Wednesday, April 06, 2011

"The worst educational system that you could possibly have": The 1949 Texas School Reform

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe how the conservatives leading the Texas Legislature in 1949 raised taxes to improve schools, modernize state mental hospitals and improved care for patients, and provided more assistance for disabled children.

The need for fundamental reform reached a crisis point, almost overwhelming the Legislature in 1949, a year that saw the longest session in state history (lasting from January 11 to July 6). In almost seven months of debate and negotiation, the Legislature modernized prisons, improved oversight of mental health care facilities through creation of the Board for Texas State Hospitals and Special Schools, and provided more care for disabled children. Most importantly, the Legislature revamped a state public education system that had changed little since the turn of the century.

By the late 1940s, Texas schools still moved to agricultural rhythms. The state only required a high school education for its teachers, who toiled in often-dilapidated schools that shut down when it was time to plants crops or gather the harvest. “We had the worst educational system . . . . that you could possibly have,” said Senterfitt.

After the Legislature deadlocked in 1947 over a minimum-salary law for Texas public school teachers, the House and Senate named a committee to study how to improve efficiency and funding for the public schools. The committee’s recommendations, largely drawn up by state Senator A.M. Aikin of Paris and state Rep. Claud Gilmer of Rocksprings came before the 51st Legislature in 1949.

Born in Rocksprings in 1901, Gilmer taught and worked as a high school principal in his hometown before winning election as county judge of Edwards County in 1924. He received his law license in 1929 and ran to fill Coke Stevenson’s vacated House seat when the latter successfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1938. Gilmer served as House speaker during the first post-war session of the Legislature from 1945-1947. As speaker, he earned notice as an orderly mechanic of the legislative process. Gilmer ran the House with a firm hand. Quick to rap the gavel, he still proved fair in giving members time to address the House.

Gilmer’s fame came when he returned to the House as a regular member in the 1947-1948 session. It was in this term that Gilmer began the restructuring of state education that would bear his name. The Gilmer-Aikin bills replaced the elected superintendent of public instruction and the appointed nine-person State Board of Education with a 21-member elected board that had the power to appoint a state commissioner.

The Gilmer-Aikin laws reduced administrative costs by consolidating 6,409 Texas school districts into 1,539 by 1960. The era of the one-room schoolhouse had ended. Under the reforms, the school year was extended to nine months and all students were guaranteed 175 instruction days. The Legislature allocated state money to equalize funding and teacher salaries were raised with incentives provided for additional training. Under the new laws, teachers with a bachelor’s degree would be paid a minimum of $3,204 a year (about $25,000 a year in today’s dollars), with a bonus of $72 per year (about $571 in 2005 dollars) for each year of teaching experience.

The education community, accustomed to rejection for the much-needed reforms, remained wary of the highly conservative members of the Gilmer-Aikin committee. Teacher opposition receded when the committee asked the state’s leading teacher association to help write the legislation. Reformers, however, faced persistent opposition from State Superintendent L.A. Woods.

Gilmer later said that he pushed for replacing the nine-term Woods with an appointed commissioner because Woods had turned the office into a private fiefdom, dispensing public school money as a gift to his allies and shutting out his opponents. The Legislature had only recently created the position of state auditor, meaning that Woods’ use of tax dollars to date had gone unexamined. Senterfitt said that Woods was a formidable opponent. “L.A. Woods had all the county superintendents in Texas behind him because he was . . . just a complete political machine,” Senterfitt said. “Whoever patted him on the back always got the money.”

Gilmer had not run for re-election and when the 51st Session of the Legislature convened, he would no longer be chair of the House Appropriations Committee. In another complication, pro-reform forces faced an uncertain ally with incoming Speaker Durwood Manford. Nevertheless, Gilmer’s close work with Manford during the educational reform battle established an important precedent for later speakers who would extend their influence beyond their tenure as presiding officer by carefully mentoring their successors.

The scion of a wealthy ranching family from Smiley in Gonzales County, Manford earned a law degree from the University of Texas and first won election to the Texas House in 1940 at the age of 23. In 1943, Manford authored one of the most reactionary anti-union laws in the country. The “Manford Bill,” passed by an 86-37 vote in the House and 16-7 vote in the Senate, required labor organizers to register with the state and carry identification cards. The law banned unions from making political contributions and required them to file extensive financial and organizational records. Even the archconservative Gov. Coke Stevenson blanched, choosing to let the Manford bill become law without his signature.

