Politics in EducationWilliam Allan Kritsonis, PhDPotential Questions:1. Describe the forces in the typical community that affect the school.2. Explain the role of the federal government in its involvement withpublic schools.3. Explain the role that the state government plays in the organizationof public schools.4. Describe the powers of school boards.5. List the pros and cons of the American Concept of local control ofeducation.6. Discuss the pros, cons, and alternatives of state takeovers ofschools.Politics in Education
“Oh, yes indeed. There is politics in education. There’s ‘big P’ politicswhich includes legislators and state department requirements, and there’s‘little p’ politics which is how things get done everyday in schools andschool districts.”(Lindle, 1994)Politics reminds us that as a public institution, schools are more, notless, susceptible to the conflicts, ploys, and tactics of various internal andexternal interest groups. Schools are perhaps the most accessible publicarena for individuals and groups to pursue their interests. Schools arebrokers, storehouses, and communicators of knowledge. Knowledge is ahigh commodity for people’s futures. Power and definitions of value areembedded in education. Knowledge, power, and conflict are the traditionalsubjects of politics. Educational politics is the study of people’s strategiesfor accessing, managing, and achieving schooling.Summary of the Political Governing and Administering Public EducationThe governance of education is organized on four governmentallevels: local, intermediate (in some states), state and federal. Schools areorganized into school districts; today there are approximately 15,000 publicschool systems operating in the United States.
Local ControlAt the local level, the school board, the school superintendent, thecentral office staff, and school principals all take part in governing andadministering the schools. In many communities, board members run apolitical campaign for office, stating their opinions on educational issues,personnel decisions, and anything else pertaining to schools. So, peoplewho believe they will represent their views on the board elect these boardmembers. Teacher unions certainly participate in this election process,either directly by donating money for the campaigns and endorsingcandidates publicly or by encouraging their members to support certainpeople at the polls.Educators have made a number of efforts to increase the involvementof parents and community members in the schools. Programs for school-based management often include a greater role for parents and communitymembers. Other forms of public involvement include communityparticipation and community control.Recently, the idea of community control has resurfaced as a thornypolitical issue. Following is a comparison of the pros and cons of thequestion, “Will increased community control of schools improveeducation?”
Pro: Community Control• Community control will maketeachers and administratorsaccountable to parents andcommunity residents, where theauthority truly belongs.• Community control will lead togreater educational innovationand help streamline existingschool bureaucracies.• Community control will lead togreater public participation in theschools, especially from theparents of children who arefailing.• Only strict community controlwill compel local school boards tohire principals andsuperintendents who can relate tothe diverse backgrounds of thechildren they are serving.• Under community control,schools will develop instructionalprograms that raise studentachievement and increase culturalpride among minority groups.• Community control will increaseparticipatory democracy and thepower of the people.Con: Community Control• It is questionable whethercommunity groups who oftenhave their own hidden agendas,can objectively assess theperformance of teachers andadministrators.• Community school boards are toofocused on politics and self-interest to take the necessary stepsrequired for educationalinnovation.• Most people, including parents,have little time, as it is toparticipate in school affairs. Theincreased responsibilitydemanded by community controlwill discourage parentalinvolvement.• Community control will result inhiring and promotion patternsbased on race and ethnicity ratherthan on merit.• Community control may actuallyhinder student achievement byfavoring cultural programs overacademic programs.• Community control leads toextremism, vigilantism, andseparationism among people.State and Federal ControlMore than half of the states have one or more intermediate units,Region Service Centers, that support local school districts and exerciselimited regulatory powers. In most states, the legislature is primarilyresponsible for establishing and maintaining public schools and has broad
powers to enact laws pertaining to school education. All states, exceptWisconsin, have state boards of education. Operating under the state boardsare the state departments of education, headed by the chief state schoolofficer. Overall, the federal role in education has dramatically expandedsince the 1930s. The last two decades, however, have witnessed amovement toward reduced federal involvement.Summary of the Political Financing of Public EducationSchools are financially supported by the state and local governmentsand to a lesser extent by the federal government. Overall, since the earlytwentieth century; state support has increased dramatically and local supporthas declined; the percentage of federal support grew until the 1980s and thendropped back. Since the Sputnik era, federal funding of education hasbecome increasingly linked to national policy. But since the 1980s, someresponsibility for educational funding has shifted from the federalgovernment back to the individual states.Summary of the Political Legal Aspects of EducationEducation-related court cases have significantly increased in the lastfew decades. Such cases can be heard in both federal and state courts,depending on the issues involved. Tenure protects teachers from dismissalexcept on such specified grounds as incompetency, immorality,insubordination, and unprofessional conduct. Teachers accused of such
