A Brief Labor History of Philadelpha's Public Schools, Part I

By George Bezanis

This post is the first in an occasional series. If there is a part of PFT or labor history that you would like to learn more about, let us know by e-mailing us at [email protected].

Philadelphia has a long history of public education, one of the longest in the United States, if not the world. The Caucus of Working Educators is proud to help keep the flame of this time-honored tradition burning bright. In order to see where WE fit into this history -- and how WE can help shape the future -- one must first delve into the past.


Beginning with the founding of the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 actually had the foresight to include the following line:

"The Legislature shall, as soon as conveniently may be, provide by law for the establishment of schools throughout the State, in such a manner that the poor may be taught gratis."

As a result, an Act of the Pennsylvania General Assembly (1818) created the "First School District of Philadelphia" in an attempt to control the spiraling poverty and crime that accompanied the exponential growth of the city.

It would be a mistake, however, to equate these early public schools with the public schools of today. The Pennsylvania schools of the early 19th century were meant as ways to educate the indigent youth of the city and were typically staffed by a single teacher who would then teach the older pupils to instruct younger pupils. As far as academic rigor was concerned, all of these schools provided, at the most, what we would today consider to be a basic education: reading, writing, and simple arithmetic.

There were, of course, no workplace protections for these early teachers, who also were expected to double as teacher-trainers. Employees at the time were often hired, and fired, at will without regards to educational attainment, qualifications, or lack thereof.

The largest reform in the early School District of Philadelphia, and the other various Pennsylvania school districts that were beginning to pop up, was the Consolidation Act of 1836. This law opened public schools to all students, poor and rich alike, and helped to rid the stigma of "public" schools as being nothing more than "charity" schools for the destitute masses.

To quote The 1897 publication “The Public Schools of Philadelphia: Historical, Biographical, Statistical:”

"The Act of 1836 may be regarded as the corner-stone of the public school system. Indeed, many of its important provisions are still in force. Regarding the formation of school districts, the election of school directors and their powers and duties, the organization of school boards, the levying and collection of taxes for school purposes, and the duties of the State Superintendent, the law is substantially the same now as under the Act of 1836."

The Consolidation Act of 1836 also allowed for something unheard of up until that point, namely the authority "...to establish one central high school for the full education for such pupils of the public schools of the First School District as may possess the requisite qualifications..."

Central High School, the second-oldest continuously-operating public high school in the United States, was therefore chartered in 1836 for those students - poor and rich alike (although no girls) - who showed the propensity to advance beyond a basic grammar school education.

Following construction of the building at Juniper and Market Street, the doors of Central High School opened to students for the first time in October of 1838 with 4 professors and 63 students. It was the first in what became a network of public high schools in the city. Philadelphia Girls Normal School followed in 1848.

George Bezanis is a member of WE and has been a working educator for ten years, with the last seven in the classrooms of the School District of Philadelphia. He currently works at Central High School as a Social Studies teacher.