Education in Virginia

the contrast between educational attainment in Northern Virginia vs. Southside or Southwestern Virginia is clear
the contrast between educational attainment in Northern Virginia vs. Southside or Southwestern Virginia is clear
Source: Governor of Virginia, New Virginia Economy (December 2014, p.5)

In colonial and pre-Civil War Virginia, education was the responsibility of the family rather than the government. There were no public schools, no school buses, and school boards, no Department of Education - and no debates over modifying school boundaries or where o build new schools in suburbs where the population is growing.

The English who arrived at Jamestown in 1607 included educated gentlemen. The Reverend Robert Hunt provided them some moral philosophy education through his sermons, even after his library burned in January, 1608. However, book learning was not a priority in colonial Virginia. The first colonists received a more-valuable practical education from the Algonquians (and the school of hard knocks) on how to survive in the New World.

It took 11 years after arriving at Jamestown for the English to establish the first public school in Virginia; the Colledge of Henricus was chartered in 1618. It was intended to educate both colonists and Native Americans, as part of the colonial policy to assimilate them into English culture. The proposed school was financed by contributions from England (James I authorized each bishop to have a special collection), plus income from a 10,000 acre land grant on the north side of the James River.

George Thorpe, who had cared for one of the Native American's that accompanied Pocahontas on her 1616 trip to England, led the effort to build the college at Henricus. The land grant was located upstream from the Berkeley Hundred plantation (today's Berkeley Plantation) that Thorpe led, and the college was to be constructed on a Peninsula jutting into the James River between the mouth of the Appomattox River and the Fall Line.

In the uprising of 1622, Thorpe was killed, Henricus was destroyed, and plans for peaceful co-existence between the colonists and the Native Americans were replaced by reprisals and expulsion of the Native Americans from areas settled by the English. It took over 70 years before Virginians created another college.1

Henricus Historical Park is located near the site of the Colledge of Henricus, whose actual location probably was destroyed by gravel mining
Henricus Historical Park is located near the site of the Colledge of Henricus, whose actual location probably was destroyed by gravel mining
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The next publicly-funded school in Virginia was William and Mary, the second-oldest (surviving) college in North America. The General Assembly authorized a school in 1661, but it was never funded. In 1690 the colonial legislature made another push, and King Willian and Queen Mary approved a charter in 1693. The sovereigns authorized a 20,000 acre land grant and dedicated certain tax revenues to fund the school, and the colonial General Assembly also directed revenues for support of the school at Middle Plantation (now known as Williamsburg).2

The College Building housed the General Assembly when it first met in Williamsburg in 1700, and served in that role until the first Capitol was completed four years later. (The College Building burned in 1705, and the Sir Christopher Wren Building occupies the site today.) By the start of the 1700's, the security threat from the Native Americans in Tidewater had disappeared. The new college included an "indian school," and in 1723 the Brafferton Building was constructed to provide a place "for the maintaining and educating such and so many of the ingenious scholars, natives of this colony, as they shall think fit."3

a statue of Lord Botetourt was in front of the Wren Building of William and Mary College
a statue of Lord Botetourt was in front of the Wren Building of William and Mary College
Source: "The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Directory, Containing an Illustrated History and Description of the Road," William and Mary College - Williamsburg (p.86)

During the colonial era, a few wealthy individuals such as Benjamin Symms and Thomas Eaton endowed about 10 local schools that offered free education.4

More commonly, parents in a community partnered together to establish "old field schools." These were elementary schools created, often in abandoned old agricultural fields, where parents would voluntarily pay tuition for a teacher to educate their children in the basics of reading, writing, and math. Further education, including reading the classics and learning Greek and Latin, was provided at "academies" supported by wealthy parents.

Washington and Lee University evolved from such an academy. Augusta Academy was founded in 1749, then moved to Lexington during the American Revolution and renamed Liberty Hall Academy.

Liberty Hall Academy
ruins of Liberty Hall Academy at Washington and Lee University

Wealthy families such as the Carters and Lees hired private tutors, and those without wealth depended upon home schooling or privately-supported old field schools. There was minimal support among the gentry for funding public education:5

Colonial Virginia was politically controlled by wealthy landowners who relied primarily on tutors and private schools to educate their children. They did not see the logic of taxing themselves to establish common schools that they themselves would not patronize. Therefore, state financial support for public education was slow to develop.

George Washington never received a formal education. His father died when he was 11 years old and family finances could not afford to send the younger children to a school. Washington taught himself, and benefitted from neighbors such as the Fairfax family to learn proper behavior, the rules of civility - and even the skill of surveying.

