The Democratic Control of American School Boards
Our tour across the landscape of local American public education has taken us through time and space. American local governments were the first to take responsibility for public education, and local control remains a strong force today despite the increasing role of the states and, in more recent years, the federal government. Indeed, localism explains quite a bit about how America's public schools are organized, administered, and funded. But of equal importance is the accretion of institutional reforms such that contemporary school boards, school districts, and school-financing systems retain many characteristics they acquired in earlier times.
American federalism allows for the rich diversity in approaches to public policy and democratic governance that we find in the American public education system. We have chosen to explore this by looking broadly at thousands of school districts in forty-nine states rather than in depth at a small number of them. There is a cost in detail and color in doing this, but we believe the benefits make it well worthwhile. We have been limited to only one policy output—per-pupil instructional expenditures—but it is a critically important one that is easily comparable across districts and is directly related to almost everything schools do. Some analysts may debate whether or not increased spending leads to higher-quality education, but they cannot deny that it matters to the teachers drawing salaries and to administrators purchasing instructional materials and deciding whether to fully fund the band or art classes. Indeed, every major actor in public school politics regards