- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 28, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MAKING THE GRADE: THE ECONOMIC EVOLUTION OF AMERICAN SCHOOL DISTRICTS

By William A. Fischel University of Chicago Press, $55, 267 pages

Reviewed by Phil Brand

When economist William A. Fischel moved to Berkeley, Calif., in the summer of 1991, he planned to enroll his son in a small, well-regarded private academy located just a few streets from his new home. The boy entered eighth grade that fall and did well in school, but as the months went by, Mr. Fischel and his wife grew concerned. Though their son was doing well, they were not getting to know his friends or their parents. The Fischels worried that they were not developing ties to their neighbors, and they felt excluded from the local community.

Mr. Fischel quickly deduced the reason why. Adults, he knew, often meet their neighbors through their children. But his son’s private school accepted students from widely dispersed communities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Even if the Fischels befriended parents at the school, these were seldom neighbors. A small thing - not knowing your neighbors - but for Mr. Fischel it was a signal of a powerful but neglected force that shapes the landscape of American education.

Mr. Fischel’s new book, “Making the Grade,” argues for “the humble school district” as an important vehicle for building a spirit of local community. Critics on the political right condemn school districts as “creatures of the state,” while liberals bemoan the inequality of local control. Pundits of all political inclinations scoff at the inefficiency of an unwieldy national system of more than 15,000 largely independent school districts.

Mr. Fischel kowtows to none of these critics. Through detailed research into topics from the content of the Northwest Ordinance and the politics of Jim Crow segregation to recent home prices and climate conditions, Mr. Fischel tells his own story, making the case that school districts are efficient and enjoy popular support.

Mr. Fischel is a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, and “Making the Grade” is an important corollary to his earlier work on the social and political power of homeowners (“The Homevoter Hypothesis,” 2001). He finds that school districts are not unwelcome jurisdictions but are the products of long and contested efforts to represent “organic communities” in the United States.

Early Americans supported local public education because it made their neck of the woods an attractive place for families to settle and it increased the value of their homesteads. By 1900, there were more than 200,000 school districts across the country. During the 20th century, a shifting economy demanded a more educated work force and a more mobile one. Voters and homeowners, typically concerned about maintaining their property values, supported the consolidation of school districts and more standardized education. By 1970, the number of districts had fallen to fewer than 20,000.

Consolidation has not been all to the good. While larger districts may be more efficient, local voters exercise less control over their decisions. Mr. Fischel thinks the slowdown in school district consolidation over the past 30 years suggests that voters have struck a happy medium: Many school districts today are large enough to be efficient but small enough to be manageable. However, school districts in many big cities are so large and unwieldy that school reformers have championed charter schools to overcome resistance to reform. Writes Mr. Fischel: “Although it is not obvious that charter schools perform better than public schools, it is clear to most observers that parents are more satisfied with their schools. I submit that this satisfaction is an indicator that charter schools promote social capital.” Social capital is the academic term for trust, an essential ingredient in the creation of community.

Mr. Fischel’s apology for school districts is compelling, but it makes for dry reading. However, on the highly charged issue of school vouchers, his arguments are much more lively and controversial. Since Milton Friedman first proposed the concept in 1955, supporters of market-based public policies have touted school vouchers as a way to break the government monopoly over public education and give parents more choice over their children’s education. They say teacher unions and the public education lobby are blocking the way to a popular education reform.

Mr. Fischel is not convinced. He notes that voters have rejected broad, statewide voucher programs in California, Utah and other states by wide margins. While inner-city parents understand that vouchers offer a way for their children to escape substandard educations, school choice advocates have failed to persuade many largely conservative voters who live in rural areas, small towns and suburbs.

What explains the widespread popular resistance to vouchers? Mr. Fischel argues that vouchers are seen as mechanisms that undermine the community-building effects created by local public schools. When adults in local neighborhoods get to know one another, they form groups, frequently around school and neighborhood issues. These associations build what Mr. Fischel terms “community-specific social capital,” the lubricant for local self-government. Vouchers appear to counter this effect. “By enabling parents to select schools outside their communities and outside of local public supervision,” he writes, “vouchers work against the neighborhood and community networks that facilitate the bottom-up provision of local public goods.”

Mr. Fischel offers a revisionist and conservative assessment of school reform. Even though academic studies claim vouchers can provide the competitive pressure needed to improve inner-city schools, popular opinion worries that vouchers will disrupt functioning neighborhood networks in towns and suburbs. So when they are asked to decide, most voters rightly or wrongly conclude that their schools aren’t all that bad.

Unlike much education reporting, which is full of dire warnings and radical solutions, “Making the Grade” adopts the premise that education reform must be gradual and grass-roots to succeed. It examines American schools in the social context of larger trends in employment, mobility and real estate and in the historic context of Americans’ desire to create and sustain local neighborhoods. Only by understanding schools in these contexts are we likely to improve them.

Phil Brand is author of “The Neighbor’s Kid: A Cross-Country Journey in Search of What Education Means to Americans,” forthcoming from the Capital Research Center.

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