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Spending Policies Of School BoardsGuided by History

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A community's history and political environment appear to be stronger influences on a school board's spending decisions than state or federal policies, according to a 14-month study of six school districts in Michigan.

Charles Bidwell, chairman of the education department at the University of Chicago, and Noah Friedkin of the University of California at Santa Barbara found that "local history is terribly important--more important than we expected" in determining how school districts formulate their budgets and react to budget cuts, Mr. Bidwell said.

"School districts may indeed develop clear, stable resource-distribution policies and thereby pursue distinctive versions of distributive justice," the researchers write in one of two papers on their study. "However, the modes of decisionmaking through which these policies take shape may be notably different, in response to variation in the composition and structure of local decisionmaking elites.

"This variation in turn appears to be strongly influenced by local history and by contemporary local variation of economic, social, and demographic organization," they concluded.

The spending patterns of the six districts, which are given fictitious names in reports on the study, are placed in three categories:

Compensatory or equity-seeking, meaning that the district's board devotes more resources to disadvantaged and low-achieving students.

Enrollment-based, meaning that the same amount of general-fund revenue is spent on each pupil, regardless of educational needs.

Efficiency-seeking, meaning that the district reverses the compensatory model and devotes more money per pupil to schools with high mean scores on achievement tests.

Although most federal education programs and many of Michigan's state categorical programs are compensatory, their existence does not appear to have influenced the way the districts allocate discretionary funds, the researchers found.

Furthermore, when Michigan was forced to make drastic cuts in state aid in the winter of 1981, the school boards cut their budgets in the same way they have traditionally developed them. "Enrollment-based" districts tended to make across-the-board cuts; "equity-seeking" districts protected programs for the disadvantaged; and "efficiency-seeking" districts protected expenditures on programs for high achievers.

These spending patterns and the amount of conflict they generate, the researchers contend, grow directly out of each community's political history and traditions.

In their field research, which was supported by the Spencer Foundation, Mr. Bidwell and Mr. Friedkin tried to identify each community's network of decisionmakers--both in and outside the school system--and the way the network is organized. These factors, they found, strongly influenced both the substance and the process of spending decisions.

Social Ties and Values

For example, the town they called "Harmony" was settled by religious immigrants whose descendants are still among the community's elite. Social ties and shared values are reinforced by church membership. The community's leaders tend to reach consensus quickly on spend-ing decisions, and their policies generally are accepted as legitimate by the community, the researchers report. In keeping with its religious traditions, the researchers note, the Harmony district uses a "compensatory" approach to school budgets.

In contrast, "Tower City"--a relatively new, affluent suburb of Detroit with a transient and ethnically diverse population--has a less-developed political structure and few formal institutions to sustain it. In what the researchers characterize as a "bargaining" system, elites and interest groups tend to organize to promote single issues, such as programs for talented students, rather than the welfare of the district as a whole.

And citizens are sticklers for procedure. School officials there have found that the only way to head off conflict is to spend approximately the same amount on each student, regardless of need.

When cuts in state aid forced Tower City to trim its budget, the cuts were made across the board, the researchers noted, but "only after arguments, litigation, and time."

The decisionmaking process of "Ironwood," an older industrial town, is in transition, the researchers note. Ironwood's traditional Democratic machine politics have historically dominated school decisions, with the politicians attempting to satisfy as many competing demands as possible so as to maintain political loyalties. Decisions have tended to be brokered in private among the "elite coalition," which includes representatives of labor and other interest groups, and the decisions have generally been accepted as legitimate by the public.

'Social Bureaucracy'

"The school bureaucracy," the researchers observed, "served less as a locus of policymaking than as the means through which resources were distributed by the dominant coalition."

Lately, however, the community's economic decline has eroded the traditional unity and authority of the elite coalition "at the same time that it has reduced their budgetary means of interest satisfaction," the researchers found.

Because the coalition was formed primarily to keep interest groups satisfied rather than to promote shared values or backgrounds, the researchers predict, it will break down. "The means of negotiation are not available," they said. One symptom has already appeared, they noted: the first major labor dispute in the school district's history.

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