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Political Dimensions of Educational Administration

by Russell T. Gregg - 1965

In spite of the well known facts that public schools are an important part of government, that they are financed by public funds, and that boards of education and school administrators are frequently caught between conflicting pressures and demands, the generally prevailing attitude has been that politics has no relationship to the schools. During the past decade, however, there has been particular stress on socio-psychological aspects of administration, such as informal organization, decision-making, communication, and conflict.

IN SPITE OF the well known facts that public schools are an important part of government, that they are financed by public funds, and that boards of education and school administrators are frequently caught between conflicting pressures and demands, the generally prevailing attitude has been that politics has no relationship to the schools. It is not surprising, therefore, that most lay citizens and many school people give little or no thought to political aspects of public education and of its administration. Until quite recently, even scholars in administration, and particularly those in educational administration, concentrated their attention on formal organization, such as line and staff and span of control, on finance, and on technical efficiency in fulfillment of tasks. During the past decade, however, there has been particular stress on socio-psychological aspects of administration, such as informal organization, decision-making, communication, and conflict.

For many decades there were more school districts in the United States than all other units of government combined; even today, local school districts constitute nearly half of all existing units of government. In the light of this fact it is surprising, indeed, that political scientists did not seem to take cognizance of public school government until as late as 1959, when Eliot published an article that attracted the attention of educationists as well as political scientists (16). Also in 1959, Monypenny (33), a political scientist speaking to a group of professors of educational administration, referred to local school districts as an area of government about which political scientists were uninformed. He stated:

In moving from state and national government to the local school district, consideration is largely beyond the purview of students of political science. Few political scientists, outside of their own districts, have any knowledge of the structure of education or of the kinds of issues which arise in the politics of the local educational unit.

Monypenny expressed the opinion that little or no initiative would be taken by anyone not in the field of education with respect to educational purposes or programs except with respect to questions of financial support, and then only in fiscally dependent school districts. Since political scientists themselves have given only slight attention to the politics of education, the question arises whether public education is actually devoid of politics or whether it is an arena of political activity that has been unjustifiably neglected. To the author, it is encouraging to note that during quite recent years political scientists, sociologists, and educational administrators have given increasing attention to the politics of education (4, 6, 10, 25, 29).


Most American citizens hold a narrow, and sometimes a not too wholesome, concept of “politics.” For most of them, politics probably connotes only partisan (political party) activity. Some of them may think of politics as synonymous with spoils and patronage, with decisions made in smoke-filled rooms by a few powerful politicians, with unscrupulous behavior and bossism. If “politics” retains such meanings, it is not surprising that so many citizens want the public schools to be kept out of an environment characterized by such “muck and mire.”

Throughout most of our educational history the government of public education has been organized separately from, and often fiscally independent of, other local governments. One reason for such separation was the people's desire to disassociate the schools from partisan politics and thus to keep educational issues as non-controversial as possible. This means, of course, that laws relating to the government of public schools are, in general, distinct from those relating to municipal governments. As one political scientist has stated:

Education is generally held apart, its personnel distinct, its function highly valued and visible, its need judged by different criteria. The tradition of separation is strong and, one may guess, growing. While the geographic space of school district and municipality may coincide or overlap, the two do not occupy the same “political space” (31).

It may have been the desire of citizens and schoolmen to place schools in a distinct and protected “political space” that resulted in the separation of school government from other types of local government.

Members of elective boards of education are usually elected at non-partisan elections; also they are elected at large rather than by geographical areas of the school district. Citizens' advisory committees, as well as most local groups which concern themselves with the schools, ordinarily are organized on a strictly non-partisan basis. Some of the major reasons for a separate, non-partisan organization for public education appear to be the avoidance of political party conflicts, freeing the schools of the possibility of having their welfare rise or fall with the fortunes or misfortunes of a particular political party, and reduction of competition among community political leaders with respect to public education—in short, to keep party politics apart from the schools. Most citizens will assert that party politics has no legitimate place in education; it is the scholars in the social sciences who are sometimes critical of this idea.

