Rockefeller Sends the South to High School

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1902

When John Rockefeller put up a million dollars to create the General Education Board, his mission was to improve public education in the Southern states—particularly high schools. In many places (rural towns, black districts) public high schools didn’t even exist, and where they did they were usually inadequate. State law actually prevented Georgia from using public dollars for secondary education.

In addition to devoting millions of its own dollars to building up decent high schools (see 1902 entry on our Education list), the GEB created a strategy aimed at getting governments to meet their educational responsibilities. In particular, the GEB asked state universities to appoint professors of secondary education onto their faculties, paying for their salaries and expenses with Rockefeller money. Once in place, these specialized educators often pressed legislators and the public on the importance of improving high schools.

With remarkable speed, these state-college professors were able to build convincing cases, overcome local resistance, and convince lawmakers to pass enabling statutes. In the case of Georgia it required an amendment to the state constitution. After securing successes at the state level, the GEB-backed education professors began encouraging local communities to improve their schools. They promoted bond proposals to finance local construction of schools. They pushed for a longer academic year. They suggested improved curricula.

Across the South, the GEB transformed attitudes toward secondary education, and for the first time high schools became widely available to ordinary Southerners.