Public schools and police departments are core community institutions. Locally controlled, there are 18,000 police departments and over 13,000 school districts in the U.S. State legislatures and city councils levy taxes to fund these institutions. One is charged to protect and serve; the other to make responsible citizens, prepare the young for the workplace, and gain success in life. Both are crucial to the political, economic and social life of their communities.
Yet well-intentioned reformers ignore obvious similarities and differences between the two. There are, for example, historical similarities. While both tax-supported police departments and public schools began in the early decades of the 19th century and became mired in the political patronage of post-Civil War decades, the early 20th century saw Progressive reformers ending political appointments and pushing for professionalized policing and teaching.
The commonalities end there, however. The model to which police chiefs in those decades aspired to was a command-and-control organization similar to the military. Hierarchical and bureaucratic, orders flowed from the top down to the ranks of patrolmen. While police officers had street-level discretion to, say, give a warning or arrest an errant driver of a car, they had sergeants and captains who supervised their conforming to regulations.
Not so for public schools and teachers. With the move to professionalize teaching an individual medical model of helping and caring, of turning children into healthy adults became the lodestar. A well-trained and autonomous doctor working to keep patients healthy and heal the sick was the role-model. Pursuing this model as enrollments and administration grew proved unwieldy.
In cities, school districts became bifurcated: there was the central office with a board of education and superintendent in charge of a hierarchical bureaucracy, mimicking a command-and-control organization, but outside of that central office were neighborhood schools led by principals who had to give teachers a degree of autonomy once they closed their classroom doors. Teachers exercised discretion in teaching content and skills as they thought best.
Also consider race and gender for both institutions. Policing throughout most of the 20th century was dominated by white males–(while there have been black police officers, actual recruitment of minorities occurred during and after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s). Minorities now make up about 25 percent of police forces in the U.S. Ditto for women. They entered the ranks in larger numbers beginning in the 1960s but now are only 12 percent of all department personnel. Both minorities and women in policing fall below the proportions of the populations they serve.
Public school staffing differs in some respects. Historically, women came to dominate the profession by 1900. In Northern and Southern segregated schools prior to the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of teachers were women. Higher percentages in elementary schools than secondary classroom but nonetheless, that pattern extends to the present day although percentages of female teachers have fallen to 76 percent (2018) in elementary and secondary public schools.
As for minorities in teaching, prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregated Southern schools had all-black staffs. Between the 1960s and the present, as those all-black schools closed, many minority teachers were reassigned but many were let go as well. Since then, districts have hired minorities but seldom enough to match the minority student enrollment of schools, particularly in urban districts. Nationally, about 20 percent (2016) of all elementary and secondary teachers are minority.
But these organizational and historical differences are often overlooked by avid reformers who, generation after generation, unhappy with unsolved problems in each institution, have put their thumbprints on what and how police and schools conduct their work.
In the current moment of national protest over police killings of unarmed black men and women, police departments are targets for reformers. Part 1 laid out the pattern of big city police commissioners exiting and reform-minded chiefs entering the post. Present reform agendas call for fundamental changes in police behavior toward people of color.
Reallocating portions of police budgets to other social agencies are being considered to shrink the long list of current expectations for the police such as dealing with the homeless, mentally ill, and school discipline. Reformers seek legislated changes to reduce excessive use of force in minority communities, and transform the biases embedded in police culture. Expanded training of officers inevitably become part of the reform package. All of these in different forms are currently being considered and acted upon by the U.S. President, Congress, some state legislatures, and many big city mayors and councils.
If the history of police reform is a guide to the future–yes, that is a big “if”–there will be changes but no transformation (see here and here). What will survive this political process of adopting new policies aimed at reforming police procedures and practices, as an informed outsider who has only scanned the literature on police reform, I cannot say. What I do know is that calls for fundamental changes in community institutions such as the police and public schools, usually end up as incremental changes, significant as they may be, but falling far short of the reform rhetoric demanding a transformed institution.
How can I say this? My involvement in and study of school reform gives me some confidence in laying out what I have learned from the history of reform in another important community institution: public schools.
Part 3 updates past school reforms that have, like police chiefs and their command-and-control organizations, led to superintendent turnover, reform-driven laws, and efforts to alter district, school and classroom cultures.