School & District Management Opinion

Democracy in Education— Who Needs It?

By David Tyack — November 17, 1999 13 min read
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If you fly over the prairies that stretch across the middle of the United States, you see below the farms and municipalities neatly laid out in townships composed of 36 sections, each a mile square. More than two centuries ago, the U.S. Congress set apart Section 16 in each township to support public schools. Out of the public domain thus surveyed grew new territories and, then, state after state. In the process, the United States became a massive republic composed of smaller republics. As pioneers moved into the wilderness, they could settle land where the federal government had already marked out municipal boundaries and put aside resources to create and maintain public schools.

It all sounds very neat and preplanned, and indeed some histories portray the story of public education as the inevitable product of democracy and farsighted leaders. But it was by no means inevitable that Americans would create the most extensive array of public schools in the world. Why should citizens who were deeply distrustful of government, sometimes afraid of it, create government schools as essential to their model republic?

If Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, or John Dewey were now to enter policy discussions on public education, he might well ask if Americans have lost their way.

Puzzles abound in the story of democracy in education. Who was in charge? Not the federal government, which was a minor player until recently. The Founding Fathers had a design for creating new states and financing public schools, but the U.S. Constitution did not even mention education. A federal office of education didn’t even appear until 1867, and then was puny in size and functions. From time to time, reformers have proposed an activist role for the federal government, but not until 1954 did the U.S. Supreme Court begin its momentous impact on schooling through its landmark decisions on civil rights and civil liberties. Liberals had to wait until the 1960s to break the logjam preventing large-scale federal aid to public schools. Today, although candidates vie to become the “education president,” federal programs account for only about 7 percent of public school revenues (and conservatives in Congress think even that is too much money and control).

State governments have long been legally responsible for public education within their boundaries, but their influence has been muted. Even the most famous early state superintendents, leaders like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, had little power beyond persuasion and faced periodic threats to abolish their offices. As late as 1890, the average state department of education had only two employees, including the superintendent, and very little power to enforce laws or regulations. In the 19th century, Americans kept rewriting their state constitutions to prevent elected and appointed state officials from doing mischief. Not until the 20th century did state governments gain modest powers to legislate and monitor bureaucratic standards, usually of the sort that professional educators lobbied to install.

If both federal and state governments were minor players in controlling and financing schools until relatively recent times, who did that work? Mostly it was officials in local districts, and this generally was what citizens wanted. Both in the past and in the present (as Gallup polls show) Americans have trusted local school boards to make educational decisions far more than they trusted federal or state officials. Everyday citizens tended to agree that the best politics of education was local politics.

Although most citizens have approved of local control, in the 20th century most elite reformers have not. These professional leaders wanted to dampen, not increase, lay participation in democratic decisionmaking. They believed that professional experts knew what was best for children. For that reason, they wanted to centralize and buffer educational decisionmaking rather than leave it to local citizens. From time to time, innovators have even called for the abolition of school districts and their elected trustees. Who needs democracy of that sort? they asked. They did not abandon the rhetoric of democracy, but they redefined what it meant.

Before analyzing these re-visions of democratic governance, I’d like to revisit the origins and consequences of local control in the 19th century.

Choosing Democratic Governance. Without a system of local control by elected trustees in the 19th century, this country might not have created the most comprehensive and popular system of public education in the world. It was hardly inevitable that government schools would trump private ones in the 19th century. A competitive, entrepreneurial spirit among educators had created a healthy private education sector by 1850, much of this fueled by repeated religious revivals. We might have ended up with a miscellaneous collection of public and private and sectarian and proprietary schools, an open marketplace of schools in which no one variety would predominate.

Instead, the public school triumphed. The U.S. Census defined a public school as an institution managed by public authorities, with instruction by publicly selected teachers, taking place in a public schoolhouse. By 1890, about nine in 10 students were enrolled in such an institution. At that time, there were still differences of opinion and practice about what constituted a “public” or “private” school, but hybrids were becoming much less frequent than a half-century earlier. The common school had become the school common to most American children.