conduct are entitled to due process protections. Teachers have the right toform and belong to unions and other professional organizations, but moststates prohibit teachers from striking. Teachers’ rights regarding freedom ofexpression and academic freedom depend on a balance between individualand governmental interests. Teachers have rights guaranteed to individualsunder the Constitution, but school boards have obligations to ensure the“proper” and “regular” operation of the schools, taking into account therights of parents, teachers, and students. The courts have clarified andexpanded such students’ rights as freedom of expression, due process in thecase of suspension or expulsion, prohibition against bodily searches in theabsence of specific grounds, limitation on corporal punishment, and privacyof records. Organized and mandated prayer and Bible reading are notallowed in public schools. The legal basis for government support fornonpublic schools is mixed. Federal laws prohibit discrimination ineducational employment and programming on the grounds of race, color,religion, national origin, and sex. School districts and teachers have anobligation to act affirmatively in providing equal opportunity for minoritiesand women.Political Influence on Curriculum and InstructionCurriculum is political in that state governments, locally electedschool boards, and powerful business and publishing interests exercise
enormous influence over teaching practices and curriculum policies. Theculture of the school is often representative of those features of the dominantculture that it affirms, sustains, selects, and legitimates. The distinctionbetween high and low status academic subjects, the organization ofknowledge and symbolic rewards to different groups indicates how politicswork to influence the curriculum.At the core of curricular considerations in a public, democratic systemis the question of who gets to decide curriculum issues. Thus, curricularproblems are notable due to the following two conditions: (1) a materialcondition that the curriculum perpetuate our democratic society and (2) aprocedural condition that decisions about the curriculum be accomplisheddemocratically. The problems of what subjects to teach in school are basedon the significance we attach to public schools. The worth we attach to theschools is founded on democratic principles that cause us to establish andsupport such schools. Curricular problems are problems of democraticprinciples. Participation in a democracy is characterized by politicalactivity. Curricular issues are more than reflections on competingdemocratic principles; they also are political confrontations. The followingis a list of political events associated with curricular problems:• State and local legislation pertaining to curriculum issues,
• State and local policy concerning development of local initiatives,• School board by-laws, agenda, and minutes;• Agenda and minutes from any district or school committees, whichfocus on professional development and/or curriculumdevelopment,• District-teacher contracts, especially pertaining to professionaldevelopment and curriculum development;• Any district materials for communications and public relationsconcerning curriculum development;• And local media reports of district or school activities concerningcurriculum and professional development.Besides curriculum, the area where educators often claim they findthemselves in a politicized, rather than professional, situation is theclassroom, especially in the area of supervision of instruction. Manyeducators feel the very act of instruction is perhaps the most sacrosanctelement of the profession. Educators are often shocked by parents whoinsist on participating in the supervision or evaluation of teaching.Education is a public activity where the political process insinuates itselfinto every aspect of the profession. So the answer to the question of whether
there is a political reason to include parents in the supervision of instructionis yes, but with professional guidance.Political Influence on the Business Aspect of EducationPolitics always intervenes in specialized responses to the technicalissues of running a school or school system. As the second largest cost foroperating a school system, the capital expenditures for facilities, equipment,and maintenance exist as perennial political minefields for schooladministrators. During both good and bad economic periods, jobs associatedwith these areas of education provide support for regional and communityfiscal development. High-stakes financial gains are associated witheducational infrastructure projects. For school leaders, local business, andpoliticians, these projects create a fertile breeding ground for political graftand intrigue under any economic conditions.The reality of current socioeconomic conditions for most publicschool systems is that local economic concerns have heightened publicawareness of the resources utilized by local schools. In many areas wherethe economy is depressed, the local tax base has vanished with the closing offactories and businesses. As corporations leave communities, the largestoperating concerns that remain are local government and the local schoolsystem. Both are notorious consumers of resources. Taxpayers are oftenhard-pressed to compensate for vanishing corporate tax dollars. All of these
conditions heighten the political nature of school planning in general andlarge price tag programs in particular.The business side of school systems represents a highly politicizedenvironment because schools are concurrently economic liabilities andassets for their communities. School finances, facilities, and futures arepotential political problems. School administrators have a number ofpolitical tools for resolving school business management issues. Amongthose tools are an understanding of the non-rational nature of schoolbusiness and skills in rhetoric and negotiations.The Politics of EvaluationAccountability, achievement, assessment, and evaluation are hottopics for today’s educators. The dilemma embodied by these issues is aresult of the public nature of education in a free society. Because publicmoney supports elementary and secondary schools, public officials arepressured by taxpayers to show results.In the case of schools, educators are public officials. Yet most are nottrained to regard themselves as public servants or public officials. Perhapsdue to this lack of awareness, educators are low on the pecking order ofpublic officials. Federal, state, and local agencies all pass on taxpayers’demands for results to teachers and administrators.
