Section Contents


The Early Years:
Public Education in Pennsylvania
During the 17th century in Europe the Renaissance was in full bloom. Along came with it, an age of discovery, humanism—and a migration of destitute Europeans looking for a new life across the seas. At the invitation of Quaker William Penn (, the English settlers in Pennsylvania were followed soon after by the Germans, some called “French Germans,” who suffered severe hardship and persecution during the Thirty Years’ War from 1618-1648 and thereafter. It was a war fought primarily in Germany that originated as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics but included virtually all major European countries and royal territories against the Holy Roman Empire.  After visiting Germany twice, William Penn arranged for passage to the new world, and the Good Ship "Concord" sailed July 24, with thirteen men and their families, reaching Philadelphia on October 6, 1683, at a time when that place had about 80 houses and cottages. This group settled at what is now Germantown, then separated from Philadelphia by a thick forest, with a bridle-path the only connection. Reformed and Lutheran churches took the lead in establishing what would become the public education system in order for adults and children alike to learn the new world’s English and to join the English in establishing a new nation.  The first house used exclusively for school purposes in Allentown was the old Zion Reformed church, converted into a schoolhouse in 1773.
According to the 1790 census, Pennsylvania was the “most foreign” of all thirteen colonies; seventy percent of all immigrants who came to this British colony before 1790 were German.  Just fourteen years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania state constitution was signed in 1790 and required free public education for children in families that could not afford to pay for an education.  It was not until the Free School Act of 1834, however, that a genuinely democratic system of public schools was initiated. 

Pennsylvania was one of the first states in the nation to institute public education law in order to support the vision of a free nation.  In 1852, a state association of teachers was organized.  Five years later, the Normal School Act was passed, creating a separate government department for the supervision of schools.  By1865, the number of public schools had quadrupled, and Allentown School District was established in 1866.  There was also a rapid development of academies, corresponding to modern high schools, many of which received public aid.

Beginning in 1887, the Assembly passed general laws authorizing the establishment of high schools, and by 1895, every school district was authorized to establish a high school.  The Edmonds Act in 1921 established minimum salary standards and qualifications for teachers and county superintendents, developed centralized teacher certification, set up a state Council of Education, provided for consolidation of rural schools, and increased state aid to education, among other improvements.

School consolidation became a major goal after World War II.  By 1968, the number of school districts in Pennsylvania had been reduced from over 2,000 to 742.  Today, there are 500 districts, and the call for more consolidation continues in order to take advantage of bulk purchasing and technological cost efficiencies.




“History of Public Schools.”  Education Bug.


 Pennsylvania History.” The Pennsylvania General Assembly.


Wickersham, J.P.  History of Education in Pennsylvania. Arno Press, Inc., 1969.


Photo credit: Lewis Miller Sketches & Chronicles, York, in cooperation with PHMC, 1966.


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