A political scientist recently pointed out that “freedom from politics has become a fundamental tenet in the educational credo” and then preceded to argue against the appropriateness of the tenet (28). A sociologist has stated that “non-partisan elections appear to favor the well organized minority (usually the middle class) against the relatively unorganized mass” (37).

In our society there are no political parties, or influential organizations with recognized ties to political parties, which are known to be “anti-education” in their purposes and programs. This is probably another reason why citizens seldom look upon educational decisions as “political” decisions. There is the tendency for the citizen to think that public schools and politics constitute two quite different worlds and that in the interest of good education this situation should be maintained.


There is no doubt that politics means different things to different people. As pointed out above, the average layman's concept of politics is restricted largely to the activities of partisan politicians. A dictionary definition of politics states that it is the science or art of political government. Political scientists, however, are in accord that politics in a democracy is importantly related to power and influence, both formal and informal, and that it is not restricted to political party activities. Lasswell stated that “The study of politics is the study of influence and the influential” (26). Bone wrote that “. . . politics is a struggle for power, the attempt to influence the course of public policy and public decision” (7). Politics, then, is the process of influencing, being influenced, and the translation of resulting pressures into public policies. It is equivalent to the broadest conception of public decision-making. Politics, as defined here, is public, not private, in the sense that its aim is the influencing of decisions relating to public issues within a political system.

All political systems exist to maintain control over policies, programs, and events which have an effect on people. In a democracy, the ideal political system is one which makes available the greatest benefits possible to all the people involved in the system. At the heart of the political system, of course, is government, but governmental structure is by no means the whole of it. An important aspect of the political system is the activity of influential individuals, groups of people, and the people as a whole as they strive to influence the nature of public policy and public programs. Politics, then, can be defined as the relationships among individuals and groups as they seek to exercise their power, whether formal or informal, in such a way as to influence the thinking and acting of other persons and groups concerning public problems and issues. It is evident, therefore, that politics is, or certainly may be, every citizen's business; it is also obvious that any person responsible for the administration of government which is to serve the people must of necessity be engaged in politics.

In a democratic society there are many avenues by which people may participate in political activity. Political parties represent only one avenue, and probably not the most important one, particularly at the local level of government. Other ways of participating in politics are voting, carrying on individual activities such as making personal contacts and writing letters to the editor, participating in organizations and associations which are organized to promote common interests, and developing informal relationships with friends and acquaintances for the purpose of influencing public decisions.

It is true that many citizens do not seem to have any real interest in the political process. Numbers of them do not even take advantage of the opportunity to vote at elections. On the other hand, if the citizen really wishes to influence public policy, he is not content merely to vote and to make incidental personal contacts; he joins with others who share his interests and points of view. There are, of course, numerous special interest groups which do not attempt to influence public policy, but the many which do are known as “pressure groups” because they pressure governmental bodies and agents to adopt and implement particular policies.

Perhaps because an occasional pressure group works hard for the narrowest kind of class gain, and may resort to questionable methods to achieve its ends, pressure groups generally enjoy a poor reputation. It is paradoxical that they should do so, for they are not only an indispensable but a desirable part of the political process in a democratic state. Like political parties, they form part of the essential machinery of democracy. They give the citizen the opportunity to make his influence felt, to let his voice be heard, to participate in the political process in a meaningful way (9).

Pressure groups are probably not as effective at the local level of government as at higher levels. Moreover, governmental representatives probably look upon some of them as “good” and some “bad,” depending on the land of influence they attempt to effectuate.


Is the common belief that public education is not within the realm of politics fact or myth?

Local school districts are legal governmental entities created by the state to carry on the education function at the local level. They are governed by the laws of the state and have only such powers as are delegated to them. School districts are governed by boards of education, usually elected, which are responsible to the people of the local districts and of the state. Educational policies and programs must gain public acceptance and school budgets must be financed by public taxes. The schools are public—they belong to the people.

