Ten Thousand Democracies: Politics and Public Opinion in America's School Districts
by Michael B. Berkman
Georgetown University Press, 2005
Library of Congress Classification LB2817.3.B47 2005
Dewey Decimal Classification 379.73
Reference metadata exposed for Zotero via unAPI.
The essence of democracy is popular sovereignty. The people rule. In the United States, citizens exercise this right through elected officials who they believe will best represent their own values and interests. But are those interests and values always being followed? Authors Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer provide the first systematic examination of the extent to which the governments closest to the American public—its 10,000-plus local school boards—respond to the wishes of the majority.
Ten Thousand Democracies begins with a look at educational reforms from the Progressive era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the civil rights movement and ending with Pennsylvania's 2004 tax relief measure. Berkman and Plutzer explore what factors determine education spending levels in school districts, including the effects of public opinion, the nature of local political institutions, and the roles played by special interests. The authors show how board members are selected, how well the boards represent minorities, whether the public can bypass the board through referenda, and how the schools are financed. By providing an innovative statistical portrait that combines public opinion data with Census data for these school districts, the authors answer questions central to democratic control of our schools: how responsive are school boards to their public and when? How powerful are such special interests such as teachers' unions and senior citizens? By using the lens of America's public school districts to examine the workings of democracy, Ten Thousand Democracies offers new insight not only into the forces shaping local education policy but also how democratic institutions may function throughout all levels of government.
Michael B. Berkman is a professor in the department of political science at The Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The State Roots of National Politics: Congress and the Tax Agenda, 1978-1986.
Eric Plutzer is a professor in the department of political science at The Pennsylvania State University.
An important and ambitious study of policy-making in the (K-12) school districts of America. . . . A careful analysis of important issues that inform democratic theory, empirical analysis, public policy, and education in the United States. It needs to be on reading lists in all those fields.
If more scholars took their cues from [Berkman and Plutzer] when studying education politics, the field would shine a bit brighter than it currently does.
Ten Thousand Democracies breaks new ground…it is innovative, carefully argued, and clearly written.
Contents List of Tables List of Figures Preface: Policy Responsiveness and American Democracy Chapter 1: Democratic Control of American School Boards Chapter 2: Financing Public Education Chapter 3 Public Opinion and Americans' Commitment to Educational Spending Chapter 4 Direct Democracy, Indirect Democracy and Policy Responsiveness Chapter 5 Voting Rights, Electoral Systems, and Policy Responsiveness Chapter 6 Teacher's Unions in State and Local Politics Chapter 7 The Gray Peril Reconsidered Chapter 8 The Democratic Control of American School Boards Appendix to Chapter 3 Appendix to Chapter 4 Appendix to Chapter 5 Appendix to Chapter 6 Appendix to Chapter 7 References Cited Preface: Policy Responsiveness and American Democracy The essence of democracy is popular sovereignty - the people rule. In the United States, the people rule indirectly by electing officials who they believe will best represent their values, aspirations and interests. Between elections many citizens continue to transmit their preferences by contacting elected officials, voting on referenda or initiatives, joining groups that will lobby on their behalf, talking to their friends and neighbors in order to sway public opinion, and expressing their opinions to journalists, pollsters, and anyone else that might convey their views to elected office holders. Although we do not expect elected officials to perfectly mirror the preferences of their constituents, a government that consistently ignores the preferences of citizens can hardly be called democratic. For any government - the federal government of the United States or of other nations, the various state governments, municipal governments, or school boards - we can ask how closely enacted public policies actually correspond to what the public prefers. The degree of correspondence is what political scientists refer to as policy responsiveness. In this book we explore policy responsiveness in American school districts by looking at how much school boards spend on K-12 education and whether these spending policies comport with the preferences of the citizens who live in those districts. Although topics come and go in political science the study of policy responsiveness has been an exciting empirical enterprise for more than four decades. It remains a core concept because it lies at the intersection of so many different areas of study. For example, understanding and evaluating the relationship between what people want and what they get from government involves the study of public opinion. Indeed, one reason the study of policy responsiveness has been so lively is that presents formidable methodological challenges in measuring people's attitudes and preferences. To solve these political scientists have found clever ways to use historical information (McDonagh 1992, 1993) and inventive and sophisticated methods to utilize demographic and survey information (Weber et al.1972; Erikson Wright and McIver 1993; Erikson, Mackuen and Stimson 2002). We contribute to the methodological mission by developing a way of estimating public opinion in school districts that we call small polity inference. This technique begins with ten years of high quality national opinion data concerning government spending