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US Education History. Local Control of Schools Essay

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2021

The historical perspective of education in many states within the United States may certainly be characterized as one which served to strengthen the role and power of local school boards. One needs to realize, however, that the same forces that served to support the public system of education are now used to change the system. Educational reform has taken many forms since the 1960’s when, in response to Sputnik and other perceived scientific achievements by world superpowers, the government rallied to bolster the educational system in the name of national defense.

Carl Glickman (1990) rather succinctly classified trends in educational reform as those emerging from the group of events he called “legislated learning” or those which emanate from the principle of “empowerment” (p. 435). Legislated learning encompasses those reform efforts that have been initiated by government. Governmental intervention usually takes the form of legislation designed to require a minimum or maximum level of service be brought to a program, population group, or funding formula.

These varied forms of legislated intervention, often referred to as “mandates,” have increased among all states as a result of the wave of political interest in education that has emerged since A Nation at Risk (1983). Mandates have directly affected educational costs and have established a concern among local practitioners and school board members that local control is being eroded.

Reinforcing the view that local control by school boards is desirable, but still in need of external support, is the perception of the public that school boards, as governing bodies, are in need of assistance. In 1987, the 19th Annual Gallup Poll indicated that 62% of the public favored the state and federal governments being more involved in the improvement of schools.

Glickman (1990) and others (Pipho, 1988; Sergiovanni & Moore, 1989), defined the empowerment movement as a trend that grew from educators’ dissatisfaction over dwindling education dollars and the meager results observed in many of the legislated reforms. More importantly, however, is Glickman’s rationale of empowerment which asserts that “teachers and administrators are the solution, rather than the problem in school reform” (p. 436).

Though the two distinct trends described by Glickman are historically significant, one cannot ignore the emerging trend of citizen involvement at the local level. Such activism has manifested itself in the form of taxpayer’s groups and other organizations comprised of right wing fundamentalists. Typifying the impact of right wing groups is a New York Times article headline: “Evangelicals Gain With Covert Candidates – ‘Stealth’ Tactics Help Religious Right Win Grass-Roots Posts” (Mydans, 1992, October 27).

Sacken (1991) demystified the confusing array of interest groups that attempted to affect the course of education by classifying the activists into the following categories: regulators, adjudicators, messiahs, self-serving individuals and stakeholders. The ‘”regulators” and “adjudicators” are those who attempt to influence the schools via the law. Once laws or mandates have been imposed, schools seek assistance from those experts who can help them properly administer the mandates – the “messiahs.” Concurrently, there is a constant barrage of requests and demands from the self-serving individuals who desire to have their particular needs met regardless of cost or appropriateness.

Finally, the “stakeholders” are those who are linked to education via their particular roles and will bear the impact of any changes to the system, i.e., educators, parents, students, and others. Sacken further maintained that the system worked best when “…those who would seek to influence, control or direct behavior of a school…had a personal stake in the school” (p. 266). Sacken’s view corroborated the notion of Fenstermacher & Amarel (1980) who maintained that school activists typically have some interest at risk but also have some long-term commitment to the setting.

The issue of interest group involvement in education is hardly new. The American political system appears to be one that is driven by lobbyists representing a variety of interest groups. In Pennsylvania alone, the Secretary of the Senate has on record 1,136 registered organizations represented by professional lobbyists and 1,074 political action committees – PACs. Among these, 37 organizations (Secretary of the Senate, 1994a) and 16 PACs (Secretary of the Senate, 1994b) have titles which indicate a direct interest in education. One could also add to these figures many other groups that lobby on educational issues but do not identify themselves as having a purely educational orientation.

With the groundswell of interest in education coming from those who have a personal agenda to emphasize, one can readily appreciate the enormous pressure this trend is bringing to the schoolhouse door. Despite this documented rise of special interest group attention to educational policy making, the National Institute for Educational Leadership (1986), in a document summarizing research on effective school boards, referenced only one of fifteen crucial actions of effective boards that addressed working with external interest groups.