Why did this happen? One set of reasons has to do with demography and geography: The population was highly scattered; one-room schools dotted the land. A single common school serving each rural neighborhood made economic sense in an era when roads were poor and transportation rudimentary, and when the local citizens paid for local schooling mostly out of their own pockets, through taxes. Because of the separation of church and state, most Protestant denominations were willing to support a common school and to suspend their sectarian quarrels at the schoolhouse door. Americans disestablished the church, but partially established the public school in its place.

But who was to run these schools? In most places, the answer was neighbors elected to do the job. Under American local control, school trustees constituted the most numerous class of public officials in the world; in some states, there were as many as 45,000 local school trustees, often outnumbering teachers. Decentralized governance addressed public distrust of government by putting the school and its trustees everywhere under the eye and thumb of the citizens. This provided democracy in education, meaning self-rule by elected representatives of the people. Communities were able to retain collective decisions about schooling—who would teach, how much schools would cost, and what kind of instruction to offer. If district voters disagreed with school trustees, they could elect others.

The one-room school was not only a place for children to learn the three R’s. The process of making collective decisions face to face reflected the belief that governance should be close to hand and transparent. When citizens decided issues this way, they could show youth how self-rule operated in education and thus contribute to the civic education of the next generation. Education in democracy was partly a matter of book learning; a similar pedagogy of republicanism and political ideology permeated textbooks in American history, for example. But education in democracy also took place in the public life that swirled about the common school and taught the young how self-rule worked (or did not).

In state constitutions, in Fourth of July speeches, and in the rhetoric of political conventions, Americans reiterated a conviction that representative government required educated citizens. It was part of a national ideology, but in education governance, the action took place mostly at the local level. School trustees had to settle matters both mundane and eternal, both Bible reading and leaky roofs. In the 19th century, local majority rule decided many issues that later would be adjudicated by the courts or set by state legislatures (say, about Bible reading or the use of foreign languages). There was little chance that state statutes would be enforced if local citizens disagreed. “Laws on education particularly require neighborly harmony for effectiveness,” wrote an observer in 1897. “The coerced minority today is liable to become the tyrannic majority tomorrow.”

Questioning Lay Control. Local control by elected school committees set a democratic stamp on public education, but policy elites at the turn of the 20th century complained that the rural school trustees gave local citizens just what they wanted: schooling that was cheap, that reflected local notions of morality and useful learning, and that gave employment to local teachers who fit in well with the community. Leaders like Stanford University professor Ellwood P. Cubberley denounced local control by district trustees as “democracy gone to seed.” How could penny-pinching and provincial rural trustees prepare youth for modern society? he asked.

The easiest way to curb the influence of school trustees in these rural communities was to abolish as many districts as possible—or, euphemistically, to consolidate them. This idea was very popular among educational leaders, who wanted more professional autonomy and desired to give children an education that fit their “scientific” modern standards. But consolidation was very unpopular in communities about to lose their one-room schools and local control. In the 20th century, about nine in 10 one-room schools were eliminated along with their district boards.

Elite reformers also believed that in urban districts too many of the wrong people ran things, pointing especially to corrupt machine politicians and immigrants who wanted the schools to respect their cultures and to hire their daughters. How could urban schools become efficient and professional with all these foxes in the chicken coops? Besides, the central urban school committees were far too large and delegated decisions to subcommittees of trustees rather than to the experts. Worse, many cities still retained ward boards that were relics of the old decentralized district system.

Depoliticization in city systems meant radically reducing the size of city school boards. The administrative reformers were remarkably successful in eliminating ward school boards in large cities and in cutting the size of school boards in large cities. The average number of school board members dropped from 21 to seven in the three decades from 1890 to 1920. These political moves, accomplished largely by statutes and charters obtained from state legislatures, concentrated power in the hands of the professional elite and their business and professional allies in school reform.

