Historians Cite ‘Steady Erosion’ in Local Control

By Robert Rothman — April 29, 1992 10 min read

Public-school boards have over most of their history faced challenges from education professionals on the one hand and from larger units of government on the other.

Boards of Contention
Boards of Contention: Introduction
Historians Cite ‘Steady Erosion’ in Local Control
In Cash-Strapped Districts, Spending Gets New Scrutiny
Tales of Two Boards: Under State Order, Dallas Tries To Clean Up Its Act
Tales of Two Boards: In ‘Good’ N.J. District, Board Tries to Find Its Way
Unions Strive to Elect Friendly Board Members
‘Minimal’ Training May Not Fit Boards’ Needs
Seven Days a Week
Up for Discussion
In Promoting Change, Board Support Is Essential
Kentucky Lawmakers Redefine Power of School Boards
After 52 Years, ‘Hard Worker’ Is Ousted From Office

But in recent years, analysts argue, school boards have lost the battle.

“In theory, local control enables citizens to determine the purpose and character of education in their schools, presumably ensuring a type of schooling that is consonant with, and responsive to, local community values,’' writes William L. Boyd, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University.

“In practice, however,’' Mr. Boyd continues, “the cherished American value of ‘local control’ of schools has been undergoing a steady erosion for many years for a variety of reasons.’'

Legislators in the Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted the first law governing education in Colonial America in 1642. It required that all children be taught to “read & understand the principles of religion & the capitall lawes of this country.’'

Five years later, the Massachusetts Bay General Court ruled that every town of 50 or more families must hire a teacher of reading and writing, and that townships of 100 or more families must establish a grammar school. By vesting responsibility for education in the hands of townspeople, historians have noted, the Massachusetts statute set down the principle of lay governance.

The first permanent school committee was appointed in Boston in 1721. This began the process of separating school-governing bodies from other units of local government.

Diffuse lay control of education in cities like Boston persisted into the 19th century, when a growing population made it unwieldy. In 1850, for example, Boston had 161 one-room grammar schools with 11,000 pupils, and 261 students in two high schools. There was no superintendent; 97 school committeemen chose textbooks, examined students and teachers, and supervised classrooms.

Seeking a ‘System’

Led by Horace Mann, the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, educators in that state began what the historian David B. Tyack calls a “crusade’’ to rationalize control over schooling.

Over the objections of many local residents, who regarded any form of centralization with suspicion, these reformers argued for a “system’’ that would impose some organization on the schools.

In part, the reformers based their arguments on the failure of the existing amorphous structure to educate children adequately. One of Mann’s allies, Samuel Gridley Howe, demonstrated this failure in 1844 by using a now-familiar tool: a standardized test.

Administering a uniform written test to the top classes in each of the grammar schools in Boston, Howe found large gaps in knowledge, and, in what has become a common complaint, found that students knew rote facts but not principles.

End to Political Control

The drive to create centralized school systems also reflected growing tensions between education professionals and their lay boards.

As early as the latter part of the 19th century, educators were complaining about the revolving door of superintendencies. The average tenure for a superintendent in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, was two years.

Educators also objected to some of the policies boards foisted upon them. Fueled by the growing power of immigrant groups, for instance, locally elected boards in cities such as Cincinnati required bilingual instruction in German.

What helped the advocates of centralization win the day, however, were good-government appeals against the political control of education. In cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, hundreds of ward committeemen held the responsibility for running schools, and had the power to hire teachers and choose textbooks. For some, such authority became an invitation for graft: In Philadelphia, for example, teachers paid dues to a political machine.

“The unscrupulous politician,’' wrote L.H. Jones, Cleveland’s superintendent of schools, in 1896, “is the greatest enemy that we now have to contend with in public education.’'

Outraged by such practices, superintendents, business leaders, and university presidents banded together in several cities at the turn of the century and reshaped school-governance systems.

In place of a plethora of powerful local boards, the new systems created a small central board--elected at large, rather than by ward--with substantial authority delegated to the superintendent.

While these reforms had the virtue of “keeping schools out of politics,’' as Mr. Tyack notes, the new structures also placed schools firmly in the hands of education professionals.

Centralization of school systems continued through the first half of the 20th century, as the population shifted from rural communities to urban areas.

Consolidation was also enhanced by the emergence of school buses in the 1930’s and 40’s, which made larger school districts possible. Between 1937 and 1960, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of school districts shrank from 119,001 to 40,520; it is now down to fewer than 16,000.

Rocked by Desegregation

Then, in the 1950’s, two cataclysmic events further threatened the power of school boards and brought a new actor into education governance: the federal government.

The first bombshell was the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which held local boards responsible for unconstitutionally maintaining segregated schools.

