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State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Will Christopher Wood (1880-1939) was a progressive Republican, in the Hiram Johnson mold, and was thought of as a strong candidate for governor in 1925, as the progressives battled the conservative wing of the Republican Party. He withdrew his name from consideration one month after this article appeared, and supported another progressive, Clement Calhoun Young, for governor. Young was elected, and Wood resigned as state superintendent of schools January 21, 1927, and was immediately appointed state superintendent of banks by Gov. Young. Wood died at his Piedmont home May 15, 1939.

“I regard education as a subject of particular importance here in California, from our location and the circumstances under which we are placed, the immense value of our lands and the extent and wealth of the country.”
So spoke Robert Semple, delegate from Solano county in the first Constitutional Convention of California, held in the quaint old city of Monterey in 1849. He was voicing the hopes and aspirations of hardy pioneers who had come “round the Horn,” across the plains or over the Isthmus of Panama to lay the foundations of the first American state established on the shores of the Pacific.

“I think,” continued Mr. Semple, “that here, above all places in the Union, we should have, and we possess the resources to have, a well regulated system of education. Education, sir, is the foundation, sir, is the foundation of republican institutions; the school system suits the genius and the spirit of our form of government. If the people are to govern themselves, they should be qualified to do it. They must be educated; they must educate their children; they must provide means for the diffusion of knowledge and the progress of enlightened principles.”


Such was the vision of the one of the leaders in that body of wise men who drafted the original organic law of California accepted by Congress as the basis for admission into the Union in 1850. That splendid vision is being realized today in the great school system of California, which stands pre-eminent among the school systems of the world.

Today, the public school system of California which had not come into being at the time Semple spoke so eloquently in its behalf, now enrolls more than a million people in all its branches. It offers opportunity to all human beings who are capable of being educated, and aims to train each to serve himself and his community to fullest and best advantage, according to his capabilities and to enjoy life while serving. Over one-fourth of the population of the state was enrolled in various branches of the school system during 1924.

No other state can boast of the enrollment of so large a proportion of its population. No other people has been so generous in its support of education as the people of California. The vision of Semple and other pioneer statesmen has been realized.

Americans who came to the Golden West in the great gold rush did not wait, however, for the adoption of the constitution in order to establish schools. A love for public education seemingly is inborn in Americans, and this love manifested itself in California even before Marshall’s great discovery at Coloma.


Before California became American territory at least one American school had been established within the confines of what has become our state. In the autumn of 1846 a band of American immigrants straggled into Santa Clara county after a tedious and hazardous journey across the plains. With the band was a young woman who afterward became Mrs. Olive M. Isbell. It was she who opened the first school for American children in California, in an old adobe near Santa Clara Mission in December, 1846. She must have been a patient service-loving soul.

Before her death some years ago in Ventura county she told how, in the absence of slate, a blackboard or paper, she wrote the alphabet on the backs of her pupil’s hands in order that they might learn the rudiments of our language. A few months later she moved to Monterey, where she opened a school in the old custom house, later to become historic as the place where Sloat and Larkin first raised the American flag to mark the beginning of American occupation of California.

Wood cut of the first school house in California in Portsmouth Sq. San FranciscoShortly after Mrs. Isbell opened her little school at Santa Clara a Mr. Marston opened a private school in San Francisco. It was held in a little shanty located on the block between Broadway and Pacific streets, west of Dupont [Grant Ave.]. However, inasmuch as the teacher was not attentive to his duties, the school lasted less than a year.


To forestall a lapse in education, the ayuntimento, or town council, late in 1847, erected a one-room school house on the town plaza, now Portsmouth Square. The school was under public control, but was supported almost entirely by tuition fees. The school opened in April 1848, with Thomas Douglas as teacher, but it was ill starred. Word soon came from up the river that gold had been discovered at Coloma and Mr. Douglas, singularly thoughtless of his little flock of children, deserted overnight to seek his fortune in the “diggin’s.”

In October, 1849, John C. Pelton opened a school in the old Baptist Church in San Francisco, depending entirely upon voluntary subscriptions for its support. It was free only to poor children. In the spring of 1850 the city council came to his assistance and adopted an ordinance making it free public school, the first in California. The school continued under the original ordinance until September, 1851, when it was reorganized under an ordinance providing for a city board of education and a city superintendent. The first superintendent, T.J. Nevins outlined the organization for the first city school system in the state. It was he who proposed the establishment of the San Francisco high school, the grading of the school, the grading of schools and the adoption of a uniform course of study.