Similarly, Schlechty (1985), when summarizing the research on effective schools and teaching as it relates to school boards, derived five types of policies boards should develop in light of effective schools practices and the research on the nation’s best run companies. Not one of the five policies addressed external forces. This lack of attention to external forces affecting school governance highlights the need for research in this area.

The dramatic rise in interest group activity in the current decade may be the single greatest factor affecting local school board governance. Blanke (1982), in an essay review of Nyberg’s, Power Over Power, noted that power is the ability of an individual or organization to remain in control without being controlled. Yet, students of local control and interest group activity observe that local school boards across the country are yielding to interest group pressure, thus lessening their span of control. Interest groups have been able to divide boards, making it difficult for them to govern.

McGonagill (1987), in his study of the board and school staff partnership, reported that board fragmentation was among the three barriers to effective governance of state and local boards. McGonagill suggested that interest group pressure caused such fragmentation. He defined fragmentation as the deterioration of the basic trustee model of governance into the model of representing special interests.

Jacqueline Danzberger, Director of Governance Programs at the National Institute for Educational Leadership, Washington D.C., expressed similar concern that special interest groups are diverting the leadership of local school boards (Danzberger, 1994). She indicated how “…board service is shifting away from trusteeship or leadership and moving to serving the growing number of representatives of special interests” (p. 369). This concern for the debilitating effect successful interest groups can have on board governance was echoed by Knarr & Dent (1992) who, as advocates for school based management and stronger local control, suggested that democratic boards, if they were to be successful, should not “…bend to interest groups” (p. 45).

One of the difficulties associated with issues involving school board governance is that there does not appear to be a formal body of knowledge specifically pertaining to school boards as governing bodies. Cistone (1982) reported that a grand theoretical framework concerning school board governance simply did not exist. He further maintained that research regarding governing theory applied to school boards did not emanate from formal studies of school boards directly. Rather, the findings of studies pertaining to other organizations have been applied to the American school board and remain at the forefront of the debate with regards to the localization of control within the public school system.


Blanke, V. (1982). Essay review of “Power over power” by David Nvberg. Educational Administration Quarterly. 18(7). 114-123.

Cistone, P. J. (1982). School Boards. In Encyclopedia of educational research. New York: Free Press.

Danzberger, J. P. (1994). Governing the nation’s schools: The case for restructuring local school boards. Phi Delta Kappan. 75(1), 367-373.

Glickman, C, D. (1990). Supervision of instruction: A developmental approach. (2nd. ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Fenstermacher, G. D., & Amarel, M. (1980). The interests of the student, the state, and humanity in education. In L. S. Shulman & G. Sykes (Eds.), Handbook of teaching and policy (pp. 393-407). New York: Longman.

Knarr, T. C, & Dent, A. M. (1992). A matter of trust. The American School Board Journal, 68(1l), 44-45.

McGonagill, G. (1987). Board/staff partnership: The key to the effectiveness of state and local boards. Phi Delta Kappan. 69(6), 65-68.

Mydans, S. (1992). Evangelicals gain with covert candidates: “Stealth” Tactics Help Religious Right Win Grass-Roots Posts. The New York Times, p. 1-17.

National Institute for Educational Leadership (1986). School boards: Strengthening grass roots leadership Washington, D.C: National Institute for Educational Leadership.

Pipho, C. (1988). Restructured schools: Rhetoric on the rebound? Phi Delta Kappan. 69(10), 710-711.

Sacken, D., M. (1991). And then they go home: Schools, reform, and the elusive community of interest. Urban Education, 26, 253-268.

Schlechty, P. C. (1985). District level policies and practices supporting effective school management and classroom instruction. In Reaching for excellence: An effective school sourcebook. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office: 065-000-00320-2.

Secretary of the Senate (1994a). Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. registered lobbyists, session of 1994 (Report No.22894). Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of State, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Bureau of Commissions, Elections & Legislation.

Secretary of the Senate (1994b). PAC list – A listing of political committees currently registered with the Secretary of the Commonwealth (Report No.ELC737). Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of State, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Bureau of Commissions, Elections & Legislation.

Sergiovanni, T. J., & Moore, J. H. (1989). Schooling for tomorrow: Directing reforms to issues that count. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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