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

CHAPTER SEVEN
The Role of External Actors

LOCAL DECISIONS ABOUT schools are rarely made in a vacuum, yet many analyses of school politics focus on local stakeholder groups, as if their interests, resources, and the relative balance of power among them are the sole determinants of policy. It is understandable why this tendency to think of education policy as a product of local forces emerged. Few political symbols in the United States carry the power associated with the local control of education. Schools are closely identified with the character of their local communities. Indeed, schools are sometimes taken as defining that character. Moreover, many structural reforms introduced by the early twentiethcentury Progressives effectively vested authority to set school policies in the hands of education professionals and a relatively homogenous, formally nonpartisan elite, with strong interest in the local schools. Both tradition and institutions, then, historically have insulated school decision making from a wide range of influences external to the local education community. Throughout this book we have emphasized ways in which the horizontal isolation of the education community from other local stakeholders has broken down or, where it remains, become dysfunctional. In chapter 7 we focus on the vertical dimension within the federal system and consider the role of state and national politics in shaping the local school reform agenda.

In spite of traditions of local control, the ultimate formal responsibility for education rests not with local authorities at all, but with the state and, in the case of Washington, D.C., the federal government. These external authorities define the basic structure of local districts, set the limits of their authority, and provide a significant proportion of the resources used to operate schools. Important variations in the formal autonomy granted to school districts exist, as does a varying willingness of state and federal actors to directly intervene in local education appears. Of course, Washington, D.C., as a federal district, is unique. Some traditional roles of state government have been granted by Congress to Washington's city government with others exercised by the Congress itself.1 As a result, a complex, atypical administrative struc-

____________________
1
After establishing a locally elected school board in 1968, Congress generally kept an arm's length from D.C. education policy until the mid-1990s. That was still the case at the time most of the original field research for this book was carried out. Since the establishment of the financial control board in 1995, Congress has found itself drawn deeper into local school policy, including the establishment of an alternative governance structure (the appointed chief execu-tive officer and emergency school trustees) and the passage of legislation that initiated charter schools in the District. Because these changes are so significant, we have updated our research and discussion to include this period of intense congressional involvement.

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