A large number of public policies of widespread interest must be determined in school districts. What shall be the major purposes and goals of the schools? What shall be the nature of the curriculum? Shall intellectual or social development of pupils receive priority? What quality of teacher personnel shall be attracted and retained? What new school buildings shall be built? How much tax money shall be allotted for the operation of the schools? In most school districts there will be divergent interests and points of view with respect to these policy questions. The decisions relating to such questions are not merely technical ones to be made by the school professionals. They are major public policy decisions to be made by the citizens; more specifically, they are political decisions. In the making of these decisions there is the probability that many sorts of influences and pressures will be brought to bear upon those who have the legal responsibility for legitimizing them. Minar (32) made clear the fact that the school district is a political system when he wrote:

Though seldom considered from this point of view, the suburban school district—in terms of function, structure, and legal standing— actually is, both formally and explicitly, a political system. It has a defined geographical jurisdiction, a specific range of purposes, a recognized public character, a constituency, mechanisms for the popular selection and control of decision-makers, a legislative body, an executive, a bureaucracy, and fiscal powers. Like other local political jurisdictions, it is established and run according to the laws of the state.

Not only are school districts political systems because of their responsibility for making decisions concerning the public policies for which they are legally responsible, but also because of their relationships to public policy issues which must legally be decided by other units of government. Some examples of such policy issues are those relating to general community planning: zoning, sewage disposal, types of taxes to be utilized, road and street construction, and the level of expenditures for non-educational services. Most citizens recognize these policies to be political matters, but the school district, in terms of its educational interests and goals, cannot isolate itself from them.


It is obvious that political influences may profoundly affect educational decisions relating to such policy matters as finance, programs, and services. Some of the sources of influences are internal to the school district, such as local organizations, influential individuals, elections, and the school bureaucracy, while others are external, such as the state and national governments, foundations, and voluntary bodies and individual prophets concerned with education. Some of these influences are formal and some are informal; but all are political, for they are attempting to shape decisions regarding public education. It seems absurd to think that decisions concerning the level of expenditure for public schools are any less political than those relating to the level of expenditures for social security or for public highways.

In summary, a quotation from Bailey appears to be a defensible answer to the question of

whether public education is within the realm of politics. Bailey wrote:

Education is one of the most thoroughly political enterprises in American life. More public money is spent for education than for any other single function of state and local government. No public school in America exists without state legislative sanction. All over the United States school boards are elected or appointed through a highly political process. The size, location, cost, looks, and facilities of school buildings are frequently matters of heated political controversy (3).

Regardless of the frequent disavowal that public education is associated with politics, it is a fact that local school administrators often play a central role as educational policy makers in their school districts. These administrators are not only well-qualified schoolmen but they are also influential policy determiners. Each of them has developed an understanding of the nature of the political environment of his school district. Each has the skills to organize individuals and groups, and to build coalitions of groups who are knowledgeable and concerned about establishing and maintaining appropriate educational policies and programs. Each influences the various persons and groups to exert efforts to these ends. In short, these administrators are engaged in political, and entirely legitimate, activities for the improvement of educational opportunity. Cunningham colorfully described the bureaucratic political behavior of some superintendents of schools when he stated that their skills “in the shifting and blending of pressures among the board of education members, among central staff assistants, among line personnel, when sharply honed, is a thing of beauty” (11).


Since politics has been defined in terms of power, it is necessary to examine the nature of power and its relationship to public decision-making. Hunter wrote that “Power is a word that will be used to describe the acts of men going about the business of moving other men . . .” (22) while Dahl stated that “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (14). To the extent that a person influences others to behave in terms of his own interests and goals, he possesses social power. Although a single individual may be able to exert very great power, under usual circumstances power must be structured into clique, associational, or institutional patterns in order for it to be most effective.

Three major approaches or methods have been used to study power relationships in community decision-making. These are the positional, reputational, and decisional methods. The different methods of studying community power are based upon different basic assumptions as to the nature of power and its role in decision-making.

