EDUCATION IN UTAH
Cove school and pupils, Cache Valley
In common with other nineteenth century Americans, many Utahns desired
formal schooling for their children. But desiring education and schools,
is not synonymous with actually having education and schools. Social,
political, and economic conditions can thwart aspirations and reduce educational
commitment to expressions of rhetoric. Even mandates for education that
are rooted in religious ideals are frequently modified by inescapable realities.
Utah schools in the nineteenth century reflected the patchwork quilt of
aspiration, apathy, rhetoric and actual commitment which characterized much
of century's education at the national level-some communities were pockets
of educational excellence and others displayed only minimal commitment.
Some parents wanted as much formal schooling as was possible for their children;
others were hostile to book learning. There were also communities (such
as Draper and the Second Ward in Salt Lake City) stretched themselves economically
to support schools. Much depended on local economic circumstances and the
personal commitment of local ecclesiastical leadership.
Most elementary schools in the 1850s and 1860s were organized on the basis
of Mormon Wards with the church meeting house serving as the school house
during the week. These ward schools differed widely in their curriculum
offerings and the quality of their teaching. They were in essence quasi-public
Mormon schools, controlled by local trustees appointed by Mormon bishops;
they reflected Mormon community values, used Mormon scriptures as supplemental
texts and supported in part by tuition from patrons and local taxes. As
early as 1851 the office of territorial superintendent of schools was created,
promoting the centralization of school policy and curriculum at least in
theory if not in practice. During the pioneer period up to 1869, in the
words of John C. Moffitt, "very little was done in Utah for education
beyond the rudiments of learning."
By the time the transcontinental railroad had made Utah more accessible
to the rest of the United States in 1869, some semblance of system appeared
as the ward schools evolved into district public schools, although they
were still basically Mormon oriented schools supported by local taxes. Eventually
these schools became the nucleus of the federally mandated publicly supported
territorial district schools which came into existence with the passage
of Utah's first Free Public School Act by the Territorial Legislature in
1890. There was some initial opposition to these compulsory secular schools
on the part of the Latter-day Saints, but eventually they came to be accepted
as part of Mormon accommodation to mainstream America.
In addition to the development of the district schools, between 1867 and
1900 some one hundred private elementary and secondary schools were established
by Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist mission boards. Their initial
aim was to "Christianize" Utah's Mormon children a well as meet
the needs of the growing number of non-Mormons who were settling in Utah.
Few of them persisted after Utah adopted a free school system; however,
they played a significant role as models for public schools and for the
professionalization of teaching. The Episcopal Church established the first
private denominational school, St. Mark's, in 1867. The Catholic Church
also maintained St. Mary's Academy (1875-1926) and St. Mary's of the Wasatch
(1926-1970), Judge Memorial High School (established in 1921) and St. Joseph's
High School in Ogden (established in 1929). Currently there are several
hundred home-schools operated by individual parents, and a variety of private
schools-religious and entrepreneurial-have been established in the last
Public secondary education did not exist until the last decade of the nineteenth
century and did not become a viable part of the system until the second
decade of the twentieth century. In 1910, 58 percent of Utah's 16-to 17-year-olds
were enrolled in high school and by 1940 the percentage had risen to 86
percent. In 1991, over 23,715 students graduated from public high school--representing
90.3 percent of the 12th-grade students.
Partly in response to the increasing secularization of the district schools
and the perceived threat posed by Protestant mission schools, the Mormon
Church in the 1870s and 1880s organized a private secondary school system.
However, because of economic exigencies, by 1933 the LDS Church had discontinued
its support of private secondary schools in Utah, turning some of them over
to the state for a nominal fee. Public secondary schools were made more
acceptable to the Mormons because of the organization in about 1912 of a
parallel released-time program funded entirely by the LDS Church which allowed
Mormon students to integrate religious education with their public school
studies through attendance at LDS seminaries built adjacent to high schools.
Although most Utah school districts gave students graduation credits for
attendance at seminary classes, a 1981 Federal court ruling disallowed such
credit as being unconstitutional, while upholding the constitutionality
of the released-time program.
Education in the nineteenth-century Utah was shaped in part by the conflicts
between Mormons and non-Mormons. During the twentieth century, however,
it is just as evident that it has been shaped less by local circumstances
than by the national social, economic and political environment and mirrors
very closely national educational issues. For example, the demands for a
business-like approach to the management of the burgeoning school systems
led to demands for more efficiency in the management of tax-money. This
in turn led to demands for consolidation and centralization of schools--two
movements which typified the early twentieth century and for which Utah
was praised nationally. Utah's response during the Progressive era gained
it national attention and its concern for the welfare of children in and
out of school was described by one national historian as "social uplift
with a vengeance." In the late 1930s there was a national trend toward
increased state funding of education, and once again Utah shared in this
movement to improve the economic lot of teachers.