All evaluation mechanisms are political in nature and designed tojustify continued political support for public education. Evaluation andassessment are required for accountability. Accountability is a requirementfor maintaining public trust. The public demands accountability ineducation because of the tremendous investment of public resources. Thepublic resources invested in education include more than tax dollars. Theseinvestments include the human resource of children, the embodiment of thepublic future. Requests for accountability are demands that the public’s trustin making these investments are fulfilled. The public requests information,which legitimates its continued support for education. Trust and informationare both the ends and means of any accountability process.Trust and information are ripe media for political activity. Tensionand conflict characterize political activity. Tension and conflict surroundevaluation and accountability.Evaluation, accountability, and assessment are value-laden activitiesand political processes. All involve the use of information for decisionmaking. Access to information is differentially granted on the basis ofpower and trust. Use of information is also based on trust in the data,interpretation, and confidentiality of the researcher. Technical expertiseonly plays a minor role in the political world of accountability, assessment,and evaluation.
The Politics of DisciplineDiscipline in schools can be a political concern. The media reports ofrandom violence in schools have increased to daily bulletins; gunmenshooting children in schools and cafeterias; students shooting other studentsand teachers; teachers turning guns on colleagues and administrators. As areminder that these are not solely school-based problems, reports ofapparently random shootings also issue from malls, fast-food restaurants,commuter trains, and department stores. The concurrence of these reportsdemonstrates that there are political connections to the issue of discipline inschools. Student discipline not only affects the educational environment, butthe curriculum as well. Schools should view discipline not as an incidentalprocess to schooling, but as an integral part of the curriculum. Discipline isa social and political process in schools.School and Community Political RelationsSchools are not singularly connected to the public via one openchannel. Schools interface with the public along multiple paths, intendedand unintended. Schools and communities connect at two important levels.The primary association is with students and their families. The secondarylink is to business, community, and government.The community is subdivided into agencies, cultural subgroups,religious denominations, political organizations, and socioeconomic classes.
In any one community, the Chamber of Commerce does not represent all thelocal businesses. The average citizen is well aware of the tangle of officessheltered by the massive government. As a result of this mess, schools tendto invest resources in less confusing enterprises than communicating withcommunity, business, and government. Unfortunately, school-communityrelations suffer from the lack of resources, and ultimately, students sufferfrom the schools’ disengagement from the community.Personnel Issues and PoliticsPersonnel administration can dominate interactions because ofpolitics. The conditions of personnel administration that lead to politicalactivity are issues dealing with public service, ethics, power, andcommunications. Personnel decisions frequently are the result of anunstable environment. Personnel issues are almost always associated withmorale. In education, the issue of morale is extraordinarily sensitive becauseteaching is so labor intensive. Anyone is education is on public display, andthe rules of behavior are different for public figures than for private citizens.Personnel issues are always personal. Personal matters stimulatepolitical behavior. In any job action, school administrators have torecognize the public nature of their positions and be willing to handle thesituation under constraints that average citizens do not have. There are threebeliefs that might support school leaders in political situations:
1. Standards for performance as an educational leader are differentthan the standards for subordinates or community members.2. There is more political clout in a significant, principled positionthan in an honest, but simplistic one.3. It isn’t knowledge that’s power; it’s multiple channels forinformation that insure omnipotence.
Related Websites to "Political Influences on Education"The Politics of Education: An Interview with Benjamin Barberhttp://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/barber.htmlThe Governance of Curriculumhttp://www.ascd.org/readingroom/books/elmore94book.htmlPolitics Watch 2000http://www.edweek.org/context/politics/politics2000.htmThe 33rd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll Of the Publics AttitudesToward the Public SchoolsBy Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Galluphttp://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0109gal.htm#7aThe 11th Bracey Report on The Condition of Public EducationBy Gerald W. Braceyhttp://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0110bra.htmConflicting Missions? Teachers Unions and Educational Reformhttp://www.gse.harvard.edu/~hepg/p01.htm#loveDo Teacher Unions Hinder Educational Performance? Lessons Learnedfrom State SAT and ACT Scoreshttp://www.gse.harvard.edu/~hepg/wi00.htm#steelThe Gender Politics of Educational Changehttp://www.gse.harvard.edu/~hepg/wi00.htm#datThe Academy of Politics "Oscars" Awards Political Notables from the Year2000http://www.aera.net/gov/archive/n0300-03.htmPolitical Chatter 2000http://www.aera.net/gov/archive/chatter.htmImproving Federal Education Research: A View From the Househttp://www.aera.net/gov/archive/n0600-01.htm
ReferencesLindle, Jane C. (1994). Surviving School Micropolitics: Strategies forAdministrators. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Co., Inc.Ornstein, A., and Levine, D. Foundations of Education: 6thEdition.Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.Sharp, W., and Walter, J. (1997). The School Superintendent: TheProfession and the Person. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Co., Inc.