Manford quickly became known as an obsessive backer of rural road construction almost to the exclusion of everything else. Gilmer later recalled, however, that the apparent disadvantage of a Manford speakership turned to the reformer’s advantage. “One thing helped me pass it (the education reforms): Durwood Manford . . . was a real good friend of mine,” Gilmer said. “In fact, I had advised him a little . . . Durwood wanted to run for speaker, and having been there as long as I had been, if you’re going to learn anything, you do it as a result of experience. So I advised him on how to go about it and so forth. He was elected, and he was speaker when these bills came up. He wasn’t enthusiastic about them at all, but I was able to get him to cooperate.”

Gilmer’s relationship with Manford set the pattern for the dynastic speakership, an era when speakers carefully prepared allies to take the reins. Gilmer observed that Manford was “tight-fisted” and mistrusted the Gilmer-Akin proposals as “a new far-out thing.” But at Gilmer’s urging, Manford backed the bills in a crowded session.

For much of the 51st session, one could question whether Manford’s lukewarm support represented a blessing or a curse. As presiding officer, Manford was no Claud Gilmer and the session he led became known for its painfully slow pace and for several near-rebellions among House members. For the previous 14 years, speakers had sewn up the office before the legislative session’s opening day. Manford had to fight for the speakership after the opening gavel in a bitter race against Joe Kilgore of McAllen. Kilgore conceded the race when the vote reached a 73-20 margin in favor of Manford, but rancor permeated the whole session. The session began January 11, 1949, but the House wasted three weeks because Manford did not finish appointing committee chairs until February 1.

Many members grumbled about the committee selections and union-backed members particularly protested against the anti-worker bias of the House’s new Labor Committee. Manford announced his committee assignments on a Tuesday. Members were expected to introduce bills that Wednesday; instead Manford insisted that they be filed with the chief clerk before they would be assigned to appropriate committees the following day. The House was instructed to “stand at ease” while this process took place over the next hour and a half. Bored members spent the next half-hour debating a resolution by Lamar Zively of Temple requesting that Texans arm themselves with baseball bats to keep groundhogs from emerging aboveground, and taking roll call votes of Legislators who had graduated from Texas A&M, The University of Texas, Baylor, the “Metropolitan Business College,” etc.

The Austin American reported that the wasted day cost the taxpayers $1,500 in House members’ salaries. On February 17, it took the House two hours to approve a motion to adjourn for the weekend. “Durwood was a dear fellow,” recalled former House Rep. Jim Lindsey, who would become speaker himself in the mid-1950s. “[But] he would procrastinate. He would sit back sometimes and [h]e’d just wear the lieutenant governor out and so on.“

A bill allowing rural telephone cooperatives to receive federal aid resulted in a continuous 23-hour, six-minute debate, at that time the second longest in House history. During the debate, Manford ordered doors locked and posted state highway patrolmen to prevent members from escaping. Some left the House chamber, climbing out of windows during the night and “catwalking along the 2-foot wide granite ledge twenty feet above the ground, trying to find an open window in some other part of the Capitol.” Knowing this kept Mrs. Durwood Manford from being alarmed when she awoke during the night and saw a House member walking along the ledge outside the speaker’s second-floor apartment. Manford issued arrest warrants forcing errant members back to the House chamber so a quorum could be maintained.

As the debate dragged on through Friday night, the lockdown forced Rep. Jim Sparks to spend his wedding anniversary in the chamber. Lawmakers did not break the logjam until just after 1 p.m. on Saturday. By February 26, members already predicted that the House would be unable to work through the legislative calendar and would need a special session to finish its job. As the session passed the 120-day mark, the state Constitution required that members’ daily pay be slashed from $10 to $5 and still the session dragged on.
Animosity probably intensified during the session because of ugliness surrounding the Gilmer-Aikin proposals. “It was a completely new program, a revolutionary thing,” Gilmer said. “It was going to cost a whole lot of money . . . [I]f you don’t see a personal need for it that had been manifest in your district, what are you going to do? You’re going to be against it.”

During a hearing on the bills held February 8, 1949, Gilmer-Aikin opponents resorted to racial demagoguery. Yoakum school Superintendent George P. Barron expressed anger that the teacher pay raise provisions might result in some African American educators being paid as much or more than their white peers. “. . . I’m one of those old degreeless boys who has been working like the devil for 30 years and trying to run a public school system, with very little time to go to school – I’ll get the sum of $4,500.00 while my Negro vocational teacher, whom I employed for $2,200 will draw down $5,376.00,” Barron said. “A lot of inequities are there that you should look into.”