on public education, broken down by states and demographics within states. The demographic breakdown permits us to estimate the average opinion for voters of certain "citizen types" - where a citizen type might be young, college-educated, suburban, African Americans living in Illinois.i We then use U.S. Census data collected at the school district level to see relative mix of the various citizen types in each American school district, producing a valid estimate of public opinion in each district. This allows us to do something that has never been done before: To compare preferences for spending with actual spending in nearly all American school districts. Studying policy responsiveness also requires understanding how these preferences and wants are translated into policy outcomes. This requires working at the intersections of political theories concerning elections, citizen behavior and governing structures. One of our most important missions as political scientists is to study how political institutions--rules of the game and political organizations--affect democratic governance. Some institutions enhance policy responsiveness while other governmental arrangements thwart the public's will and give undue influence to elites or organized interests. Our research can serve to inform those who would transform our governing institutions so that they become more democratic. For example, policies to reform and revise the way public education is funded and administered are constantly being considered in the American state capitals. Pennsylvania, for example, enacted in 2003 large scale changes affecting the use of the property tax and school budget referenda, each of which we examine in detail in this book. Finally, responsiveness studies address critical issues of normative political theory and the stakes for the proper functioning of our democracy are very high. In essence, every policy responsiveness study is a report card on how democratic the United States really is and the results can lead to spirited debates (see the volume by Manza, Cook and Page 2002). While we often take it as a given that high levels of policy responsiveness are valued, the Progressive reformers of the early 20th century who were so central to establishing the contemporary system of American public education were quite skeptical of ordinary citizens' ability to act in the public interest. To others however, public school governance typically embodies the "belief that local government is the most democratically legitimate government" (McDermott 1999, 13). Anti-federalists believed this, de Tocqueville took note of it, and communitarians today continue to talk about it. This ideal runs particularly strong in thinking about public schools: More than any other level of government school "governance is rooted in our beliefs in democratic control" (Wong, 1995, 24) and the American school board has been idealized as "the crucible of democracy" (Iannaccone and Lutz 1995). These contradictory ideas about democratic control of public schools make the local school district a particularly appropriate level at which to examine policy responsiveness. In this book we put these idealistic characterizations to the test. Do some types of school district governance, such as ward based elections or referendum requirements, enhance responsiveness? Do other forms of governance limit the influence of less powerful groups such as African-Americans in the South? Are teachers' unions so powerful that they thwart the desires of local residents? How does the variety of ways we finance public education affect policy responsiveness and the power of organized interests? Are the elderly really a "gray peril" to public education funding? By examining school finance through the lens of policy responsiveness we seek to ascertain how democratic these ten thousand democracies really are. Acknowledgements This book would not have been possible without the taxpayers of the United States. We rely heavily on information collected by the U.S. Census and by the U.S. Department of Education that is made freely available to all citizens. In addition, we received substantial support from the National Science Foundation. Additional financial support was provided by the Research and Graduate Studies Office of our College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State. The extensive financial support from NSF and from our university made it possible to hire a large number of outstanding consultants and research assistants. We appreciate the efforts of Stephen Matthews, director, and Steven Graham, senior consultant at the Geographic Information Core of our Population Research Institute; along with Donald Miller, a senior programmer at PRI. They provided invaluable assistance in dealing with large government data sets and ensuring proper matching of geographic areas. We also worked with a large number of talented research assistants that include Nancy Wiefek, Michael Fazio, Marcie Seiler, Amber Boydstun, Daniel Jones White and Beth Klemick. We also received invaluable assistance from state school board associations around the country who helped us navigate the complexity of district budget approval processes. We received helpful comments from colleagues in our department, especially James Eisenstein, Frank Baumgartner, Susan Welch and Quan Li. Our colleagues in Penn State's College of Education - Bill Boyd, David Baker, and Lisa Lattuca - were especially helpful in providing a disciplinary perspective. We also were challenged and prodded by many colleagues who read early, conference versions of the chapters in this book. We benefited from comments and suggestions made by participants at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, Midwest Political Science Association and especially at the annual State Politics and Policy conference - one of the best specialized conferences in the profession. We thank Jeff Henig, Charles Barrilleaux, David Lowery, Gerry Wright, Ron Weber, Shaun Bowler, Todd Donovan, Elizabeth Gerber, Paul Brace, William Berry, Dick Engstrom and Dick Winters, and others who we have regretfully neglected to mention.