THE PERCEIVED INADEQUACIES of urban school systems in the United States have been a preoccupation of citizen reformers and policy-makers for at least four decades. Yet the persistence of urban education as a policy “problem” suggests that there has been little consensus as to what the problem means, much less how to solve it. A variety of reform nostrums have competed for dominance, often in succession as earlier reforms proved inadequate or lost favor.
A complicating factor in the reform of urban education has been the politics surrounding urban education. These politics have been characterized by high levels of racial and social conflict, unstable alliances, bureaucratic unresponsiveness and institutional rigidity, high leadership turnover, and intergovernmental intrusiveness. The governance system is itself an object of dispute in these politics. This is because the governance system is viewed by protagonists as embracing core values and interests. These key values and interests serve a legitimating function for any political regime that embraces them. In the case of urban education, at least four principles have been in conflict. These principles often operate in tension, much like core values such as freedom, equality, and efficiency.
Political actors have sought to assure that urban school systems represent local needs through formal structures of policy-making such as