The first government effort toward publicly funding schools dates to the late 1790s, when the Legislative Council and House of the Assembly of Upper Canada requested from the King of England that land and funds be given to the establishment of schools and a university (Di Mascio, 2010) - a request that was honoured. In 1799, acts were passed that guaranteed technical education to orphaned children and also required that teachers be certified (Di Mascio, 2010)…
…In 1807, the District School Act signalled the first official action in government-aided schooling. The act allocated one school to each district; however, it also required the payment of tuition (Di Mascio, 2010). Tuition meant that education would not be available to all children due to lack of financial means. Critics argued that this arrangement was reserved for the rich and that these schools resembled the elite grammar schools found in England. Critics called for a true system of common schooling that would be available to all…
…The War of 1812 between Canada and the United States sidetracked discussions of education until 1815. In 1816, however, the Common School Act was passed, which was the first major step in providing mass schooling for the “common” people in Upper Canada. This act provided a grant to each of the 10 districts and also created boards of education within each district, which were to be responsible for textbooks, courses, and establishing school rules. As well, within the district, any community that had 20 or more students could establish a school that would have three trustees who would be responsible for hiring and firing teachers. There was great uptake in requests for government-aided schools - so much so that the government requests outweighed the financial resources available from the government (Di Mascio, 2010), resulting in a bill that was passed in order to slow the growth of these schools.
In 1840, the two Canadas (Upper and Lower) were combined into the United Province of Canada. The School Act for the United Province of Canada of 1841 was passed shortly thereafter, which created non-denominational public schools for Upper Canada that were not oriented toward any particular religion. Publicly funded Protestant and Catholic schools were created for [the] residents of Lower Canada. A compulsory taxation system was also introduced to levy school taxes.
In addition to the common school, there also existed voluntary schools, which were mostly located in large urban centres and financed by private tuition fees (Gidney and Millar, 1985). Prior to the 1840s, these types of schools were varied in their offerings - some were select academic schools serving the elite, while others were day schools offering education to anyone who could afford the modest fees. After 1840, however, voluntary schools became almost exclusively associated with boarding schools attended exclusively by members of the upper social classes. Others went to “common schools.”
The difference between the common school and the voluntary school was also associated with the idea of “respectability” (Gidney and Millar, 1985). Many viewed education as the responsibility of parents, although the grant-aided common schools were tainted with the stigma of being “charity” schools suitable only for those students whose parents were not able to properly provide for their children. “Mixing” with such children also carried the reputation of being inherently risky as common schools were catering to the lower classes, who might somehow sully the children of the middle and upper classes with their lack of “proper” upbringing. As documented by Gidney and Millar (1985), the voluntary sector’s private venture schools (i.e., schools being run as businesses by one or more individuals) became extremely unstable due to the reliance on fees and the teacher’s need to earn a living as well as provide the physical resources and space for the school to take place. If a family needed to withdraw their children from a school due to financial hardship, this could have the unintended consequence of putting a school at risk of closure. In addition to private venture schools, joint stock or proprietorial voluntary schools also existed. These schools were run by trustees, usually on the behalf of a denomination, and were funded through donations or shares. These types of voluntary schools also suffered from financial instability.
Egerton Ryerson became chief superintendent of education in Upper Canada in 1844 - a position he held for 32 years. Ryerson is widely regarded as the most influential person behind creating the public school system that we know in Canada. He was a minister, educator, and political figure in Canada, who studied educational systems around the Western world in order to design one that he thought most appropriate for Canada. In 1846, Ryerson drafted a bill that became the Common School Act - the first major piece of education-related legislation in the history of Upper Canada. This act was particularly important because it detailed the organization of the school system as it had never been described before. The act designated schools for teacher training and designated a superintendent for each school district who would be responsible for examining schools on an annual basis and ensuring that they met the standards for the federal grants they would be receiving. The way in which school trustees were to be elected was also detailed. It also levied a rate bill or a school tax on the parents of all children of school age. Ryerson also recommended a series of approved textbooks, adding that schools that used alternative textbooks not approved by the new provincial board of education would not receive financial aid. Also, the Common School Act included a clause that assured “protection of children” from being required to participate in [any] lesson or exercise of a religious orientation that the parents found objectionable (Hodgins 1894).