1933 County Unit Education Law

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  • Chapter 7 1933-1950: Education under the county unit; Great Depression; WWII; and beyond

    From 1933 to 1950, the educational system in West Virginia underwent major changes, all within the context of progressive reforms.  These changes were not necessarily natural evolutions of trending sentiments, but the culmination of historical events which necessitated adaptation for survival’s sake.  During this era, at a scale never before seen, the county of Wetzel, the state of West Virginia, and the nation at large experienced economic turmoil . Around the world, as democratic nations fell under economic pressures to political strongmen-- fascists in Spain, Italy, and Germany, totalitarian dictatorships in the USSR, imperial militaristic regimes in southeast Asia-- the United States resisted such trends.  It was not that American democracy was impervious to absolutism, but rather, it had faith that its governmental systems could meet the challenges of the 20th century without the suspension of democratic republicanism. Years later, when these absolutist regimes initiated another world war, the United States was faced again with acclimating to the demands of war.

    The education system of West Virginia adapted to the fiscal and political demands of the era without compromising the fundamental mission of providing a free education to its children.  Through consolidation under the county unit law of 1933, making fiscal decisions during the Great Depression, and adjusting curriculum to meet the civilian and military demands of World War II, education was transformed into a more efficient and successful system.  

    The Great Depression hit West Virginia harder than many states.  In some counties the unemployment rate reached upwards to 80 percent.  There was no part of the economy which was not affected by the economic downturn.  Meanwhile, the total cost of schools was at an all time high -- over $29 million dollars.  Simultaneously, taxed real estate, from which revenue for schools was derived, was either being sold for taxes owed or forfeited back to the state.  Teachers’ salaries were being cut or, in some cases, going unpaid. The length of school terms was shortened, leaving many folks calling for a return to simpler, one-room, less costly forms of education.  Going back to an older system was impossible.  Instead, tax reform was seen as the only way to fix the increasing loss of property, hence, property tax revenue.  The “burden of property taxes [had become] unbearable” for West Virginians.  The calls to reform tax law were too loud to ignore.

    In 1931, a special session of the legislature proposed a constitutional amendment to divide assessable property into four separate classes: personal property (50 cents); farm property ($1); all other property outside of municipalities.  This article known as the “General Property Classification and Tax Limitation Amendment” would relieve the pressure of current general tax rates of $2.65 on all assessable property (per $100 of valuation). The voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment in 1932 while also voting in progressive reform Democrats to replace the Republicans who had done little to curb the difficulties of the depression economy.

    What was unknown to the drafters, or the voters who approved it, was the language of the amendment which had created a difficult impediment to raise needed revenue to fund a public education system.  Not only did it limit revenues to less than half of what the state had been accustomed to, it limited the ability to increase local levies to raise matching school funds if, and only if, 60 percent of eligible voters approved such a measure.  Furthermore, after several attempts of the legislature to create allocation bills to lay taxes under the amendment, it failed to pass one which the West Virginia Supreme Court deemed constitutional. It’s narrow interpretation of the amendment did not allow districts to pass levies to fund bonded indebtedness.  Levies which fund bonded indebtedness fell under the Tax Limitation Amendment, and therefore could not be raised by special levies. After two more attempts at allocation bills, the supreme court finally approved a limiting levy whose money was allocated for only 30 percent debt payments, and the other 70 percent for current expenses.  This final allocation bill, House Bill 234, saved the public school system from financial collapse.  

    As often happens, one event leads to another.  As the Depression made it impossible for West Virginians to pay property taxes leading to tax reform, tax reform led to reforms in the institutional structure of county school systems.  With less revenue to spend on schools, reformers saw a restructuring of county systems as a means to streamline services and cut costs. After convening regional conferences and studying methods of reform, a county unit bill was proposed as a fix to the crisis in funding public education.