The solution to both rural and urban educational ills was to take the schools out of “politics,” that is, to free them from the vagaries of elective office and the political representation of different social groups. Thus reformers like Cubberley wanted to abolish local trustees where possible, eliminate elected county superintendents, appoint rather than elect state superintendents, and everywhere to base decisionmaking on expertise rather than on political processes. Public participation in decisionmaking was quite unnecessary in such a sanitized system, other than the school board’s approving the actions of the superintendent.

Many members of the policy elite in education believed that “democracy” should mean equality of opportunity as defined by the professional educator. The school, in Cubberley’s view, was an “instrument of democracy” run by apolitical experts, with authority “in the hands of those who will really represent the interests of the children.” Such leaders would be able to educate all children according to their abilities and destiny in life. The people owned the schools, but experts ran them, just as a corporate chief executive managed his firm. That was the new version of democracy in governance: a socially and economically efficient system that adapted schooling to different kinds of students, thereby guaranteeing equality of opportunity.

In the first half of the 20th century, who wanted or needed democracy in education? It depended on whom you asked. Rural citizens, whose children still constituted two-thirds of students in public schools in 1915, thought democracy should mean self-rule, and they fought consolidation. Administrative reformers like Cubberley had another view of the future: The public school was essential to the health of democracy, but expert administration should, over time, replace the messiness of school politics and render it a memory of the bad old days.

No amount of wishful thinking can transform the politics of education into objective administration, for schooling is and always has been intrinsically political. The question is not whether politics, but whose politics. Nonetheless, the administrative reformers in education at the beginning of this century were so successful in carrying out their blueprint for reform of governance that political scientists in the 1950s described public education as a “closed system” in which familiar actors like city and state superintendents and their lay boards worked within a zone of political consent that made decisionmaking predictable and consensual. Ellwood Cubberley would have felt at home.

Indeed, the policy preferences of the administrative reformers of 1910 became the conventional wisdom of educators for a half-century. Big districts and big schools, they said, were better than small ones. A centralized and specialized administrative structure was more efficient and accountable than a decentralized and simple one. Differentiation of the curriculum into several tracks and hundreds of electives generated greater equality of opportunity for the students of varied ability and for the different races and genders.

Today, reformers challenge all of these conventional beliefs. They argue that small schools are better, that big districts should be decentralized, that all students should be helped to meet the same high academic standards, that academic segregation of students into tracks limits their learning, and that schools can benefit from strong involvement of parents in educational reform.

The administrative reformers of 1910 believed that if schools did a good job and tended to their public relations, citizens would be satisfied and would not need to politicize issues. For a time, that strategy seemed to work, at least so long as the voices of outsiders were not heard. But in the last half-century, the history of school governance is in large part the story of efforts to breach the buffers erected around schools during the first half of the 20th century. Groups that were excluded or unfairly treated—for example, African-Americans, Latinos, the handicapped, women—have organized in social movements and have sought access and influence in public education. Besides employing traditional democratic beliefs and political strategies, these new voices have also expanded notions of democracy; they speak, for example, of cultural democracy, of equal respect and equal rights for all cultural groups.

The politics of education has never been more fluid and complicated than in recent years. As in earlier periods of contentiousness, some activists have sought escape from democracy (roughly equated with politics). This time, however, they do not seek to replace politics with expert administration. Indeed, they think public education already too bureaucratic, too constrained by regulations inflicted by special-interest groups. The solution, they say, is to replace politics with markets. Treating schooling as a consumer good and giving parents vouchers for the education of their children solves the problem of decisionmaking: Parents choose the schools that will be best for their children. The collective choices produced by democratic institutions produced bureaucracy and gridlock. The invisible hand of the market will lead the individual to the best personal choice. The market in education will satisfy and liberate families through competition.

But wait. Is education primarily a consumer good or a common good? If Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, or John Dewey were now to enter policy discussions on public education, he might well ask if Americans have lost their way. Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Democracy in Education— Who Needs It?


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