Barron’s ironic claims on inequities aside, at the time of the Gilmer-Aiken debates black educators working at segregated schools received poor training from the few, always underfunded, state-supported teacher schools open to blacks in Texas. Black and white teachers experienced a wide wage disparity, with the average white teacher earning $1,900 a year and the average African American $1,200 annually ($15,000 and $9,500 in 2005 dollars, respectively.) George Nokes, a co-manager of the Gilmer-Aikin bills, would later acknowledge the historical significance this bill had for the African American community in Texas.

The Gilmer-Aikin bill was five years before Brown v. the Board of Education [a 1954 Supreme Court decision that ruled public school segregation violated the United States Constitution] and was easily ten years before there was even any significant desegregation of Texas schools. It was the first time that the state law required that black teachers in the then still segregated schools be paid on the same salary schedule.

While Gilmer-Aikin was a significant increase in the pay for white teachers, it was a doubling in some cases of salaries for black teachers, and it greatly impacted the ability to attract more qualified teachers in the Negro schools. Of the relatively small number of black voters in the state [in the 1940s] a heavily disproportionate share of them were teachers. And they were all very careful to not make that a major issue. This pay change helped build grassroots support for Gilmer-Aikin, but it was way below most folks’ radar screen at the time.

Gilmer-Aikin opponents gave up on winning in the Senate and focused their lobbying efforts on the House. Woods took out newspaper ads, wrote letters to county superintendents and appeared on half-hour radio roundtable discussions featuring fellow anti-reform leaders. Woods cautioned rural parents that their school districts would be closed and consolidated with larger districts. Joe T. Steadham, chair of the Texas Joint Railway Legislative Board, darkly suggested that Gilmer-Aikin stood as:

“[O]ne of the first approaches of Fascism . . . and if you will take time to go to the library and read how Hitler long before managed to take over the educational system of Germany, in order that his Fascist ideas would hold first place in the teaching of school children . . . You will observe the similarity of Senate Bill 115 . . . I can also see the Wall Street group who control the natural resources of our State, in a scheme to save a hundred million dollars a year in taxes, and pass this burden on to the local rural communities . . . "

The three Senate education bills, labeled emergency measures by Gov. Beauford Jester, moved to the top of the chamber’s agenda and passed by heavy margins. Manford, meanwhile, made good on his promises to support Gilmer-Aikin by appointing a reform-friendly House Education Committee. In a break with tradition, Manford re-appointed Gilmer-Aikin promoter Rae Files Still to another term as Education Committee chair. After an all-night hearing on the Senate bills on March 16, 1949, the House committee voted 17-2 to favorably report the bills, with minor amendments attached, to the full House.

Opponents relied on delaying tactics to stall Gilmer-Aikin, including a walkout of opponents led by Rep. Sam Hanna of Dallas, a tactic intended to prevent a quorum from being reached. When a head count showed the House fell seven votes short of a quorum. Manford ordered the House locked down again and state troopers gathered another 22 members. With more than enough members present to provide a quorum, the walkout backfired.

The state Constitution requires a reading of the bills on the House floor on three separate days and it takes a four-fifths vote before that rule can be suspended and the House can vote on the proposed legislation. Because of the walkout, House members in attendance were disproportionately in favor of the three Gilmer-Aikin bills. The House voted to suspend the rules and then passed the first of the education bills by an 85-30 margin. With the opposition demoralized, by April 28, 1949 the House had passed the other two parts of the Gilmer-Aikin reform package. After both houses of the Legislature passed the conference committee versions of the bills, Governor Jester signed the three parts of the Gilmer-Aikin laws on June 1 and June 8, 1949.

The dramatic change in the fortunes of Texas public education set a precedent for many other southern states. In 1950s, state governments in the South began devoting more resources to improving public education. As an example, with the passage of the Gilmer-Aikin law, per pupil annual expenditures in Texas were $208.88, a few cents above the national average.
Passage of Gilmer-Aikin was the highlight of the marathon 51st session. The 51st Legislature created more agencies than any of its predecessors, including the new elective state Board of Education, the Youth Development Council for administration of juvenile facilities, and the Sabine River Authority.

Additionally, the Legislature created a new medical branch for the University of Texas and boards to govern Lamar College and North Texas College. Combined, when various federal grants are added, the Legislature that year appropriated $1 billion in spending for the biennium, the first time the state reached that landmark. However, the Legislature declined to raise enough revenues to pay for the increased expenses, leaving the state $58 million in the red. The situation worsened when the Texas Railroad Commission mandated cuts in oil production, which resulted in a further $22 million state budget shortfall. Gov. Jester vetoed the second year of funding for state hospitals and special schools in order to make the budget balance.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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