Philip Vickers Fithian, journal and letters
Philip Vickers Fithian, journal and letters, 1767-1774
(Journal in Virginia 1773-1774, December 15, 1773 - page 60)
Source: Library of Congress, American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920

After the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson proposed a bill "for the more general diffusion of learning," as part of his campaign to increase the opportunity for individuals who were not part of the "artificial aristocracy" of the those who had excessive opportunity for obtaining power through family connections or wealth. Jefferson had received formal education, including studies at William and Mary. Rather than advocate universal K-12 education, he sought to identify the best students at several levels and provide additional education to just the "most promising subjects." As Jefferson described his proposal in 1786, he proposed:6

to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing, and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools, who might receive, at the public expense, a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects, to be completed at a university, where all the useful sciences should be taught.

The General Assembly rejected Jefferson's proposal, but did charter the University of Virginia in 1819. That school was located just a few miles away from Jefferson's home at Monticello, and far from the Tidewater region - offering students a chance to experience small farm culture rather than the plantation aristocracy near Williamsburg.

A state Literary Fund was established in 1810 to support education of the indigent poor. However, it was not until the Confederacy was defeated in 1865 that Virginia culture was transformed by both the abolition of slavery and the creation of a free public school system supported by state/local taxes. To reenter the Union and end Reconstruction, the US Congress forced Virginia to adopt a new state constitution. The 1869 Underwood Constitution established a free public school system for Virginia students from all races, but segregated schools were traditional in the state for the next century.

Education and Sex Discrimination in Virginia

Selected Education Statistics

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2003-2004 school year Virginia had:7
2,074 "Elementary & Secondary" (Kindergarten-12th grade) schools with:
- 1,192,092 students
- 90,573 teachers (a ratio of 1 teacher to 13.2 students, on average, for all grades and all schools)
- 167,977 staff
- over $10 billion in revenues (54% from local sources, 40% from the state, 6% from the Federal government)
99 Postsecondary schools (colleges and universities) eligible for Federal financial-aid (Title IV) programs:
- 64 four-year schools, 35 two-year schools
- 39 public, 34 private (non-profit), and 26 private for-profit schools
- that awarded 35,660 Bachelors degrees, 11,948 Masters degrees, and 1,249 PhD's

Oakton High School
Classroom trailers and lawn converted to parking,
a sign of overcrowding at Oakton High School (Fairfax County)

The top ten colleges in raising funds in fiscal 2005 were:8
University of Virginia $174,370,854
Virginia Tech$73,844,006
College of William and Mary$ 48,628,436
Virginia Commonwealth University$36,132,490
Washington and Lee University$22,138,849
George Mason University$19,583,377
University of Richmond$18,871,958
Radford University$12,192,556
Old Dominion University$10,400,462
Emory & Henry College$9,989,615

Washington and Lee University, 1881
Washington and Lee University, 1881
Source: "The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Directory, Containing an Illustrated History and Description of the Road," Washington and Lee University (p.310)

The Northern Virginia Community College generates the highest number of graduates annually in Virginia, and is in the top 20 nationally:9

Enrollment of the 20 largest degree-granting college and university campuses: Fall 2002



Total Enrollment

Miami-Dade Community College




University of Texas at Austin




Ohio State University, Main Campus




University of Minnesota, Twin Cities




University of Phoenix, Online Campus




University of Florida




Arizona State University, Main Campus




Texas A&M University




Michigan State University




City College of San Francisco California



Pennsylvania State University, Main Campus




University of Wisconsin, Madison




Purdue University, Main Campus




University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign




University of Washington, Seattle




Houston Community College System




Northern Virginia Community College




University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Michigan



Indiana University, Bloomington




University of South Florida






1. "Henricus Colledge 1619," Henricus Historical Park,; "George Thorpe (bap. 15761622)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, (last checked June 21, 2014)
2. "William & Mary 1618 - 1699," College of William and Mary, (last checked June 21, 2014)
3. William and Mary, "Historical Facts: 1700-1749," (last checked February 20, 2006)
4. Mullins, Foney G., "History of the Literary Fund As a Funding Source For Free Public Education in the Commonwealth of Virginia," PhD dissertation at Virginia Tech, 2001, p. 11, (last checked February 20, 2006)
5. Foney G. Mullins, "A History Of The Literary Fund As A Funding Source For Free Public Education In The Commonwealth Of Virginia," PhD dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2001, p.1, (last checked May 16, 2014)
6. National Park Service, Thomas Jefferson's Plan for the University of Virginia: Lessons from the Lawn, "Reading 1: Education as the Keystone to the New Democracy," (last checked February 20, 2006)
7. National Center for Education Statistics, State Education Data Profiles,, financial data from (last checked February 20, 2006)
8. "U.Va. tops state list in donations," Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 17, 2006, (last checked February 20, 2006)
9. National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts - Which colleges have the highest enrollment?, from Table 216 in the Digest of Education Statistics, 2004, (last checked February 20, 2006)

University of Virginia in 1856, when Rotunda had been expanded to include an annex on side opposite from The Lawn
University of Virginia in 1856, when Rotunda had been expanded to include an annex on side opposite from The Lawn
Source: Library of Congress, View of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville & Monticello, taken from Lewis Mountain

Population of Virginia
Virginia Places