This spring, I had a delightful lunch with Michael Kirst, the Stanford University professor emeritus, who as president of the State School board has been profiled as leading a radical revolution in California education. He and I have known each other as academics for decades, and we spent a little time at lunch figuring out how to best fit our conversation into the roles we now occupy: Kirst as a public official, and me as a journalist. We decided that we could speculate about ideas, but not about quotes, which is really a shame because he is quick with a quip. And we each paid for our own lunch.
Somewhere between the duck salad and dessert, we began to muse—as professors do—about the academic sub-field called the politics of education, of which Kirst is considered a founder. Beginning to study schools through the lens of politics was important, because one of the bedrock beliefs about public education was that the early 20th Century Progressives who set up the American system of public education had successfully removed it from politics. Kirst was among a small group of scholars who began in the 1960s to argue this was a myth.
Sure, Schools are Political
Saying that schools are political seems beside the point now; most everyone concedes that they are. The politics are visible, raw, and increasingly expensive. The Los Angeles Unified School District is distinguished as the site of a school board race where the per/vote cost of a school board race was more than five times that of the contest for the U.S. Presidency. The news organization Politico assigns experienced reporters to cover the politics of education. Just last week, the Los Angeles Times disclosed a trail of “dark money” that opposed a tax measure to raise school funding. Some of it came from individuals who call themselves education reformers.
But in the 1950s and 1960s the leading textbook on public school administration did not even list the word “politics” in its index. So, when Kirst along with the late Frederick Wirt wrote The Political and Social Foundations of Education, published in 1970, just arguing that schools were political and that political theory could be used to understand how they worked was revolutionary. It became the best selling text on education politics, and the 4th edition was published in 2009.
The series tracks the intensification of political pressure on the institution of public education. The cover of the 1997 edition, called The Political Dynamics of American Education, shows waves battering a lighthouse, and the 2009 edition foresaw the federal overreach of the No Child Left Behind Era.
It chronicles the rise of institutional distrust and the migration of decision-making away from school districts and toward state and national capitols. Even as self-styled reformers tried to regain control of big school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, real power and authority had shifted. In a prescient first paragraph, Kirst writes:
Was it just because old beliefs die hard? Was that why, when asked who has the most power to improve public schools, respondents in a survey by the Public Education Networks and Education Week said it was local school boards? The public has been told repeatedly, after all, how much the nation reveres local school control, told it even by those who have been taking away much of that control. Thus, Americans are largely unaware that local boards as well as local superintendents and individuals have been losing influence over education programs for some time to state and federal officials and other interests. Indeed, some analysts even view local school boards as an endangered species.
Why Isn’t Politics Producing Better Schools?
If the political system is supposed to solve important problems, then the intensification of politics and the centralization of decision-making surrounding education should be yielding better schools. Instead, in California, it’s led to a relative decline for financial backing for public schooling, expensive squabbling, incoherent rules, and a reputational abyss.
In Learning from L.A., we chronicled the process of hollowing out local authority and questioning the legitimacy of the school district, a process that continues with what we’ve termed “the charter school wars.” Powerful interest groups, including the teacher unions and deep-pocketed venture philanthropists have produced gridlock rather than victory. “Permanent crisis,” we called it.
California is pushing back. Its reforms are, indeed, radical, and not just because of the differences between the state and the Obama administration. Moving financial and educational decisions back to local schools creates uncharted territory. Tailoring accountability to the needs and problems of individual schools and districts confounds the easy to understand but highly inaccurate mechanisms for accountability enshrined in the state’s defunct Academic Proficiency Index. Local control accountability requires rebuilding local politics and redirecting activism from Sacramento and Washington to Fresno, Redding, Blythe, and Barstow.
So, as Kirst and I mused about the study of the politics of education we found ourselves asking whether the reality of events was outstripping the capacity of academic researchers to understand them. Reality has jumped ahead of theory.
Note: ‘On California’ will be on vacation for a few weeks. See you in August.
The opinions expressed in On California 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.