There were limited educational opportunities in the Northwest Territory and Ohio once it became a state. Mothers educated their children at home, although there were a number of schools founded in towns and villages. The settlers believed that schools would have a civilizing influence on Ohio, maintaining aspects of Eastern culture.
At this time, there were no public schools. Parents had to pay tuition for their children to attend school or work out a trade of some kind. Both men and women taught in these early schools, but women were commonly paid less and did not usually continue to teach once married. The first school was built in Marietta only a year after the settlement was founded, but other communities also viewed education as an important priority and quickly established schools.
The type of education that children received in these schools was limited. The schools taught basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. Teachers also usually stressed deportment. Because boys were needed to help in the fields, schools were open for a few months a year, usually in the summer. Most students did not obtain any more than an eighth-grade level of education, and many never graduated. There were no laws requiring students to go to school during this era, and parents often needed their children to help with farm chores.
In 1822, Caleb Atwater successfully lobbied the legislature and Governor Allen Trimble to establish a commission to study the feasibility of creating common schools in Ohio. The Ohio government would finance these institutions. Atwater served as chairman of the commission, with Representatives John Collins, James Hoge, Nathan Guilford, Ephraim Cutler, Josiah Barber, and James Bell also serving. The commission spent the summer and fall of 1822 researching the condition of Ohio's educational system, as well as studying public education in other states. Atwater wrote three pamphlets, one on the condition of school buildings in Ohio, one on the type of public school system Ohio should create, and one on the value of common schools to Ohio's future to educate Ohioans on the need for state financed education. Atwater modeled his plan after New York's public school system. Ohio would not finance schools through taxation but through the sale of state property.
Not all members of the commission favored Atwater's plan. Guilford and Bell advocated a property tax. They felt that the sale of public lands would not necessarily provide the funds needed to pay for the schools. A property tax would result in a consistent inflow of money to guarantee adequate funding of the schools.
The commission made its final report to the Ohio General Assembly in 1823. The legislators, for the most part, opposed public funding for internal improvements and public education. In the General Assembly's session in 1824, public opinion forced the legislature to address the education issue. Guilford took the lead, advocating a property tax to finance education. The legislature concurred, establishing common schools in Ohio in 1825. The state government financed public education with a half-mil property tax.
With the establishment of public education in Ohio, communities now formed school districts to meet the state legislature's requirements. In 1829, Cincinnati established "The Board of Trustees and Visitors" to oversee its school district. Each political ward of Cincinnati had one elected member serving on the board. For the first two decades of public education in Cincinnati there was no superintendent. This changed in 1850 with a new state law requiring the election of a superintendent for each school district in Ohio. Nathan Guilford won election in Cincinnati. He served as the district's first superintendent from 1850 until 1852.