Multiethnic Moments: The Politics of Urban Education Reform

By Susan E. Clarke; Rodney E. Hero et al. | Go to book overview

Education is a distinct policy arena on several grounds. One is that school districts are local, often with their own elections for school board and sometimes even with their own power of taxation. Despite the fact that we are now in a new information age that has given education a heightened level of social and economic significance, the nation continues in many ways to treat education as a local matter. To be sure, there are national goals, national commissions, and national legislation. All are important, as is the fact that education is a major state function. State-delineated school districts, state regulations, and state funding are fundamental features of how education is structured in the United States. Yet the local school district is the testing ground for determining which policies and practices will take hold.

While ideas set the stage, the pull of particulars is nevertheless strong in education. Much is at stake both materially and symbolically. School districts have often been among the largest employers in the local community— sometimes they are indeed the biggest single employer. School facilities involve large expenditures, and they are a large factor in education politics at both state and local levels. Collective bargaining contracts cover an enormous variety of topics. And nothing packs more emotional punch than pupil assignments. Residential property values are tied closely to perceived quality of schools in the attendance area. Many particulars have a potential to generate a level of intensity that totally eclipses large issues of educational policy. On occasion, a reverse pattern takes shape. Big issues of educational policy become the vehicles by which local and particular frustrations are voiced.

On many counts, then, education is a high reverberation policy arena. Value conflicts are often intense and material stakes are high, but at the same time the pattern of group engagement fluctuates because the scope of the policy arena shifts as issues rise and fade. Such issues included in this volatile mix include pedagogy, schools as a source of peer influence, the cost of housing, neighborhood stability, level of taxation, expressions of cultural identity, philosophies of youth development, jobs and contracts for adults, and the scope of opportunities available to the rising generation—all this and more are part of a volatile mix. Educators and parents are constant players, but many others come and go as the kaleidoscope of issues changes.

Yet education has had periods of stability. The first part of the twentieth century was a time when education expertise was on the rise, and a reservoir of deference to this expertise insulated schools from some of the crosscurrents of social conflict. That time has now passed. Desegregation battles contributed to the destabilization of those arrangements, but a general decline in deference to expertise was also a factor. One might be tempted to see a pattern of stability followed by ferment and then reform. However, such a crude characterization of the process of change misses much that is of great importance.

Through the experiences of Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Multiethnic Moments enables us to see that ferment does not lead

-vii-

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