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Ten Thousand Democracies: Politics and Public Opinion in America's School Districts


reviewed by David N. Plank - April 28, 2006

coverTitle: Ten Thousand Democracies: Politics and Public Opinion in America's School Districts
Author(s): Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzker
Publisher: Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC
ISBN: 1589010760, Pages: 206, Year: 2005
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One of the canonical virtues of the American education system is democratic control of schools, through the institution of local school boards.  Like many other virtues, however, the tradition of “local control” is mainly honored in the breach.  The critical importance of democratic control is never so clearly on display as when it is rhetorically deployed to resist policy innovations adopted and imposed by central authorities, ranging from school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s to school choice and No Child Left Behind in the current decade.  By the same token, challenges to the insularity and ineffectiveness of school board governance in big city and other school districts are often met with vehement defenses of local control and charges that local voters are being disenfranchised.


In fact, we know relatively little about the democratic character and performance of most school boards.  Are they truly representative of the communities they nominally serve?  Are the institutions of local control responsive to the preferences of citizens, or do they unduly reflect the preferences of powerful interests including teachers’ unions?  These are among the questions that Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzker pose in Ten Thousand Democracies.  Their research is both rigorous and innovative, and the answers they provide to these questions are often surprising.


The authors’ main theoretical concern is to measure the policy responsiveness of local schools boards, which they characterize as the degree to which enacted policies correspond to public preferences.  Their empirical investigation asks whether school districts’ spending policies (operationalized as annual per pupil instructional expenditures) accurately reflect the preferences of citizens in the district and whether policy responsiveness is affected by institutional differences (e.g., elected or appointed school boards, fiscal dependence or independence) across school districts.  


Berkman and Plutzker rely on what they call “small polity inference” to conduct their empirical analyses.  In essence, “small polity inference” identifies the policy preferences of the residents of a single school district on the basis of the demographic composition of the local population.  Different demographic groups (e.g., African Americans, parents, homeowners, the elderly) display consistently different preferences with regard to public education spending in a number of national opinion surveys.  For example, African Americans tend to be more supportive of education spending than whites, and homeowners tend to be less supportive than renters.  Local demography thus provides the basis for inferring collective local policy preferences in each school district in 42 states.  (Lack of data or significant data problems prevent the inclusion of districts in the remaining eight states.)  The authors make use of hierarchical linear modeling to take account of inter-state—as opposed to inter-district—differences in policy preferences, which marks a significant empirical advance on previous work on state and local public opinion.  They are admirably transparent about their methodological choices, which they describe in detail in a series of appendices.


The central conclusion reached by Berkman and Plutzker is that the institutions of local control in American school districts are characterized by a high degree of policy responsiveness when it comes to spending on local schools.  School boards spend more in districts where citizens prefer higher spending and less in districts where citizens prefer lower spending.  This is good news for the defenders of local democratic control in the education system, but it is not particularly surprising.


More interesting findings emerge as the authors probe more deeply into the institutions of local control, and as they examine the relationship between representation and policy responsiveness.  As Berkman and Plutzker note, the institutions of governance are far from uniform in American school districts.  School board members are elected in some districts and appointed in others.  Some school boards set their own budgets, but others must submit their financial recommendations to a budget referendum.  Some districts are fully reliant on the funding decisions of other agencies, including municipal or state governments.


Institutional differences have profound impacts on policy responsiveness, and often in unexpected ways.  For example, the institutions of direct democracy are neither the only nor always the best means to ensure that spending levels reflect the preferences of local citizens.  Indeed, the New England town meeting—the ur-institution of direct democratic control—turns out to be the least responsive to citizens’ spending preferences among the five institutional arrangements (otherwise featuring the presence or absence of different types of budget referenda) reviewed by the authors (p. 82).  Appointed school boards are more responsive to citizens’ preferences than elected boards (p. 104), in part because appointed boards are more likely to include African American representatives in numbers that reflect their share of the district’s population (p. 106).  In the South, however, the appointment of school board members leads to enhanced representation of African Americans, but enhanced representation does not increase policy responsiveness (p. 108).


Ten Thousand Democracies includes similarly sharp analyses of the roles that two “special interests”—teachers’ unions and the elderly—play in supporting or subverting policy responsiveness in school districts.  In the case of teachers’ unions, institutions matter.  In many states unions exercise their strongest influence on the Legislature rather than on local school boards.  Under these circumstances union preferences for higher spending affect all districts equally, resulting in higher spending than citizens prefer in some districts and lower spending in others.  In states where the unions’ role is mainly local, strong (and large) union locals may indeed raise education spending higher than most citizens would prefer in some districts, but in other districts union preferences for higher spending correspond closely to the preferences of other citizens.  On balance, therefore, the authors conclude that the impact of teachers’ unions on spending levels in school districts is insignificant:  “Unions do not appear to either enhance or diminish responsiveness” (p. 125).


With regard to the elderly, Berkman and Plutzker draw a sharp distinction between long-time residents and recent migrants.  The former tend to be strongly supportive of local education spending, but the latter are not:


Compared with districts with average levels of senior citizens, those at the 90th percentile in long-standing seniors spend $245 more per pupil.  In contrast, those in the 90th percentile of elderly migrants spend $209 less for each student. (p. 137, italics in original)


Few districts—and very few outside the South and Southwest—attract large numbers of elderly migrants, and the authors therefore conclude that the “grey peril” feared by many educators and policy analysts has been “grossly overstated.”  They simultaneously caution, however, that


This support by the long-standing elderly happens only when local school districts rely on local property taxes to generate a meaningful proportion of their total operating revenue. (p. 142)  


A growing number of states are now seeking to reduce school districts’ reliance on local property taxes, and this is likely to have negative consequences for policy responsiveness.


Ten Thousand Democracies is an admirable piece of work.  It breaks new ground in ongoing scholarly conversations about American democracy and educational governance, and it reaches unexpected conclusions about both.  It is methodologically innovative, carefully argued, and clearly written.  It is too narrowly focused to warrant course assignment, but it provides an exceptionally strong example of what good social science research can—and should—aspire to accomplish.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 28, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12501, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 10:22:11 PM

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About the Author
  • David Plank
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID N. PLANK is Co-Director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University and Professor in the College of Education. His current research focuses on the changing role of the state in national education systems. His most recent book is Choosing Choice: School Choice Policies in International Perspective, which he co-edited with Gary Sykes.
 
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