The positional method was the one most often employed before the 1950s (20, 27). It was based upon the assumption that incumbents of executive offices or positions in local government, institutions, and organizations were the key decision-makers of the community. This point of view is a “common sense” one generally accepted by lay citizens; however, the many studies of community power structures conducted during the last decade or so have raised serious questions about its validity.


Hunter was the first among many to use the reputational method to study the structure of community power (22, 18, 30, 36, 39). Knowledgeable persons in various sectors of community affairs are asked to nominate persons who are influential in determining community decisions. The method is based upon the assumptions that men of power may not hold public offices, may not be recognized by typical citizens as decision-makers, but make decisions about a wide range of problems, and may behave in a structural relationship with one another. Many criticisms have been directed at the reputational method (13, 24, 35, 40). Among these criticisms are: the method does not identify men of actual power but only those of potential power; it assumes an elite, monolithic power structure which may not exist; and interviewees' perceptions of the meaning of power may vary widely. Of import to educators is the almost universal finding of reputational studies that educational administrators are almost never ascribed a high-level reputation for influencing any type of critical community decisions.

The decisional method of studying community power is most commonly associated with Dahl and other political scientists (15, 5, 34, 38). The proponents of this method believe that the proper way to find out who exercises power in decision-making is to make a study of the behavior of the actors who are found to be involved in the actual process of making decisions. Particular decisions are selected for study. Data are obtained by direct observations, by interviews, and by the study of records, documents, and newspapers.

Proponents of the decisional method are critical of the assumptions underlying the reputational method and, in turn, make assumptions that in a democratic society there is a pluralism in decision-making and that realistic bargaining among competitors takes place. It is thought that the actors in decision-making vary from one type of decision area or scope to another. A number of investigators have found that educational decisions usually are not made by the same people who make municipal decisions. A more important role is attributed to the professional administrator by this view of decision-making than by the reputational view. Adherents of the decisional method also maintain that it is more productive of insights relative to the processes of leadership and power than either the reputational or positional methods. Critics of the decisional method maintain that it is too time consuming and expensive to be practical, that no satisfactory criteria have been developed for the selection of issues nor for the time periods during which the issues should be studied, and that it tends to ignore those unseen actors who may not only be influencing the observed actors, but also may be responsible for preventing

certain latent issues from rising to a level of controversy (8, 21).


The many studies which have been made of decision making in particular communities have revealed that there are always leaders and followers but that the patterns of leadership appear to be extremely varied. A study of Lansing, Michigan, indicated that the most powerful organizations in that city were the Chamber of Commerce, the labor unions, the local newspaper, the Board of Realtors, the service clubs, and other business organizations in the order stated (19). In another city the situation might be very different. No adequate typology for the comparative study of community decision-making and power structures has yet been developed (1); however, several analyses of the problem and suggestions for its solution have been reported (2, 8, 12, 17, 37). Until comparative studies have determined relationships which obtain between dependent community variables and decision-making, little generalized knowledge will be available for the use of administrators. There is promise that more progress will be made in developing understanding of these relationships during the next decade than was the case during the past one.

The many studies of power indicate that there are numerous sources of potential power that individuals may utilize. Among these are wealth, office or position, social prestige, control over information, expertness and knowledge, persuasive talent, rate of upper mobility in occupation, family relationships, popularity, and length of residence in the local community. A person may have available several sources of power but fail to use his power because he does not care to do so, because he is ineffective in the employment of his power resources, or because he lacks certain resources which make it difficult or impossible for him to use the resources he does possess. Power, of course, implies sanctions, i.e., rewards or punishments, which may be applied to obtain compliance. It is not always necessary to make actual use of sanctions; the threat of their use as perceived by individuals may be sufficient to cause them to behave as expected by the holder of power.

Almost all of the studies reported support the conclusion that the most powerful community leaders tend to be older persons, probably most of them over 50 years of age and a considerable percentage 60 or over. This may mean that in the typical community one can expect the decision-makers to be conservative and somewhat hesitant to approve the adoption of new policies and methods.