In attempting to carry out court-mandated remedies, some school boards ended up helplessly caught in power struggles between the federal government and the states.

In Little Rock, Ark., for example, board members stood by while the state’s governor closed down its schools to stave off desegregation.

Although the Supreme Court eventually ordered the district to admit black students, the journalist Robert Bendiner writes, “in this first skirmish for integration, the board’s role could not be described as either craven or heroic, but merely as negligible.’'

In Louisiana, meanwhile, the state legislature made a last-ditch effort to prevent the desegregation of the New Orleans public schools by passing a measure authorizing the state to take over local school districts and then installing itself as the local school board.

Needless to say, the ploy failed.

The Federal Role

The other epochal event that shook the foundations of school boards was the Soviet Union’s launch of the satellite Sputnik. Coming on the heels of other critiques of American education, such as Rudolf Flesch’s widely discussed book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, Sputnik provoked dissatisfaction with school boards’ central responsibility: educating children.

In response, the Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which spurred federal investment--and federal involvement--in curriculum development. Federal aid to education, once anathema, mushroomed during the 1960’s.

The federal share of education spending never exceeded a peak of 9 percent in 1970. But the creation of federal education programs gave rise to a new breed of education specialists and special-interest groups, whose primary concern became defending particular constituencies rather than the student body as a whole.

“Part of the legacy of prior eras has been a tremendous growth in the specialized functions of the school,’' writes Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, “requiring additions to staff that include administrative specialists in vocational education, driver’s education, nutrition, health, remedial reading, and more.’'

“These program specialists,’' he continues, "... have been insulated from the superintendent’s influence by the requirements of the state and federal government. Their allegiance is often primarily to the higher levels of education governance, rather than to the local community. As a result, the influence of the superintendent and local school board has been diluted.’'

The Power of the State

The real challenge to the dominance of local school boards, however, came from the states.

Beginning in the 1970’s, a large number of school-finance lawsuits led to more state spending on education--and more directives.

State activity burgeoned again in the 1980’s with the excellence movement and the emergence of “education governors.’'

“One can cite a handful of exceptions (Rochester, Chelsea, Chicago) where the main impetus was local,’' says Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, “but these pale alongside such statewide reform efforts as those of Kentucky, South Carolina, California, New Jersey, and a dozen other jurisdictions.’'

Many of these state reform efforts bypassed school boards almost entirely, on the grounds that boards of education had not been sufficiently vigilant in guaranteeing children a high-quality education.

The influence of professional “education reformers,’' big business, and other interest groups also increased dramatically during this era.

“As a principle, local lay governance remains unchallenged,’' Mr. Kirst notes. “In fact, however, a change in governance has been taking place. Some observers even contend that the growing influence of centralizing forces--state and federal authorities, courts, national testing agencies, and nationwide interest groups--has made ‘home rule’ now more illusion than actuality.’'

Emboldened Teachers’ Unions

At the same time as they faced challenges from the federal government and the states, school boards found their power threatened from below.

The first blows came in the 1960’s from newly emboldened teachers’ unions. The power of unions paralleled the growth of the American Federation of Teachers. Unlike the rival National Education Association, which fashioned itself a professional organization, the áŸæŸôŸ embraced the tools of trade unionism, such as strikes.

The United Federation of Teachers in New York City, formed in 1960, first walked out on strike in 1962.

As the A.F.T. became the bargaining agent in a growing number of cities, the number of strikes escalated rapidly. There were 2 strikes in 1965, 33 in 1966, and more than 80--including a bitter strike in New York City--in 1967.

Community Rights

The New York strike also highlighted the growing tensions between local communities--particularly those with large minority populations--and school boards, a situation that further emerged as a check on the boards’ power.

In the wake of the strike, local communities demanded--and won--a greater say in school policy. New York City reverted to the 19th-century-style decentralized system, in which 32 local boards oversaw elementary and middle schools.

An even more dramatic example of decentralization occurred in Chicago, where, partly in response to a series of bitter teachers’ strikes, the legislature designed a reformed school system in which local school councils, composed primarily of parents, would have authority over each of the city’s schools.

But the Chicago reform, notes Mr. Finn, represents a far cry from the local control the 19th-century reformers agitated against. As in Dade County, Fla., and a host of other districts, the Chicago system meant divesting control to those at the school site, including the education professionals, leaving the city school board with little to do.

“If one set of the important decisions and duties moves up to the state (or even the nation), and another set shifts down to the individual school (and to parents),’' Mr. Finn writes, “what is the ‘local education agency’ except another instance of middle management of the sort that most modern organizations are stripping away in the name of efficiency and productivity?’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Historians Cite ‘Steady Erosion’ in Local Control