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How to constitutionally fund Kansas public schools is not a new issue, even in a brand new state

Mary Lowder was a widow in her middle 30s when she first came to Kansas to farm. The Illinois woman and mother of three found what she was looking for in Pawnee County. In 1899, Lowder purchased a quarter section of land deeded to her by the state of Kansas and then-Gov. William Stanley - her $520 purchase price going into the state's education chest. More than a century later, Kansas' obligation to fund public education, as required by the Kansas Constitution, has become a focal point in the state. Supreme Court judges are expected to rule in the next few weeks on whether Kansas is properly funding its schools. However, how to fund education is not a new issue. From the late 18th century to the 20th century, the federal government granted control of millions of acres of federal land to each state as it entered the Union in an effort to perpetually fund the nation's school system. Specifically, the government designated two sections in every township - 16 and 36 - as "school lands," with just one stipulation: The lands were to be used in some way - perhaps sold or leased - to support public elementary and secondary schools. It's a story long forgotten about early development on the prairie and some of today's Kansas historians can only relay fragments of the tale. Nevertheless, in a state currently in a heated legal battle, go back 150 years ago and some of the same stories begin to unfold. Good, free education When Kansas became a state in 1861, Congressional leaders had long realized the importance of establishing a good, free educational system in the sparsely populated west.

According to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, America'spost-Revolutionary war leadership saw it as necessary to ensure a democraticfuture for the expanding nation.

As early as 1785, the U.S. Congress established the policy of granting to schools in new states section 16 of every township. States added after 1849, such as Kansas, received section 36, as well, to help fund the education system, according to the Center for Educational Policy. Kansas also was to receive 72 sections to help fund a state university. It was, in essence, a state of squares, notes Virgil Dean, a state historian. "They laid out Kansas in a grid pattern, and in each township in a county, they would designated sections to be school land," Dean said. It was land that couldn't be homesteaded. It typically was either sold or leased, with funds specifically used for school purposes, said Leo Oliva, a Kansas historian and author from Woodston. In all, Kansas would receive more than 2.9 million acres designated as school trust lands, which included section 16 and 36. The government also gave Kansasand each state that entered the Union after1841 another 500,000 acres for public purposes. In all the state had more than3.1 million acres for the funding of universities, penitentiaries and schoolsof the deaf and blind. In addition, adding in grants for railroads, wagontrails and roads boosted Kansasland grants to 7.8 million acres, according to a report by the LincolnInstitute of Land Policy.

 "The whole idea of this was federal aid to education," Oliva said. "The federal government had all this land, and why not use the sale of it help fund education? It was a good idea."

Funding did filter back to some of the state's schools, said Oliva. He noted the Woodston school, now closed, was built using the school land fund. Most rural, one-room schools, Oliva expects, were funded and built by local residents of the area - not necessarily through a school bond. Meanwhile, it is unclear just how much Kansas' school land budget ever amounted to, and Oliva said he wasn't sure whether the concept really actually helped Kansas education in the long run.

Divesting what remained Joy Fisher, a historian with the USGenWeb Project, noted that some states administered their land inheritance more wisely than others did and still obtain revenue from their lands today. For instance, Nebraska still has about a million acres of school lands, which provided about 3 percent of the state's educational funding, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. In North Dakota, which is garnishing oil and gas royalties from school lands, about 10 percent of the state budget is from trust land revenues. Kansas, she said, isn't one of them.

According to the book History of Gove County, Kansas "Kansas school lands weresold long ago at very low prices and never brought enough to do the cause ofeducation much good."

Kansas lawmakers, it seemed, wanted to get out of the land business. Such efforts started in 1866, when the state Legislature overlooked Congressional intentions to create a perpetual school fund and gave about 500,000 acres of school lands to four railroads unconstitutionally. While a portion of the lands were regained when the state's attorney general stepped in about 10 years later, it was a mere portion of it, compared to the "entire half-million acres, which rightfully belonged to the public school fund," writes Frank Blackmar in hisbook "Kansas: a Cyclopedia of State History" published in 1912.

Finally, by 1901, lawmakers decided to try to quickly divest whatremained. At the time, school lands were being sold for $3 an acre. A billpassed smoothly through Topeka to lower theprice to $1.25, according to the Gove County history book, andpromoted the land available for sale.

"The school lands did not last long after attention had been called to them in such a fashion," according to the book. A few years later, Kansas would be involved in a lawsuit over the sale of the lands, as prior landowners made claims to the public lands later sold to buyers at the reduced price.

  Pioneer spirit Still, despite the controversy and instances of unconstitutionality, the stories unfold of those connected with sections 16 and 36. The two square-mile sections in each Kansas township probably have changed hands over the years, although some might still be in the same family. Some might be the location of  towns. There could be railroads that cross some of the sections. As for widow Mary Lowder, little is known of the pioneer woman who, unique to the era, decided to venture west without a husband and buy a farm. In late 1999, Pawnee County farmer Tom Giessel purchased the former Lowder property with a farmhouse, which he lives in today. Browsing through the basement, Giessel found an old safe. Inside was the school land patent for his newly acquired land - showing the transaction between Lowder and the governor of Kansas. The safe also contained the abstract and title, as well as the mortgage - a rare find, he said. "They were in a little cast iron safe, and they were in really nice condition," he said, noting the papers hadn't been damaged by sunlight or weather. Last year, he decided to frame them, all the while delving into the history of Lowder and the school land program. Giessel found that Lowder came to Kansas in the late 1890s with her three children. In September 1899, she took out a mortgage for $800 at 7 percent interest from Central National Bank of Philadelphia. A few days later, she held the patent to her quarter section of land near Ash Valley, which today is a ghost town. She started proceedings to sell her land a year later to nearby farmer John Fleming. On Jan. 1, 1901, the Tiller and Toiler newspaper printed an article of her death. "Mrs. Mary Lowder, a widow lady who came to this county about three years ago from Springfield, Illinois, died at her home in this city Tuesday night of consumption." She was 37. Giessel would eventually purchase the land from Fleming's son, Carl. Ironically, Giessel said, "It would have been 100 years after Mary Lowder first purchased the land," It's disappointing public schools didn't see more benefit from the land, he said. "It was a beautiful idea, the whole concept of using the natural resources of a community to help fund education," he said, adding that when Congress "looked at this countryside, they understood where the wealth came from and a portion of the wealth came from this land." A fourth-generation farmer, Giessel recalled his great grandfather coming to Kansas from Russia. He settled near Spearville and despite not knowing English, worked for the railroad while saving money to go into farming so he could teach his children his own industrious work ethic. Giessel said it's the spirit of pioneers like his great-grandfather, as well as Lowder, who developed Kansas: settlers who wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves. "I really love to learn the story about a piece of land - to actually tie a soul and spirit to that piece of land," he said, adding the people who came out here first paid the highest price. The pioneers made personal sacrifices to settle the barren prairie and to eke out a living as disasters like drought, insects and disease hit. It's funny, how history is threaded together through the years, Giessel said. "If you don't know your past, you have no understanding of where you are at today," he said of the old adage. "If you don't have understanding of where you are at today, you don't know where you are going into the future."  

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