Origin of County School Boards And Superintendents in Tennessee

Saturday, July 2, 2016 - by Harmon Jolley
Cover of the Tennessee Public Acts of 1925
Cover of the Tennessee Public Acts of 1925

Each of Tennessee’s 95 counties has a board of education (school board) and superintendent.  This wasn’t just  a good idea which began in one county and spread to others.  The oversight of public education across the state is something which was mandated by state legislation.    The requirement that every Tennessee county have a board of education and school superintendent can be traced to the work of Governor Austin Peay, Tennessee’s governor between 1923 and 1927, and the Sixty-Fourth Tennessee General Assembly in 1925. 

By the early 1900’s, availability of education depended greatly on where the student and his/her family lived.  Urban Tennessee counties were able to make a greater investment in public education than rural counties.  The inequity in education was considerable, with many rural Tennessee counties not even having public elementary schools.   Some counties still had all grades in the proverbial “one room school house”  like where Tennessee’s famous citizen, Sam Houston, held classes at Maryville, TN.

According to Paving the Way for Progress: The Governorship of Austin Peay (http://www.teachtnhistory.org/file/Paving%20the%20Way%20for%20Progress-%20Austin%20Peay.pdf),  “While education had been improved slightly by such governors as James B. Frazier and Malcolm Patterson, Tennessee continued to lag far behind national standards. Few rural legislators thought it affordable, thanks in large part to the state’s antiquated tax system which continued to place an unfair burden on these communities, to establish elementary schools in every county. “ 

In his second inaugural address on January 6, 1925 Gov. Austin Peay made a commitment to improve availability and quality of public education.   He said, “Children must be educated. Poverty is no crime in this country...The American child needs no inheritance of wealth, nor station to reach success in life. He does need, and he is entitled to be free from the handicap of ignorance.”

The Public Acts of 1925, Chapter 115 included a section sometimes known as the General Education Act.  There was a requirement for a board of education in each county.  “Be it further enacted, That in each county of the State there shall be a County Board of Education composed of seven members elected by the County Court at its July term, one each year, to succeed members now in office as their respective terms expire, each member to serve for a term of seven years; ...”    

Members of the board were required to reside in the county in which they served and to have a “practical education.”  Compensation was set at a maximum of $4.00 per day.  Duties of the County of Board of Education included holding quarterly meetings, electing one of its members as chairman, and preparing budgets. 

The Public Acts also mandated that each county have a school superintendent.  The County Superintendent was required to file with the State Commissioner of Education a copy of the school system’s budget as approved by the Quarterly County Court.  The superintendent was also charged with filing a list of teachers employed by the school system.

Tuberculosis was prevalent across Tennessee in 1925.  The Public Acts mandated that the Superintendent and all members of the Board of Education be free of tuberculosis, and stated that they should be removed from office after contracting the disease.  Mention was also made of the requirement to maintain a tuberculosis-free student enrollment.

Since some larger counties and cities in the state already had school boards, the Public Acts made exceptions so as not to change what those governments were already doing.  Hamilton County and Chattanooga already operated their own school systems with oversight by a superintendent and school board. 

The records available at the Public Library do not indicate when the local board and superintendent began meeting nor what the original mission was.  However, the Public Library does have excellent books containing the required annual reports on Hamilton County schools which were presented to the Hamilton County Court.  The books include detailed statistics on the system as a whole as well as on each school, often accompanied by photographs.

Since 1925, public education in each county of Tennessee has been guided by the administrative roles prescribed in the Public Acts.  Unfortunately, Gov. Austin Peay did not live long enough to see the outcome of his education reforms.  He became the only governor of Tennessee so far to die while in office, having succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage on October 2, 1927.  For his role in leading education reforms, Gov. Austin Peay was honored by his name being given to Austin Peay Normal University (now Austin Peay State University) located in his home town of Clarksville, TN. 

If you have additional information on the early history of boards of education and school superintendents in Tennessee, please e-mail me at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.  I’ll update this article with some of your comments.  Also, if you have ideas for similar “origin of” articles, please e-mail those to me.  There are many things that we have today which are often taken for granted as to their origin.

Tennessee Gov. Autin Peay served from 1923 until his passing in 1927
Tennessee Gov. Autin Peay served from 1923 until his passing in 1927


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