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Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics

William G. Howell Editor
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 356
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    School boards are fighting for their survival. Almost everything that they do is subject to regulations handed down from city councils, state boards of education, legislatures, and courts. As recent mayoral and state takeovers in such cities as Baltimore, Chicago, and New York make abundantly clear, school boards that do not fulfill the expectations of other political players may be stripped of what few independent powers they still retain. Teachers unions exert growing influence over board decision-making processes. And with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government has aggressively inserted itself into matters of local education governance. Besiegedis the first full-length volume in many years to systematically examine the politics that surround school boards. A group of highly renowned scholars, relying on both careful case studies and quantitative analyses, examine how school boards fare when they interact with their political superiors, teachers unions, and the public. For the most part, the picture that emerges is sobering: while school boards perform certain administrative functions quite well, the political pressures they face undermine their capacity to institute the wide-ranging school reforms that many voters and local leaders are currently demanding.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-9769-2
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    Today, as at no other time in American history, the federal and state governments enshroud public schools. From above, presidents, judges, legislators, governors, and bureaucrats mandate all sorts of education reforms, covering everything from curricula to school lunch programs. With their consent and under their direction, mayors have begun to enter the fray, casting an even longer partisan shadow over public schools. Today, professional politicians regularly drown out the voices and displace the visions of the individuals who have governed public schools for centuries: locally elected (and occasionally appointed) school board members.

    It wasn’t always so. In the beginning, schools...

  5. 2 The Local School District in American Law
    (pp. 24-55)

    The legal status of American school districts is shaped by the fundamental and long-standing tension between their formal subservience to the states and their de facto autonomy. A school district is a political subdivision of its state, entirely subordinate to the state and without constitutional rights of its own. Yet, in practice, in most states local school boards enjoy considerable power over the day-to-day operation and management of their schools, and this local school district autonomy has at times been recognized—and rewarded—by state and federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, in particular, has spoken frequently of the value...

  6. 3 School District Consolidation and Student Outcomes: Does Size Matter?
    (pp. 56-80)

    In a quiet revolution in the middle of the twentieth century, the public education system in the United States was radically revised. As late as 1930, local school districts, the governing units of American public education, were small, informally organized institutions, most operating only one or two small schools. From roughly 1930 to 1970, a rapid movement toward centralization and professionalization reduced the number of districts from 130,000 to only 16,000 as about 90 percent of the districts that had existed were eliminated through consolidation. Over the same period, more than 100,000 schools were closed and average school size increased...

  7. 4 When Mayors Lead Urban Schools: Assessing the Effects of Takeover
    (pp. 81-101)

    In an arrangement facilitated over time by both institutional and structural factors, city government and the urban school system in the United States traditionally have existed as two independent jurisdictions.¹ The American public has endorsed the authority of the school board in part because of its belief in strong local control over schools, and this creed of local control is frequently equated with an independently elected, nonpartisan school board. Since the mid-1990s, however, several of the nation’s large urban school districts have made significant changes in school governance by shifting from elected to mayor-appointed school boards. In these “mayoral takeover”...

  8. 5 Desegregation and School Board Politics: The Limits of Court-Imposed Policy Change
    (pp. 102-128)

    It is difficult to imagine a Supreme Court decision more consistent with the promise of American democracy thanBrownv.Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas,in 1954.¹ By finally declaring unconstitutional the overwhelming disparity between the educational opportunities offered to many African Americans and those offered to whites, the United States was given yet another chance to make available to all its citizens the unlimited prospects for upward mobility and political incorporation that are the foundation of any meaningful understanding of inclusive citizenship. Not since Reconstruction had a major institution of national government forced America to take such a...

  9. 6 Local School Boards as Authorizers of Charter Schools
    (pp. 129-149)

    Since 1983, education reform has occupied a prime spot on the domestic political agenda. School choice has been a focal point of the many programs under consideration, and charter schools have emerged as the central component of choice-based reforms. Given their growing importance, it is not surprising that charter schools have been the subject of considerable research across a wide range of issues. In this chapter, we step back from the theme of much of this work (“Do charter schools improve academic performance?”) and instead examine the political process that creates and then oversees these schools.

    While “top-down” national pressure...

