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Building the Federal Schoolhouse: Localism and the American Education State

reviewed by Ethan Hutt - March 16, 2015

coverTitle: Building the Federal Schoolhouse: Localism and the American Education State
Author(s): Douglas S. Reed
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0199838488, Pages: 352, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Like the upper-level science teacher who explains that the inside of an atom is not so neatly ordered as in the elementary school textbook diagram, Douglas S. Reed sets out to provide his reader with a more realistic picture of education governance in the United States. Specifically, Reed wants to call our attention to the internal dynamics and contours of what he calls the American education state. The education state—a phrase intentionally evoking the more familiar welfare state—is comprised not of the discrete domains of authority (federal, state, local) but rather a complex system involving intermingling forms of authority distributed across multiple actors, sites, and institutional forms. According to Reed, the education state has been built over the last sixty years in response to four waves of federal policy concerning the desegregation of schools, the accommodation of students with special needs, the development of programs for English language learners, and school accountability. In each case, federal policymakers sought to bring greater uniformity and equity to American schools and, in the process, built the federal schoolhouse—a “federally defined, yet locally operated school system” (p. xiv).

The federal schoolhouse—a distinctly American organizational form—is the byproduct of combining an increasing federal education policy ambition with a severely limited institutional capacity to deliver on that ambition. Unable to rely on their own institutional capacities in this realm, Reed argues, federal policymakers instead had to rely on local actors and political regimes to realize their schooling vision. This federal reliance on local actors for policy implementation defines both the core dynamic of the American education state—what Reed refers to as “operational localism”—and its central conundrum: that local regimes derive their capacity from being responsive to local conditions, which makes their capacity to implement federal policy contingent on how compatible they are with local concerns. This explains why “repeated efforts by the federal government to establish priorities for locals have only partially succeeded, and only if those priorities aligned with local regime commitments” (p. 19). In this way, local political conditions become both a limiting factor in the implementation of federal policy and a means by which “local interests are incorporated into [the] education state, despite federal wishes” (p. 20).

Though this description of a complex, loosely coupled governance system will sound familiar to students of the history and sociology of school reform, few books have rendered these aspects of school reform as fully and precisely across multiple policies and decades as Building the Federal Schoolhouse. For this alone—to say nothing of Reed’s nuanced reading of local education politics and the dynamics of policy implementation—the book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of American education politics, the history of education, and American state-building and deserves to be widely read.

Building the Federal Schoolhouse is divided into three parts that help highlight the interplay between federal policy ambition and the local political consequences of accommodating (or not) those policies. Part I follows the Alexandria school district as it responded to the imperative to integrate its schools—initial resistance, followed by begrudging accommodation. Here, Reed’s narrative serves as a deft guide to local politics as we see successive superintendents struggle to find a balance between federal demands and local tolerance for desegregation efforts. The result is a series of school restructuring efforts designed to respond first to local concerns about school discipline and declining quality by creating a single citywide high school, and only later to federal concerns over the city’s still-segregated elementary schools.

One of the key arguments and contributions of Building the Federal Schoolhouse is that the implementation of federal policy both relies on and disrupts local political regimes. This disruption can enhance or constrain the regime’s capacity to implement subsequent waves of reform. Part II examines this dynamic by tracing the local political repercussions of desegregation. The story takes a familiar turn: many white parents, faced with the prospect of sending their children to desegregated schools, opt for the politics of exit. Making clever use of geographical information system mapping techniques, regression analysis, and parent school exit surveys, Reed makes a convincing case that the politics of exit were animated chiefly by class concerns—families in affluent neighborhoods undergoing school integration were much more likely to utilize the state voucher system and, later, to exit the public school system or the city itself. The resulting shift in demographics resulted in a much more liberal and racially inclusive political regime in Alexandria.

The next two chapters consider the divergent response to subsequent federal demands for more equitable treatment for special needs students and English-language learners. Reed argues that this new electorate was open to the expansion of social services in the city and that included the expansion of services to special needs students within the schools. Consistent with patterns seen in school districts around the country, however, the accommodation of special needs students became, in part, a mechanism to develop academic tracks with not so subtle racial overtones: the political trade-off for creating opportunities for students with special needs who were disproportionately black was the creation of a “Gifted and Talented” program that was disproportionately white. Though this internal re-segregation of schools was certainly not the intended outcome of federal initiatives for students with special needs, Reed notes that the efforts taken to respond to federal policy in this area stand in contrast to the lack of attention given to the needs of the city’s growing population of English-language learners. Reed chalks up this tepid response to a combination of the federal government’s own political ambivalence regarding ELL students and to the lack of local political pressure to attend to their needs.

These policies, and the achievement gaps they cultivated, set the stage for the politics of accountability explored in Part III. Chapter Seven examines the local push to make the school board more publicly accountable and responsive to constituent demands by making its members directly elected. Chapter Eight provides an opportunity to observe how this now more locally accountable school board attends to new federal accountability pressures. Reed’s analytical approach—tracing sixty years of federal policy initiatives in a single city—produces its largest pay-off as it becomes clear that the local response to No Child Left Behind is colored and constrained as much by prior policy accommodation as it is by the demands of the law itself. Though we are accustomed to hearing laments about the educational costs of an overemphasis on student test scores, Reed makes us wise to the political and institutional costs as well. The immense focus on state test scores almost necessarily crowds out long-standing local concerns and effaces local history. The confluence of local politics and federal initiatives for high-stakes accountability, Reed concludes, “may make public schools less governable and less effective because it leaves less room for local actors to accommodate a variety of interests and demands” (p. 244). Coming at the end of such an attentive historical analysis, this claim carries considerable weight.

As with any book, there are, of course, some limitations, but none take away from the overall strength of the book. Given Reed’s interest in detailing the development of the education state, the lack of attention to state level politics and capacities—while understandable given the already considerable scope and length of the book—was disappointing. This is especially true given how important state-level action was to several examples explored in the book: Virginia’s 1968 amended state educational constitutional provision; the early adoption of state learning standards; and the setting of standards and benchmarks under No Child Left Behind. Alas, state officials—long-neglected in the historiography of American education—will have to wait a little longer for a fully rendered role in the American education state. Reed also missed an opportunity to engage with the larger literature on school reform and policy implementation. With the exception of passing references in the introduction and conclusion to the literature in these areas, little effort is made to extend the insights from this case or Reed’s broader analytical framework to the broader literature—too bad, because this book speaks to the enduring importance of detailed case studies even in an era of increasingly national policies and large scale quantitative data sets.  

Reed does, however, pause in his conclusion to provide a few lessons to policymakers based on the checkered sixty year history of federal involvement traced in Building the Federal Schoolhouse. Most notable of these “is a simple admonition: Education state-building should not be confused with making education better” (p. 253). Given renewed efforts to extend federal reach in education policy, and specifically to disrupt traditional governance structures via waivers, direct grants, or even higher education ratings schemes, such a lesson could not be timelier. Indeed, it is the kind of insight—like many contained in this book—that one hopes will be used to construct a sturdier foundation for the future of the federal schoolhouse.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 16, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17898, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:47:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Ethan Hutt
    University of Maryland
    E-mail Author
    ETHAN L. HUTT is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on the historical relationship between schools, the law, and education policy. In particular, his research examines the way in which the law has defined the purpose, organization, and success of public education in America through the creation of standards and the use of quantification. He has published articles on compulsory school laws, the legal implications of Value-Added Models, the history of grading, and on accountability in a global context.
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