On April 9, 1850, Santa Barbara became one of the first communities to officially incorporate as an American city by act of the California legislature. Local voters went to the polls to install a new Common Council (akin to our own City Council) in August. One of the first issues facing this new body was the question of public education.
Santa Barbara already had a public school, a holdover from the Mexican period, but attendance, by any modern measurement, was distressingly low. Families of means still preferred to educate their children through the use of private tutors or by sending them abroad. Families with smaller economic resources, who could have benefited from free education, often demonstrated little interest. Even those students who did go to school had spotty attendance records at best.
The Common Council assigned a committee to examine the school, which at that time had between 20-40 students and was run by one Victor Villareal. Classes were often held in the chapel of the Royal Presidio, a structure that was slowly but surely falling into ruin. Books were scarce and lessons were often written on the walls of the chapel. After the committee’s report, the council promptly cut Villareal’s salary by 10 percent and he quit in early 1852.
Inadequate finances remained a constant concern. Although Santa Barbara was entitled to a portion of state school funding, this apportionment was not large. By 1855, the current teacher, Pablo Carracela, was still only receiving $80 per month. There was also some question concerning his competency. By autumn 1855, it was estimated that there were around 450 potential students in the district; average attendance at the school was around 60.
A controversy now arose. In 1855, the California State Bureau of Instruction proclaimed all classes in public schools had to be conducted in English. Already, some English-speaking parents had complained that Carracela used only Spanish in instructing his students. Into the fray stepped the editors of the town’s first newspaper, the Santa Barbara Gazette. The Gazette soon became a forum for Anglo views. The editors for a time did publish one page in Spanish, but it contained no local news and proved of little interest to Spanish-speaking Santa Barbarans. The editors soon dropped the page altogether. Editorials became harsher in tone, criticizing not only the school, but other elements of the Mexican community.
Early in 1856, a compromise was reached; there would be two schools, one in English, one in Spanish. It was a short-lived solution. There had hardly been enough money to run one school, and operating two proved too much of a financial hardship. The schools were merged, with bilingual instruction, as classes met once again in the crumbling presidio chapel.
The Gazette would not drop the issue. The editors urged American parents to pull their children out of the classroom, to educate them at home, so they would not be exposed to “a confused jargon and gibberish.”
In 1857, an earthquake rendered the presidio chapel untenable and a new classroom building was constructed at State and Carrillo streets. Students finally had a secure roof over their heads. The language issue continued to fester until 1858 when it was decided public education would be in English. Members of the Spanish-speaking community were upset, but the opening of a new Spanish-language parochial school eased tensions.
Public education had trod a rocky road in Santa Barbara during the 1850s. Finances had never been stable while the controversies engendered by issues of public schooling reflected tensions in the city at large as Santa Barbara slowly transitioned from the economy and politics of a Mexican pueblo to those of an American town.