    On May 22, 1933, the county unit plan (see PDF 1933 County Unit Plan on website) was adopted throughout the state.  This new system replaced the 398 separate school districts throughout the state and established county systems in each of the fifty-five counties.  Each county would have a single board consisting of five members, as compared to separate county boards in the several magisterial districts under the old plan.  The boards could have no more than two members from the same magisterial district and would be elected by the whole county after the expiration of the governor-appointed interim boards.  These new county boards would have authority akin to corporations, with ownership of all school property. Situated in the county seats, they would provide equal educational opportunity to all the county’s children.

    While economic scarcity may have been the instigating factor behind the passage of the plan, for years the idea of equal educational opportunity had been the “compelling idea” behind the push for the county unit.  Because each district was responsible for raising funds for their schools (and these funds were based upon the assessed property value of each district) there was often great disparities among school districts throughout a single county.   Additionally, the Tax Limitation Amendment prohibited districts with bonded indebtedness to spend more than 30 percent of its levy revenue to pay that debt. Until all debt was liquidated, it could not raise funds for schools. This created “tax pockets” in particular districts where taxes could not be raised, and therefore, no school system could be sustained.  In order to prevent the utter break down of school systems in indebted districts, a county unit would have to be created.  

    In turn, a county unit law would necessitate an equal levy to be raised across the whole county.  This law would be a leveling of opportunity. Poor and indebted units could now access the financial resources of wealthy districts.   Additionally, it allowed for more consolidation and transportation of students between districts, which was more economic. Other positive consequences of the law: more uniformity in terms; employee qualifications (both superintendents and teachers); and a uniform statewide salary schedule; salaries were set to a statewide schedule by 1934,the first of its kind in the nation).  And not surprisingly, this bill also led to the responsibility of providing aid to the state more so than  the counties since the state itself was mandating these pay schedules.

     County unit over time

    The county unit became increasingly uniform, creating a more stable education system.  By 1935, the legislature created a committee to study the possibilities of a teacher retirement plan (including issuing teacher tenure) in order to incentivize teaching as a long-term career choice.  In 1937, terms for superintendents and their powers were redefined. A state board of finance was created in order to better manage school funds. Through statute, the state guaranteed 45% of county school funding.  By 1939, salaries increased for teachers earning masters and doctorate degrees. Also, the first prototype of a retirement plan was passed. 1940 added continuing-contracts to the list of teachers’ incentives. And finally, by 1941, a retirement act was passed which had the viability of one day becoming vested, thus securing pensions for teachers.   The county unit plan of 1933 made possible all these advancements in progress and uniformity throughout the state.


    By the summer of 1941, hopes were high that there would be continued focus and growth in the state’s education system.  An educational conference was held at Jackson’s Mill to develop a plan going forward. But the dawn of World War II changed the path forward, transitioning education  to meet the nation’s needs. At a statewide conference held in January 1942 the “Education for Victory” plan was established. Public education now focused on health, nutrition and physical fitness; safety and emergency training; accelerated programs as to produce graduates for the wartime economy; developing children’s civic and patriotic morality; and filling vacancies produced by the war.

    WWII effect on curriculum

    The war also changed the curriculum of schools.  In the higher levels, a shift towards vocational education emerged.  First-aid was taught in grades six and higher, and there was more focus on physical education and health.  Students twelve years and older were given graduation credits for labor performed in the production of food.  Fourteen year-olds could be employed full-time. The schools became centers for government rationing programs and the sale of war bonds.  

    During this time there was also a push for the provision of free textbooks and instructional supplies in order to make the free school system truly free.   In 1939, the movement had begun with legislative acts requiring counties to provide textbooks for the indigent poor.  By 1941, an act was passed to gradually introduce free textbooks at all levels.  Once graded schools were furnished with textbooks, high schools were to provide free textbooks.

    WWII Effect on Teachers

    The war also changed the field of teaching.  First, many experienced teachers abandoned the field, either to enlist or take jobs in war-related industries.  This led to a crisis, a self-fulfilling prophecy of the January 1942 “Education for Victory” conference. In order to combat this issue several changes were made in two broad categories: incentives for going into the profession; and lowering certification requirements.  Incentives included raising salaries--during the 1942-43 legislative session, and again in 1945-- as well as securing the retirement fund. The second category-- the lowering of certification requirements-- was a regressive step for the state.