The sporadic local attempts at education which I have mentioned gave way to the beginning of a comprehensive state school system under the Constitution of 1849, which enjoined the legislature to encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement.

The Constitution set aside a vast domain of public lands to be sold for the benefit of the permanent public school fund, which now amounts to over $9,000,000, and required the maintenance of a public school in each district of the state for at least three months each year.

The provisions of the California Constitution relating to education were borrowed, almost word for word, from the Constitution of Michigan, which had been admitted to the Union only 12 years before and had established a splendid school system for that time.

The legislature of 1849-1850 was kept so busy laying the foundations of law and order in California that it found no time for enacting a school code. Near the close of the session the committee on education reported taxes were so heavy it was deemed inadvisable to tax the people still further for the support of schools-- an argument which persists in some sections of California even to this day.

The legislature of 1851, however, which was revised by the succeeding legislature under the direction of John G. Marvin, the first superintendent of public instruction. It was under this law that the early schools were organized in the state. The law, still imperfect, served fairly well for a full decade.


Photograph of John SwettIt was not until John Swett became superintendent of public instruction in 1863 that the California school system got its stride. No statesman produced by California is entitled to greater honor than John Swett. Other statesmen have achieved great things in the field of politics, but Swett achieved great things in behalf of children who had no votes to reward him for his faithful service.

In 1862 war feeling ran high in California and the loyalists organized themselves into the Union party. The party convention met in Sacramento to nominate a ticket. Some of Swett’s friends urged the young man’s name for the office of state superintendent and he finally consented to the presentation of his candidacy.

The representatives of the mining and agricultural counties did not respond to his candidacy at first. they were skeptical about him, first because he came from San Francisco, and second because one of his opponents pointed out that Swett hadn’t a “classical education.”


Like William Jennings Bryan at Chicago in 1896, John Swett won the nomination by making a speech to the convention, in which he showed those hard-fisted miners that he had grit as well as capacity. He was elected by an overwhelming majority and entered into the discharge of his duties at the age of 33.

Swett found the laws relative to schools were a patchwork. Teachers were underpaid and most of them had little professional training. With little assistance in the office, Swett found the task of reorganization a heavy one. He was obliged to make long journeys to distant part of the state to visit schools and acquaint himself with the school situation.

In the days of the stage coach the time spent in necessary travel was very great, while the hardships of travel were such as only a young man could endure without breaking under the strain. How he found time to do the constructive work that marked his term is almost a marvel.

During his term Swett secured the passage of laws creating a state board of education, providing for teachers’ institutes where poorly equipped teachers might get help, organizing the schools into grades, establishing school libraries, providing for the certification of teachers and laying a splendid financial basis for the support of public education.


Before the close of his term he had secured the abolition of rate bills under which parents were charged tuition and made the schools absolutely free in all districts for at least five months each year. He succeeded in having school boards build better school houses, secured necessary increases in teachers’ salaries and lengthened the school year. Since the time of Horace Mann, the public schools had found no more ardent champion than John Swett.

Since the days of Semple and Swett the California schools have developed by leaps and bounds. No layman has had an adequate conception of the extent or complexity of our school system. The lowest division of the school system in point of age is the kindergarten, and California’s kindergarten enrollment is larger than that of any other state. However, some of the larger cities have found it necessary in working districts to go beyond the kindergarten and establish days nurseries for the care of children of working mothers.

The elementary schools are represented in every district of the state. High schools enrolling over 300,000 students offer unparalleled opportunities to young people, while their evening classes enroll over 30,000 adults or near adults. The State University and teachers’ colleges enroll over 30,000 students.

California believes in education and has manifested her faith in schooling in very substantial ways. She has carried out the promise of Semple and Swett by supporting a school system that provides in full measure “means for the diffusion of knowledge and the progress of enlightened principles.”

The Bulletin
Diamond Jubilee Edition
September 1925

Please also see:
History and Evolution of Public Education in the US
American Public Education: An Origin Story

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