A Difficult Fact: Public Schools Are Political Institutions

By training, education, and experience school practitioners have a hard time with the simple fact that tax-supported public schools are political institutions. I have worked with teachers, principals, district administrators, superintendents, and school board members for decades and their responses to the idea that schools (and schooling) are fundamentally political has largely been negative. Although teachers and principals wince when I raise this point and give specific examples of acting politically in classrooms and schools, they remain unpersuaded. Superintendents do see that a substantial portion of their work is political–building coalitions to support policies recommended to the school board, negotiating with groups inside and outside the district to reach a satisfactory compromise to a dilemma, seeking out new resources for implementing policies, and figuring out how best to deal with obstreperous  board members. They acknowledge that these are, indeed, political actions they engage in but for many school chiefs their facial expressions and words show the dislike for what they have to do.

Why is this? My guess is that the idea of politics quickly morphs into what most educators and most Americans associate with partisan politics as engaged in by Republicans and Democrats. But no such party politics occurs in districts. What educators ignore is that the non-partisan politics occur within schools and districts all the time. School politics are concerned with the exercise of power and influence in classrooms, schools, and districts to reach desired school goals.

A second guess is that U.S. schools  knew intimately partisan politics. Between the 1870s and early 1900s, political parties saw schools as just another agency to reward loyal party members with jobs and contracts. The Progressive movement in the late-1890s through the 1920s introduced civil service reforms–you had to show that you had the credentials and experience to be government employees–and over decades removed schools from party politics. Such politics are specifically banned today. Those are my guesses as to why educators too often get sniffy over attaching the word “political” to what they do in schools.

It is foolish, however, to deny that schools are political institutions established to reach desired community goals including how to live and act in a democracy. School boards,  administrators and teachers are agents hired to achieve those community-inspired goals.  Consider that taxing property owners and levying sales taxes on everyone regardless of whether they have children or not to run public schools means that schools matter a great deal to the community. Moreover, compelling parents to send their children to school between the ages of 5-6 to 16-17 underscores how important schools are to the survival and growth of the community. When one looks carefully at those goals public schools have for children and youth, it is easy to see what community values are embedded in each and every goal from being literate to being fair.  Schools are the political tools a community (and parents) have to enact its goals.

I offer a framework for seeing this fundamental truth of schooling as a value-driven, political enterprise, one that inevitably creates and harbors conflict.

Making policy and putting policies into practice in schools and classrooms are value-driven:

Every goal in each and every district has a value buried in it. Take reducing the achievement gap for an example. Raising test scores of minority students is highly valued by parents, administrators, and the general public. No progress in reducing the test score gap is seen as failure in achieving that prized value.

Or consider the familiar district goal of increasing the number of high school graduates attending college. Getting a college degree is prized because graduates earn more over a lifetime than those earning a high school diploma.

Or note that some principals are dead-set on becoming instructional leaders in their schools—that is their personal goal often put into their professional development plan they discuss with their superintendent. These principals believe instructional leadership is good. They value it highly.

I cannot think of any formal goal for public schools, principals, and teachers that does NOT have a value in embedded in it.

Because policy-and-practice is value-driven, and values differ, conflict between groups and individuals is inevitable.

 There are many values Americans agree on and teach their children such as respect for others, fairness, and loyalty to family and group. And there are many other values taught in families derived from religious beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions that differ from one family to another.

And consider further that when it comes to tax-supported public schools where parents are compelled to send their children, yet even another set of values enter the picture. School goals include cultivating patriotism, following rules, thinking for one’s self, engaging in democratic practices, preparing for the job market, and building character. Some taxpayers and parents, for example, want schools to reinforce parental authority and keep children in line while others want schools to build independence, cooperation, and individual decision-making in their children. And then there are those who want both in the same school. Sometimes school and family values converge and sometimes they diverge. Which is when conflicts arise.

Because of value differences, parents, teachers, and students inevitably disagree on practical items such as dress codes, the Common Core standards, raising school taxes, evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, charter schools, and dozens of other issues. Conflicts are common over the values embedded in policies and actual practices. Sometimes these value conflicts rise to the surface in public meetings and sometimes they do not. But they are there, nonetheless, because tax-supported public schools are–yep, I am going to say it again–political institutions. Educators need to accept this inexorable fact.

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

3 responses to “A Difficult Fact: Public Schools Are Political Institutions

  1. Pingback: A Difficult Fact: Public Schools Are Political ...

  2. Larry,
    Please write / comment more about the role of research as it applies to schools “as political institutions.” We (school boards, staff, parents, administrators) seem to ignore (discount?) all we know, for example, about child development and its importance linked to learning. Why?
    John Miller

    • larrycuban

      If I understand your question, John, part of the reason that knowledge and expertise of educators is ignored by policymakers is, in part, due to the current set of assumptions and policies about the linkage between the global economy and schools turning out graduates equipped to compete in the U.S. labor market. These policies and their assumptions, of course, are political decisions since other goals (civic engagement, a just society, etc.) have less priority.

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