found the first catalogue, for the academic year of 1892-1893. It states, “There is much discussion these times as to the cost of an education. Many a parent would gladly send his son or daughter to college if he honestly felt that he could afford it. Many a self-reliant young man or woman hesitates to undertake a collegiate course on account of the fear of financial inability to complete the same. Of course in a state as large as Idaho transportation is expensive. But free tuition is a large offset to that.”  Those sentiments are still pertinent to me as the parent of a seventeen-year-old, even though tuition-free education has become a thing of the past.

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