Sunday, June 26, 2016

Campbell F. Scribner's "The Fight for Local Control"

After graduating from Haverford College, Campbell F. Scribner taught geography and world history for four years in Texas. His graduate work was at the University of Wisconsin, where he was awarded a joint doctorate in history and educational policy studies.

Scribner is now an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland–College Park.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy, and reported the following:
The Fight for Local Control is a helpful book for anyone interested in education, municipal government, or grassroots conservatism in the twentieth century. The book discusses America’s fraught relationship with its school districts, which for much of the nation’s history remained its most politically accessible institutions. Education is technically a state responsibility, and school districts technically exist at the pleasure of state legislatures. Nevertheless, until the 1940s states devolved almost all administrative authority to local school boards. Only in the wake of World War II did state and federal officials begin to assert an active role in school governance, testing the viability of local control.

The most successful assertion of state control came with the consolidation of one-room schoolhouses in rural areas, which almost completely disappeared by the 1960s, replaced by larger, comprehensive schools. However, as policymakers tried use consolidation to equalize education in metropolitan areas they met with sharp resistance from the suburbs. In fact, suburbanites successfully invoked the legacy of the one-room schoolhouse to defend local control and thwart the expansion of state and federal oversight. The book traces that phenomenon across four issues: racial desegregation, teacher unionization, school finance, and curricular reform.

Page 99 discusses the rise of state aid to education over the course of the twentieth century, and it hints at the broader argument of the book:
With dependence on local property values thwarting hopes for equalization and a shift to statewide taxation politically unpopular, liberal policymakers decided to work within existing policy frameworks, particularly school district consolidation. Rather than jeopardizing the principle of local taxation they simply created larger localities, spreading pupils and costs over ever-wider swaths of land…. School consolidation promised economies of scale and a more rational, equitable system of property taxation, but that equity unavoidably came at the expense of small, locally controlled school districts.
The plan to equalize funding through consolidation has never come fully to fruition, of course, as wealthy districts continue to undermine efforts at revenue sharing and continue to benefit from preferential funding plans. On that subject, page 99 also has an image that I like:
By the early 1960s, one study found, seventy percent of state aid in Massachusetts was distributed on the basis of an “‘equalizing formula’…which purports to give more dollars to poor districts than to rich,” but in fact “the correlation between the rate of state support and local ability was so slight that the state could actually have done as well if it had…distributed its largesse in a completely random fashion, as by the State Treasurer throwing checks from an airplane.”
Visit Campbell F. Scribner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue