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COLUMN: Public education and democracy

by TIMOTHY BRAATZ Contributing Writer
| September 2, 2021 1:00 AM

When the USA first became a country, most citizens were farmers and few attended school. The well-educated “founding fathers” hoped to change that. They understood that a functioning democracy requires an educated citizenry.

George Washington argued that schools are essential for teaching citizens “to know and value their own rights” so they can “distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority.”

John Adams agreed that widespread education was “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” Regarding Massachusetts, he wrote, “There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, maintained at the expense of the people themselves.”

Over a century later, the philosopher John Dewey argued that democracy is a way of life in which people work together, despite differences, to solve problems and to allow individuals to reach their full potential. In public schools, where students from varied backgrounds learn to communicate, cooperate, and think critically, democratic values flourish. According to Dewey, education is the community’s “paramount duty.”

Many in the elite class, whose children attended private schools, didn’t want poor children educated at public expense. But Horace Mann, of the Common School Movement, appealed to their desire for a stable society. Public education, he explained, Americanized immigrants, prepared citizens to be thoughtful voters and jurors, and actually lowered public expenses by reducing poverty and crime.

In the late 19th century, most Northern states passed laws requiring free, compulsory elementary education. As the industrial revolution was drawing millions of impoverished immigrants to Northern cities, wealthy industrialists supported public schools to prepare the workforce. Working-class parents valued public education as social advancement for their children. Southern legislatures, dominated by wealthy, segregationist landowners, were far less supportive.

The early white residents of Bonners Ferry championed public education. In 1883, Minerva Fry started a one-room school in an old building on the northside for her children, nieces and nephews, and, on occasion, Kootenai children. In 1885, friends built a log house for her classes. In 1895, city residents elected a schoolboard, with Minerva’s husband Martin as president.

In 1901, a new northside school, called Pine Grove, opened on land donated by Col. A.A. Baines. In 1914, this was replaced by a brick structure called the Northside School. Two years later, students welcomed drinking fountains and toilets!

Outside of town, one-room schools came and went, depending on the number of children living in logging and mining camps and farming settlements. The teachers were typically unmarried women. The terms usually lasted four or five months.

For example, in 1894, Tom Desmond donated land and built a log schoolhouse near Cow Creek. Ida Bush hired on to teach. The following year, Miss Bush taught in a log house in the Copeland area. The term ended three weeks early due to severe weather and the distances students traveled.

At least 30 different rural schools—including Porthill, Eastport, Addie, Round Prairie, Curly Creek, Moyie Springs, Katka, Moravia, Highland Flats, and Naples—existed at some point before Boundary County school consolidation in 1950. County residents, it seems, no matter how isolated and transient their settlements, prioritized public education.

On the southside of Bonners Ferry, the first school began in the rear of a store in 1891. In 1905, a new two-story frame schoolhouse went up—now site of the Oak Street Apartments. In 1912, four girls became the first high school graduates. Three years later, older students were separated from younger students and no longer had to pay high school tuition.

More rearranging came in 1922. A three-story brick high school went up at the corner of Arizona and Oak. The old high school became Southside Grade School. The old grade school became a primary school.

Before white settlers arrived, the Kootenai people didn’t use schoolhouses. Education was a community pursuit, as elders taught children the skills and duties necessary for tribal prosperity. Among other things, girls learned sewing, basketry, plant foraging, and food preparation. Boys learned hunting, fishing, and how to make the necessary equipment. Most everyone learned to swim and handle a canoe.

In 1914, Congress appropriated $15,000 to build a day school for Kootenai children. The school closed down in 1926 due to low enrollment, but the County Superintendent of Schools, Mary Hawkins, reopened it in 1932. Four years later, the Kootenai students won the annual grade school competition in track, spelling, and arithmetic. In 1945, Kootenai children began attending the town schools.

While some in Boundary County today opt for homeschooling, most parents rely on public schools to provide intellectual advancement and social immersion. Musical productions and athletic competitions are community events. Public schooling — as a shared enterprise of students, parents, teachers, coaches, administrators, board members, and taxpayers — both reflects and promotes a civic spirit. It’s a proud Boundary County tradition.

This column brought to you by the Boundary County Human Rights Task Force. For more information on local school history, including old photographs, please visit the Boundary County Museum.