Though there were already schools in existence in the province for a number of years, it was not until 1825 that the Island legislature actually gave serious consideration to the issue of education. In that year, an Act was passed for the encouragement of education in different districts. The Act gave small grants of public money to aid in the erection of district schools and for payment of the teachers. However, the greater part of the salary came from fees paid by the pupils. Five years later, in 1830, an Act was passed to control the selection and appointment of school masters. The same Act provided for the establishment of a Board of Education consisting of five members.
Until 1852, according to one educational authority, the teachers practically ran their own schools and the curricula was as varied as the knowledge (or the lack of it) of the masters who conducted the "miserable establishments". Because of the requirement to pay fees, poor parents could not afford to educate their children and illiteracy was prevalent. The main features of the 1852 Act were that the seven-member Board of Education, appointed by the Governor-in-Council, should have control of all public schools and should examine candidates for teachers' licences; that not more than 200 school districts be established and that schools should be at least three miles apart; that all children over five years of age should be admitted to the school of their choice and that children outside the boundaries of any school district might attend the nearest school; that no fee should be demanded of scholars attending a school where the teacher received pay under the Act; and that assessment for school purposes should be on all householders residing in a district.
The Public Schools Act of 1877 provided for a strong Central Board of Education consisting of a Superintendent of Education, the principal of Prince of Wales College, and the Executive Council. The board was given control of all matters connected with public education in the province. The Act outlined the duties of school trustees and stated that they should provide school privileges to all resident children between the ages of five and 16 years; they should select and engage teachers; and they should, through their secretaries, assess and collect poll tax and property tax. The Act further determined the superintendent should require an attendance in each school of 50 per cent of the resident pupils of school age and a minimum of 20 pupils per school. Where schools fell below this minimum the statutory salary of the teacher would be reduced proportionately and the district would be required to make up the difference.
It might seem simplistic to say that the trustee system and the role of the trustee outlined in the 1877 Act continued until consolidation in the early 1970's, but it is more or less true. Consolidation was the single most significant factor in changing the scope of the school trustee in this province.
During the 1969 session of the Legislative Assembly, an additional section (Part 10) was added to the School Act. This section empowered the Minister of Education to establish larger regional administrative units within the province, as well as to establish the boundaries of such units. The Minister was also empowered to establish planning boards for each of the proposed administrative units. Acting under this authority, the Minister immediately established an educational planning unit for the province which was representative of the Department of Education, PEI Teachers' Federation, PEI School Trustees' Association, and the PEI Home and School Federation. The two newly established post-secondary institutions, University of Prince Edward Island and Holland College each had one representative on this advisory committee. The Educational Planning Unit, after many meetings, suggested to the Minister of Education: (1) planning boundaries for the new proposed administrative units, (2) terms of reference and composition of the regional planning boards which would do the interim planning within each unit, (3) a philosophy of education for the province, and (4) some of the content of a new School Act for the province.
The regional planning boards, for the proposed administrative units began meeting in the autumn of 1970 and examined the educational needs within the boundaries of their particular planning areas. Adjacent regional planning boards met and agreed on permanent boundaries which they later recommended to the Minister of Education through his provincial advisory board, the Educational Planning Unit. On June 9, 1971, the Minister of Education, the Honourable Gordon Bennett, acting under section 173 of the legislation passed in 1969, established five regional administrative units within the province which became effective on July 1, 1972.
A special session of the Legislative Assembly in November 1971 passed two pieces of legislation, the School Act and the Real Property Tax Act. The School Act outlined the composition of the new regional school boards. It also indicated what authority and responsibility would be vested in the Minister of Education, as well as in the new boards. This Act was received proclamation on July 1, 1972, thus passing responsibility for education at the local level from 217 existing school boards over to five regional school boards.
The Real Property Tax Act removed from local school boards the responsibility for levying taxes for educational purposes, thus allowing them to devote more time to strictly educational matters. In effect, with the passage of this legislation, the province took over full responsibility for the financing of public school education.
On March 6, 1972, the new regional school boards were elected, with appointments effective on March 8, 1972. All boards held their initial meeting on March 17, 1972 and began preparing for the responsibilities they would assume on July 1. It is important to note that the term, "board" and "trustees" are interchangeable. It is the collection of trustees in a given geographic area which makes up the school board. In 1972, each board had 15 trustees.
The PEI school system was consolidated for a second time in 1994. The five existing school boards were reduced to three; two English language school boards, (the Eastern School District and the Western School Board) as well as one French school board serving the entire province (La Commission scolaire de langue franšaise). As in 1972, the total number of school trustees in the province decreased. The geographic area which each school trustee serves increased.