The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics, and the Challenge of Urban Education

By Jeffrey R. Henig; Richard C. Hula et al. | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER FOUR
Race and the Political Economy of Big-City Schools:
Teachers and Preachers

There is a power struggle—the principal and the teachers' unions or the teachers and the parents—but most likely the problem is either a principal or union representative who is disgruntled because of past histories and so you can't get anything moving. (D.C. school administrator)

The teachers are not advocates of students. The teachers say they're advocates of students, but the teachers have to cover their priorities as professionals. That's a large part of it. (Baltimore community activist)

THOSE who study urban politics have long recognized the importance of tangible, material incentives as tools for building political alliances and supplementing formal authority with informal mechanisms of influence and control.1 Big-city school systems are a major source of economic benefits to individuals, companies, and neighborhoods. As Wilbur Rich aptly put it: “The school pie feeds many families, and slicing it is a major event in the local economy.”2 But the connection between this insight and the challenge of urban school reform has been ignored or treated in one-dimensional terms.

One cannot understand the politics of school reform without first understanding the important role that school systems play in the local political economy. But understanding this role means moving beyond the simple observation that teachers and other school system employees have a clearly defined interest in resisting reform initiatives that threaten their jobs, impose new work demands, or limit their discretion. The inclination and capacity of school employees—or, more precisely, the unions that typically represent them in large urban school districts—to delay, diminish, or derail systemic school reform, has been noted loudly and often.

____________________
1
Clarence Stone, Regime Politics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989).
2
Wilbur C. Rich, Black Mayors and School Politics: The Failure of Reform in Detroit, Gary, and Newark (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1996), 5.

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