In 1889, the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) was formed, and a new concept for administering free public schools was established. Through the mid-1800’s, school facilities in Texas were usually provided by the fraternal order of Masons. In 1866, the Texas Constitution authorized the formation of a Board of School Examiners for each county, and 10 years later, the first free public schools were opened in Harris County.
In 1889, approximately 900 students were enrolled in the more than 50 common school districts (districts run by the county) administered by HCDE. During this time, schools were typically one-room structures with one teacher. HCDE’s five-member board was responsible for hiring and paying teachers, establishing rules and duties for the teachers, purchasing library books and contracting for buildings and furnishings.
By 1908, the number of students in Harris County had grown to more than 21,700. And as the population grew, consolidation and annexation began to take place. Also during the first decade of that century, the struggle to fund schools lead to the development of “independent” school districts. Once a district’s scholastic enrollment surpassed to 500, the district became eligible for independent status, and residents could vote to pass a tax which would raise money to support the school district’s operations.
During the 1920’s, after the World War I, there was a steady increase in population that demanded the need for more schools. HCDE’s board usually met three or four times a month to handle the business of serving the 17 school districts in Harris County. By 1923, Houston Independent School District was formed.
In 1930, Harris County recorded a population of 210,000 and the growth prompted HCDE to expand its Board of Trustees to seven members for better, countywide representation. During this third decade of the century, an equalization tax was passed by the State Legislature that helped to raise the standards of instruction in some of the smaller and more sparsely settled districts. The objective of providing equalization of educational opportunity remained the department’s primary mission through the decade of the 1940’s. This task acquired another dimension in the 1950’s when court decisions established that there would no longer be separate schools for black and white students.
The 1960’s and 70’s marked numerous changes and challenges in teaching and instruction at county public schools. As a result, the Board saw the need for developing new programs designed to better equip classroom teachers. These initiatives resulted in new in-service programs, workshops, vocational training courses and other services that otherwise might not have been available to the county’s school districts, particularly the smaller districts.
The passage of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1964 created many federal projects. Programs such as Adult Education, Manpower and Neighborhood Youth Corps became available to districts through HCDE. During this time, HCDE also added a department to serve special education students.
The role of HCDE as an agent of education equalization today is far beyond anything foreseen by the founders in 1889. Taxpayers of Harris County save millions of dollars annually through the economies of scale provided by HCDE’s Therapy Services, Purchasing Cooperatives, and Professional Development and Instructional Support.
Today, HCDE is nearly 1,500 employees strong. It is home to award-winning programs and is highly regarded throughout the county, state and nation for its excellence in advancing teaching and learning since 1889.