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June 10: The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

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Leading up to the June 11 primary, we're celebrating democracy in North Dakota history. Today, we learn about the Superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction.

The department was created in 1863, which added an important political player to state government. The superintendent of the department was originally appointed by the Dakota Territory Board of Education, which included the territory’s Governor, Secretary, and Treasurer. After that, the position vacillated between elective and appointed.

Originally acting as a school inspector and advisor to schools, the Superintendent of Public Instruction began taking on additional responsibilities and powers, working with teachers, recommending textbooks, even deciding disputes under the laws that applied to schooling.

The importance of schools was obvious. In the fifth annual report of the Territorial Superintendent of Public Instruction, E. W. Miller noted, “There is nothing our people should take more interest in than the cause of education. Our children must be educated, and we should be more liberal in the advancement of our educational interests than perhaps any and all others.”

By 1889, when North Dakota became a state, the new State Constitution created the office as an elected 2-year term. In the early days, the position was held only by men, but women were involved. In 1888, even before statehood, they gained the right to vote in all school elections, and as it turned out, even run for the superintendent office.

In 1892, Laura Eisenhuth became the first woman in the country to be elected to a state office. In her report to the governor, the new superintendent wrote, “I feel highly gratified that I can report the school system of this State is in a healthy growing condition. Although I cannot say that no mistakes have been made, I can truly say that … despite … these trials to which every new state seems heir, we have steadily and surely progressed.”

In 1895, Eisenhuth was succeeded by another woman when Emma Bates was elected. In a report to the governor, Bates heaped great thanks to teachers, stating, “We have tender and grateful remembrances of the teachers of the state, who have invariably shown an earnest, progressive spirit.”

Over the years, the position would continue to evolve, as it did in 1913 when state law required that the superintendent be elected on a no-party ballot.

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker


  1. https://www.history.nd.gov/archives/stateagencies/publicinstruction.html
  2. School Law and Reports of Superintendents of Public Instruction for 1874, 1875, and 1876.
  3. https://news.prairiepublic.org/dakota-datebook/2020-08-10/suffrage-at-the-constitutional-convention-school-votes-and-laura-eisenhuth
  4. Report of Superintendent of Public Instruction North Dakota: 1892, 1894

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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