    Professional development continued to advance during the 1930s onward to WWII.  More teachers entered the profession from teacher-training colleges than ever before.  Teacher training focused on new philosophies centered on the study of human development -- pedagogy  prevailing over the brutal examinations. Most institutions implemented a single curriculum for certification focusing on teaching methods.  When the war came and the school systems were short on teachers, the single curriculum was pushed aside by the necessity to fill positions. Emergency certifications were issued. Even before the war, 52.4% of all teachers had had at least two years of college training; in West Virginia it was only 43.7%.  As teachers left the profession, less qualified teachers took their positions, thereby lowering the quality of teaching. But there were still attempts to infuse college training with teaching training, specifically in the vocational fields.    

    The war, leading to more emphasis on vocational education subsequently, accelerated the need for vocational teachers.  Training of vocational teachers -- agricultural teachers for boys and home economics teachers for girls -- was imperative.  In order to meet the demand, the State Board of Education partnered with the School of Education at West Virginia University to develop programs to prepare teachers for this work.  This included a few weeks’ submersion in the University’s model high school, as well as regional and on-the-job trainings.   


    The necessity for economic thrift --made possible partly by the 1933 law -- accelerated consolidation during this county unit era .  A 1930 report suggested a quarter of all operating costs could be saved through consolidation. With the depression expanding each year, it was necessary to find cuts in school budgets.  In addition to opening the door for the county unit plan, the 1932 tax bill forced many districts to shut down schools. 1932 saw the consolidation of 805 schools. Between the 1932-33 and 1933-34 school years another 600 followed suit..  With no district board precincts, students could cross district lines to attend schools previously off limits to them. Improved roads and transportation also facilitated consolidations. By 1936, public favor broadened for consolidation and more efficient  transportation (improved roads for school bus travel benefited everyone). By 1939, there were 2,500 consolidations. During the war, transportation came under the authority of wartime regulations and efficiency was maximized.  

    By 1945, consolidation had changed paradigms, and rather than being pressed as an economic necessity, was now rationalized as a means of providing superior education.  Trends favored six-year high schools (grades 7-12) and many believed the small community high schools (i.e. junior highs or senior highs which accommodated grades 7-9 and 10-12 respectively) were incapable of meeting the curricular demands for which larger consolidated high schools were better equipped.  A 1945 report recommended a statewide replacement of three-year high schools with that of six-year high schools.

    Status 1948-1950

    Moving into the 1950’s, we see the status of the school system as serial attempts of recovery from the twofold disruption of the Great Depression and World War II.  Even with these two catastrophic setbacks great strides towards a more efficient system had been made in both unification and reorganization. Changes within the teaching profession and certifications were moving the profession toward increased stability.  Changes in curriculum to vocational studies, alongside wartime adjustments, accommodated the new economy and the sun was setting on the era of one-room school houses. Within a decade nearly all would close. Community schools would fall like dominoes, while consolidation would sweep them up into larger piles.  Small communities -- where school-houses doubled as community centers --would stand to lose crucial aspects of their identity as loss of schools often meant loss of community centers. Baby boomers were reaching school age and they would, along with their teachers, create a new phase in education. National politics, such as Cold War policy, would likewise affect curriculum.


    Ambler, Charles H. A History of Education in West Virginia: From Early Colonial Times to 1949. Huntington:  Standard Printing & Publishing Company.  1951.

    Rice, Otis K. and Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.1993.

    Strayer, George D. “A Report of a Survey of Public Education in the State of West Virginia.” Legislative Interim Committee. Charleston: Jarrett Printing Company, 1945. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112100525283;view=1up;seq=40 Accessed 4.10.19.

    Thomas, Jerry Bruce, “The Great Depression,” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 Aug 2012.  https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/2155  Accessed 4.8.19

    Trent, W.W. “The Reorganization of Schools under the County Unit and Recommendations to the West Virginia Legislature of 1935” Charleston: Department of Education.   https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015076559650;view=1up;seq=5 Accessed 4.8.19