Over the years a variety of legislative measures had been adopted to promote
equalization in the distribution of state education funds, resulting in
a patchwork quilt approach to the problem of equality of educational opportunity.
In 1946-47, under the leadership of the Utah Education Association, efforts
by a coalition of educational, civic, and business groups succeeded in passing
amendments to the Utah constitution and in consolidating the many funding
measures so that the quality of the equalization formulas was improved.
The object was to establish a state-wide standard which would provide equal
educational opportunity for all students and at the same time spread the
financial sacrifice more equitably among the state's taxpayers. As a result,
Utah was put in the forefront of the national movement to provide equal
opportunity and tax equity.
From the mid-twentieth century concerns over such national priorities as
defense, veteran's training and equal opportunity led to increased federal
involvement in Utah schools. As teachers throughout the nation became more
aggressive in the 1960s in their demands for increased compensation, Utah's
teachers captured national headlines with a state wide strike and the National
Education Association placed the state under a sanction to keep teachers
outside of Utah from breaking the strike. With the return to the traditional
curriculum emphasis in the 1980s, Utah adopted a structural approach to
its reform focusing on graduation requirements, curriculum control and teacher
incentives such as career ladders. During much of the twentieth century
the focus in Utah's public schools has been upon the way schools can help
fit students to the economic and social needs of American civilization.
At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the schools are expected to
meet the individual needs of the students. Utah schools have followed these
In this respect education in Utah during the twentieth century is not particularly
unique. The state is too much a part of the social, economic and political
matrix of the times, too integrated into the highly complex technological
civilization to bear a unique fingerprint in terms of its educational development.
Public schools in Utah do, however, present the state with some unique problems
because (as of 1992) education consumes a larger proportion (48.4 percent)
of tax revenues in Utah than in any other state. This is in large measure
due to the Mormon emphasis on large families and a consistently high birthrate.
And it also means that Utah has the lowest expenditure per student in the
nation ($2,993 compared to the national average of $5,261) but the state
also ranks fifth in the percentage of personal income expended for education.
As the twentieth century comes to a close the greatest challenge facing
Utah is how to balance between the demands of its burgeoning population
for quality education and resources available. With one of the most highly
consolidated school systems in the nation, Utah actually does more with
its resources than many other states. It has the highest proportion of its
population in public schools (98.2 percent) than any other state, and leads
the nation in the percentage of the population over twenty-five years of
age with a high school diploma. As a consequence of an emphasis on large
families, however, the education system also must bear the burden of having
the highest pupil-per-teacher ratio in the nation: in 1992 it was 23.8,
as compared with the national average of 15.9. Its teachers rank forty-fourth
in the nation in terms of salary levels, but when career ladder awards are
included they rank thirty-ninth.
The burden on Utah taxpayers for the support of education is significant;
however, but in spite of a vigorous campaign waged to cut taxes in 1988,
the electorate defeated tax limitation proposals by a wide margin. Historically,
the establishment and perpetuation of schools in Utah has been contingent
not only on aspirations and ideals but, on the availability of suitable
personnel, facilities, and, most importantly, financial support.
See: M. Lynn Bennion, Mormonism and Education (1939); John C. Moffitt,
The History of Education in Utah (1946); Stanley S. Ivins, "Free
Schools Come to Utah," Utah Historical Quarterly 22 (1954);
C. Merrill Hough, "Two School Systems in Conflict: 1867-1890,"
Utah Historical Quarterly 28 (1960); Mary R. Clark, "Rowland Hall-St.
Mark's School: Alternative Education for More than a Century," Utah
Historical Quarterly 48 (1980); Charles S. Peterson, "A New Community:
Mormon Teachers and the Separation of Church and State in Utah's Territorial
Schools," Utah Historical Quarterly 48 (1980); Frederick S.
Buchanan, "Education Among the Mormons: Brigham Young and the Schools
of Utah," History of Education Quarterly 22 (1982); Charles
S. Peterson, "The Limits of Learning in Pioneer Utah," Journal
of Mormon History 10 (1983); Alan M West, My Life As An Advocate
for Utah Schools (1988); Federick S. Buchanan, "Mormons and Masons:
Released-Time Politics in Salt Lake City, 1930-1956," Journal of
Mormon History 19 (1993).
Frederick S. Buchanan