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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Putting the Poli Sci Back in the Politics of Ed ... & Three New Books That Continue a Heartening Trend

By Rick Hess — January 22, 2013 4 min read
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It’s long seemed to me that political scientists studying education made a fate choice in the early 1990s. Through the 1970s and 1980s, a number of smart political scientists turned a sharp eye to educational questions, helping to understand and explain challenges relating to politics, bureaucracy, governance, and reform. In 1990, however, John Chubb and Terry Moe published their massively influential Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. Their book consisted of two elegant chapters sketching a theory of why traditional school governance yielded incoherent schooling and why choice-based reform would help, and then several chapters conducting a sophisticated analysis of relatively new data to make the point. Given the fascination that social science had (and has) developed with increasingly sophisticated quantitative methods, I guess it wasn’t terribly surprising that the lesson that a whole generation of political scientists took was that the path to relevance and success was to focus on evaluating school choice programs. (Ironically, Chubb and Moe themselves never followed that path; indeed, Moe went on to pen two more powerful works on the politics of education over the next two decades, one on public opinion and the other on the role of the teachers unions.)

The result was that the decade or more from, say, 1992 to 2005, saw a dearth of smart attention to the kinds of questions that political scientists can most effectively address. You can hunt in vain, for instance, for good 1990s-era political science examinations of the policy and politics questions raised by site-based management, career ladders, or comprehensive school reform. That’s a problem, because smart political science can help inform bold ambitions by shedding light on how government agencies actually work, how well-meaning reforms play out, and how bureaucracies translate new programs into practice. In schools of education, my experience was that such pedestrian questions were typically brushed aside, by those studying education politics, in favor of more ideological topics like “neoliberal” conspiracies, the supposedly overbearing influence of the “religious right,” or how queer theory could explain school curricula or student health policies.

Happily, in the past five or eight years, spurred by the experiences of No Child Left Behind and all that followed, there’s been a resurgence of political scientists studying education. Mentored by veteran scholars to the likes of Jeff Henig, Ken Wong, Paul Hill, Paul Peterson, Lorraine McDonnell, Mike Kirst, and the late Bill Boyd, a new generation of political scientists has started to craft some terrific work on the ins and outs of policymaking, implementation, and interest group influence at every level of the federal system. These folks, including scholars like Pat McGuinn, Paul Manna, Christopher Loss, Andrew Kelly, Arnie Schober, Elizabeth DeBray, Sarah Reckhow, Jal Mehta, and Kati Bulkley are less focused on quantitative analysis than on bringing some much-needed savvy to questions of “reform” and governance. (Note: this is a stream-of-consciousness list, it’s meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive.)

Anyway, with that as prologue, wanted to give a quick head’s up on three new books that are well worth checking out.

The most recent is Jeff Henig’s new magnum opus, The End of Exceptionalism in American Education. Henig argues that education politics and policy has long been marked by a tendency to isolate schooling from the rest of government. K-12 is governed by special school boards, budgeted out of different pots, and has been insulated from much of the back-and-forth of national politics. Today, fiscal trends, accountability reforms, the push for mayoral control, and much else is bringing an end to this “exceptionalism.” The always-thoughtful Henig explains why this is happening and what it’s likely to mean for the future of American education.

Published last month is Sarah Reckhow’s Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics. Reckhow takes a long and hard look at how foundation money has impacted the course of school reform in New York and Los Angeles (readers may recall that she foreshadowed some of the book’s takeaways during an RHSU guest blogging stint last fall here, here, and here.) She points to three key changes: arguing that foundations are giving more dollars, shifting away from school districts and towards “competition,” and coordinating major donations. Philanthropic support for school reform is a fraught topic nowadays, and one that’s mighty hard to address in a “neutral” fashion (on this count, I’ve more sympathy for the aims of key funders and would-be reformers than Reckhow does.) But, whatever one’s views, this is a revealing look at how philanthropy influences education politics and policy.

Jonna Perrillo’s Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity, was published last summer. However, given that I didn’t get to it until Christmas, in the words of the old NBC ad, “it’s new to me.” Using New York City as a case study, Perrillo traces the relationship of teachers unions and civil rights groups back to the Great Depression. Perrillo digs into their longstanding New Deal alliance and the many points of contention. While some popular accounts suggest that decades of arm-in-arm agreement has only now been broken by post-NCLB disputes--noting that Education Trust, in particular, has been at loggerheads with the NEA and AFT for much of the 21st century--Perrillo (like Richard Kahlenberg did in his Shanker biography a few years back) argues that these relationships have always been more complex than one might think.

These are the kinds of books that can enrich our understanding of policy, politicking, and governance, and I just hope that advocates, journalists, pundits, and policymakers are taking full advantage.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.