CHANGES IN AMERICAN big-city school governance often focus on reforming a prior reform. At the turn of the twentieth century, “progressive” reformers wanted to overcome excessive decentralization caused by ward-based school boards of 50 to 100 members and corruption from mayoral influence in teacher hiring—the symbol of city government in 1900 was Tammany Hall in New York City (Tyack 1974). The committee system, often large and unwieldy, provided opportunities for extensive and complex political influence.
The solution to this alleged excess of representation was to install a nonpartisan school superintendent—hence the turn toward executive leadership and neutral competence (Tyack 1974). By 1910 the conventional educational wisdom among school leaders, as well as among leading business and professional men, was that smaller boards in conjunction with professional superintendents who would select teachers and work with certified administrators to create a uniform city-wide curriculum was the solution. The watchwords of reform during this era became “centralization” “expertise” “professionalism” “nonpolitical control” and “efficiency” all of which would inspire “the one best system” (Tyack 1974). The governance structure rooted in ward-based committees needed to be revised so that schools would operate “above politics.” To achieve this, school boards had to be small, elected at large, and freed from all connections with political parties and regular government officials such as mayors and councilmen. School districts in this new design would raise their own property taxes so as to not become fiscally dependent on city