Indiana lags in education. Don’t blame history.

James Briggs of the Indianapolis Star convincingly connects Indiana’s economic malaise with its status as “one of the worst states in American for educational attainment” in an excellent column published this month.

But I think the column oversimplifies when it suggests Indiana’s current failings are embedded in the state’s history. “The story is always more complicated when we move to history,” the Indiana historian James Madison told me.

Caleb Mills advocated for public education in a series of influential essays in the 1800s. (Digital image © 2005 Indiana Historical Society. All Rights Reserved. Source: W. H. Bass Photo Company Collection).

I reached out to Madison to ask about the claim, attributed to the writer and consultant Aaron Renn, that Indiana “has always been poorly educated” due to “the cultural influences of large Quaker and southern-born populations at the time of Indiana’s founding.”

The Quakers? “I don’t know any basis for that statement,” said Madison, the Thomas and Kathryn Miller professor emeritus of history at Indiana University.Quite the contrary, Quakers tended to be more enthusiastic about education.”

Quakers also were pioneer Indiana’s most active abolitionists and operated some of the first schools open to African American children. “That’s indicative of the Quaker commitment to the general welfare,” Madison said.

Renn is right that much of Indiana’s early population was southern-born. All but nine of the 43 delegates to the state’s first constitutional convention previously lived in the South, Madison writes in “Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana.” And formal education was plain scarce in backwoods Indiana. Abraham Lincoln, who lived in the state from age 7 to 21, attended school for less than 12 months. In 1840, Indiana recorded the highest rate of illiteracy north of the Ohio River, Madison said.

But the 1816 state constitution set an idealistic goal to establish a “general system of education … wherein tuition shall be gratis, and equally open to all.” The second constitution of 1851 reaffirmed that goal and created ways to fund it.

“That generation of pioneers, with their high illiteracy rate, made that promise in 1816, and then renewed it in 1851,” Madison said. “That’s phenomenal.”

To the extent that Indiana fulfilled the promise, it owes a lot to Caleb Mills, a New England native and Wabash College faculty member. In a series of influential essays in the 1840s, he argued for free public schools, supported by taxes. It took time, but a system of public education was eventually established.

Reforms continued through the early 1900s: a longer school term, restrictions on child labor, compulsory school attendance (in 1897) and a gradual shift from one-room schools to school systems. Racial segregation in schools was finally outlawed in 1947.

“The ideals were always there,” Madison said. “And the question today is, what has happened to those ideals?”

It’s true that Hoosiers have often been reluctant to pay taxes, for education or anything else. We got by with less. By World War I, two-thirds of Indiana teachers were women. With few career opportunities available, Madison noted, women were an educated but cheap workforce for schools in Indiana and elsewhere.

After World War II, the economic boom times brought in tax revenue to build and expand schools while undercutting the practical importance of education.

“It was a wonderful time, where there was rising per capita income, the middle class was growing, there was more revenue from taxes,” Madison said. “And where you could always go down to the factory and get a job.”

That’s no longer the case. As Ball State economist Michael Hicks points out, most of today’s jobs that pay enough to support a family require a college degree. Eli Lilly & Co. CEO David Ricks cited educational attainment to explain the company’s decision to add jobs in North Carolina rather than Indiana.

“I mean, that’s a blow to the Hoosier heart,” said Madison, the author of a biography of company founder Eli Lilly.

Indiana may never have been a national leader in education; we were comfortable in the middle of the pack. But education used to be a popular and bipartisan cause. A generation ago, Republican Gov. Robert Orr worked across the aisle for a tax increase and more accountability in the A-Plus program. Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh championed the 21st Century Scholars program, which helps low-income students pay for college.

More recently, however, our leaders embraced the idea that money doesn’t matter in education. They cycled through trying to shame teachers and schools into improving and looking to consumer choice and competition as a panacea. When times were bad, they cut spending. When times were good, they cut taxes.

As a result, “Indiana’s inflation-adjusted spending per K-12 student was 17% lower in 2020 than it was in 2010,” Briggs writes, citing Hicks’ research.

Here’s the point: Hoosiers aren’t captive to our history, and we never have been. Indiana is a “college degree desert” – and a laggard in school funding and teacher pay – because of decisions our elected officials have made and continue to make.

The last word in this post goes to Caleb Mills, the 19th century advocate for public schools. What he wrote 170 years ago is still true today:

“There is but one way to secure good schools, and that is to pay for them.”

2 thoughts on “Indiana lags in education. Don’t blame history.

  1. Makes me think of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787(?), whereby Section 16 of each Township was reserved for a school (sort of). Correct? Check me on that. Long ago in 4th Grade Indiana History we were taught that was the location of the schoolhouse (Section 16) as it was centered in the Township. It made sense and sounded ideal. But, in decades since, more was discovered about such. Proceeds from the sale of acreage in Section 16 were to be used for a school. However, often the school was placed somewhere in the Township where the land was of little to no use for agriculture. That made much sense at the time I am sure. This often resulted in schools being located in less than desirable settings. You alluded to schools being in session for short periods. Yes, sometimes as little as 6 weeks per year is my understanding. Then there’s the part about how early days teachers were treated. That’s a whole other matter. The Hoosier Schoolmaster by Eggleston is a good read. Family lore says the shopkeeper in the book was an ancestor. Upland Hoosierdom at its finest I will call it. Thank you, too, for your mentioning the influence of the Quakers and South in early Indiana education. I agree with Dr. Madison about the Quakers being a positive influence. Of course, the northeast U.S. had the earliest organized school system and the southeast U.S. the latest, east of the Mississippi. It is no surprise test scores in the regions still reflect the history. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for your comments. I didn’t know this, but apparently there were 3 northwest ordinances. The land ordinance of 1785 called for using proceeds from the 16th section for education. The more important Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established governance (per this article: https://www.britannica.com/event/Northwest-Ordinances). Regarding the school term, Madison writes in “Hoosiers” that the average length increased from 68 days in 1866 to 136 in 1879 and to 149 in 1900. (I think it may have been 160 or 165 when I was in school; grew to 180 in the ’80s, I believe). And yes, “The Hoosier Schoolmaster” is a fun read. I never got around to it until just a few years ago.

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