Understood through the pen of Sarasota Times publisher Mrs. C.V.S. (Rose) Wilson, compulsory school attendance was a woman’s issue in early 1919. Without yet having the right to vote, and with the present Sarasota County still part of Manatee County, members of the Manatee County Federation of Woman’s Clubs in November 1918 passed a resolution calling for an election to institute compulsory school attendance. At that time, only Sarasota and Manatee districts had an attendance rule, but they could not afford to enforce it. The women believed that with a countywide regulation, the county Board of Public Instruction would employ an attendance officer to serve all the districts.
After conducting a petition drive in support of a special election, representatives from area woman’s clubs presented their petitions to the January 1919 meeting of the County Board of Public Instruction. The Board agreed to call an election. “Every child has the right to an education,” noted Wilson in an endorsing editorial, and a compulsory attendance law was a “vital necessity” to guarantee that education. In its campaign, the Sarasota Woman’s Club, of which Wilson was the secretary, devoted half of its mailings for the 1918/1919 program year to the compulsory attendance issue. The letters to voters urged passage of the law “to give every child a fair deal,” to increase the apportionment of state funds (based on attendance) to Manatee County, and to place Manatee County with the progressive counties of Duval, Hillsborough and Pinellas.
The law passed in all but two districts, but the turnout for the February 15 vote was very light and, in some districts, was not even held. The next issue of the Times, on February 20, carried widely differing interpretations of the poor voter turnout. Nemo (the pen name for George Higel) wrote in his Venice column that the election was a farce in his district. The Osprey columnist wrote that no election was held there. What was the problem? To qualify to vote, residents had to pay a poll tax each year. The deadline for the annual payment was in late spring. Nemo argued that few voters could be expected to pay their taxes before the deadline, so to schedule an election before the deadline was a waste of money and bound to attract few voters. Wilson, on the other hand, called the low turnout deplorable and accused the voters of being disinterested. She argued that if the election had involved road bonds, all potential voters would have paid their poll tax so they could vote on an issue that affected their business interests. She castigated the voters for their indifference to the welfare of children, the nation’s greatest asset, writing, “Is it any wonder women want to exercise the right of citizenship [to vote] when men are so indifferent…?”
By spring, the call for compulsory school attendance had become a statewide issue. After the state legislature passed a law requiring children from ages seven through sixteen to attend school (unless they had already completed the eighth grade), Wilson praised legislators’ work in an editorial. It “will be the first step forward to remove the ban of illiteracy which has been so high in Florida,” she wrote.
With the opening of school in September, Wilson reported with great pride on the increased enrollment. Former dropouts were back in school and the high school was attracting more students from outside the Sarasota district. Often providing their own transportation, they came from Venice and Nokomis as well as the closer communities of Bee Ridge, Fruitville, and Phillippi Creek. The women’s campaign was producing dividends.
Special thanks to Ann A. Shank, former Sarasota County Historian, for her research and time devoted to writing this article. Provided by Sarasota History Alive. "Where History Happens Everyday!" www.sarasotahistoryalive.com