  10. 7 Democratic Accountability in Public Education
    (pp. 150-172)

    Few notions have attracted more attention in education policy over the last few years thanaccountability. From the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) to a host of recently enacted state accountability regimes, policymakers are increasingly concerned with objectively measuring student learning and holding educators responsible for learning progress. This newfound fascination with legislating accountability in education is surprising in a country in which average citizens regularly judge the performance of federal, state, and local government officials by voting them into and out of office. Moreover, there is no comparable movement for legislating accountability in other policy...

  11. 8 Minority Incorporation and Local School Boards
    (pp. 173-198)

    Since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, social scientists have periodically examined the state of minority representation in U.S. politics. Although the vast majority of that research has focused on patterns of minority office holding at the local level, nearly all of it has examined African American representation in municipal-level offices.¹ To date, considerably less attention has been paid to black and especially Hispanic representation on local school boards or in other local elected positions.² Numbering approximately 15,000 across the United States, school boards are not only the most prevalent form of government in this country but also...

  12. 9 Electoral Structure and the Quality of Representation on School Boards
    (pp. 199-227)

    Although an extensive literature exists on how political structure affects representation, particularly representation of political minorities, little is known about how structure affects the quality of representation. A lively debate now exists on designing legislative districts to concentrate minorities and on how such structures affect the policy interests of constituents.¹ Generally ignored in this debate is a parallel literature at the local level that focuses on macrostructural issues—that is, type of election—rather than the issue of how to draw district lines. This chapter looks at the quality of representation produced by school district political structures by focusing on...

  13. 10 School House Politics: Expenditures, Interests, and Competition in School Board Elections
    (pp. 228-253)

    For most of the past century, the issue of local school board governance was a subject of on-and-off debate, and the debate continues today. Praised on one hand as pillars of democracy, schools boards have been assailed on the other as an outdated and dysfunctional approach to school governance. In an age of charter schools, national for-profit education providers, and high-profile mayoral and state takeovers of public schools, observers have wondered whether school boards are an anachronism or an important link in the provision of democratic education. Reformers have asserted that boards are no more than gadflies, captives of teacher...

  14. 11 Teacher Unions and School Board Elections
    (pp. 254-287)

    In the folklore of American education, school boards are shining examples of local democracy. But folklore is folklore. During the early years of the twentieth century, school boards were often under the thumb of party machines. And even later, as Progressive reforms weakened the parties, governance of the schools shifted to newly powerful groups—business, middle-class activists, education administrators—with their own special interests to pursue (Peterson 1985; Tyack 1974).

    Scholars have rarely studied school board politics, so we may never have a good sense of just how democratic the system was in those days. But one thing is clear....

  15. 12 Contextual Influences on Participation in School Governance
    (pp. 288-307)

    Public participation in local politics—including school district politics—reveals something of a paradox. On the one hand, there is some evidence that Americansin generalshow little interest in, awareness of, and engagement in local politics, as demonstrated by the fact that voter turnout rates in local elections are typically abysmally low. But on the other hand, when we look beyond voter turnout and instead turn to specific ways in which participators choose to get involved, engagement in local affairs constitutes a major share of the participatory investment made by Americans. Almost half (44 percent) of Americans report attending...

  16. 13 The End of Local Politics?
    (pp. 308-323)

    Nearly twenty years have passed since the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C., prepared a well-received report on American school boards that might well have served as a primer for “School Board Politics,” the symposium that resulted in the publication of this volume.¹ Based on case studies conducted in more than 200 jurisdictions from nine metropolitan areas and three predominantly rural states, the results were both illuminating and discouraging. They revealed that while the American people seemed to support the notion of local control through popularly elected school boards, their support did not extend to the school boards in...

  17. 14 What School Boards Can and Cannot (or Will Not) Accomplish
    (pp. 324-338)

    As intriguing and important as they are, the chapters in this volume pay relatively little attention to what school boardsdo. That is not especially surprising or alarming; most of their authors are political scientists, who typically focus more on processes than on outcomes. Nevertheless, any study of school boards ought at some point to address their actual activities—the functions that boards should perform, the quality of their performance, and the opportunity costs of performing those functions rather than others. In this chapter, I begin to address these issues by drawing out information and arguments from earlier chapters in...

  18. Contributors
    (pp. 339-340)
  19. Index
    (pp. 341-356)