Practically all of the many studies of community decision-making give no special attention to the role of administrators in relation to that of designated influentials. Jennings (23), however, has recently reported a comparative study of “top-level” administrators and “first-level” influentials in the cities of Atlanta, Georgia, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Considering both cities, the superintendent of schools in the city of Atlanta was the only one of the 28 selected administrators who was also nominated as one of the 35 influentials. Among Jennings' conclusions were the following:

First, the comparison of administrators from the two communities is more striking for the likenesses shown than for the dissimilarities …. A second conclusion is that while there are some similarities within each community between administrators and the influentials, the differences are more pronounced. The influentials rank considerably higher than the administrators in socioeconomic status …. the administrators tend to be involved in fewer and sometimes different issues and to be performing different kinds of roles than the influentials . . . . In Atlanta significant numbers of both administrators and influentials were key actors in the resolution of major issues, but when more than one issue was considered, the administrators had less overlap . . . . Thus the behavior of persons with the status of administrator diverges from that of persons with the status of influential. But this difference does not necessarily mean separate arenas of action, for certain behaviors are common to both status groupings, and close working relationships between the two groupings gives grounds for believing that inter-dependency develops between the two on many issues.


The foregoing discussion of politics, power, and influence in community decision-making has considerable relevance for the administration of public schools. There can be no doubt that the bringing of influence and pressures to bear upon issues in public education represents political activity with respect to both those who influence and those who are influenced. The public nature of education insures that it is a political realm and that those persons involved in its administration are politicians in the sense that they cannot escape being engaged in a political process. This process may be, and often is, largely non-partisan, but from time to time educational issues will take on definite partisan characteristics. It is well known that political party platforms ordinarily have important sections relating to education and it appears that these are being accorded increasing relative importance by the voters. A first implication, therefore, is that educational administrators should recognize the political nature of their jobs and strive continuously to develop the knowledges and skills to be effective in the political process. Furthermore they should be aware that the politics of education will inevitably be related, to some degree and at some times, to the politics of other public agencies in the school district.

The many case studies of community decision-making and power structures which have been reported do not provide validated generalizations of how status leaders and other influentials are related to the process of decision-making. Such generalizations will have to await the findings of comparative studies of various communities over a period of time. The case studies have, however, indicated that there is a comparatively small group of identifiable leaders who hold power over decisions in any community. They may or may not be public officials, known to typical citizens, influence a wide range of decisions or work in harmony with one another. These are the individuals, the men of power, who will have most to say about what decisions will be made and how they will be made. They will serve as referees over the demands of the welter of pressure groups which are to be found in school districts of considerable size. These influentials will most likely interest themselves in educational proposals which involve concepts of economics, finance, and relationships of government to private enterprise.


Another implication, then, is that the educational administrator should be aware that there are influential in the school district and make every effort to learn just who they are, what values motivate them, what power resources are available to them, and what the patterns of interaction are which may exist among them. He must develop knowledge of the personalities, organizations, and other power agents operating in the school district who have interests in educational policies because of the need to identify those aspects of the power structure which will be most effective in influencing the district to accept a desired decision. As far as possible, he must understand the critical behavioral norms of the individual leaders, or of the leadership group, and be careful to operate within the tolerances of these norms in the decision-making process. Suggestions for developing such understandings are to be found in the literature which has been cited. Not only does the superintendent of schools need to develop these understandings himself; it is also his responsibility to assist other leaders in the school organization to do so.

The educational administrator must not only know about the power structure but he must be able to make effective use of it in developing an environment in which the public schools will enjoy favorable attitudes and a satisfactory level of financial support. He will have to develop effective interaction patterns with all types of influential in the district. Through these interaction patterns, he will win the confidence and support of certain influential to the extent that they will actively support educational policy proposals. Also, he will identify likely opponents and attempt to neutralize their behavior as much as possible. The really big test of the leadership of the administrator is the extent to which he can gain consent and support from likely sources of opposition. In order to do this, it is often necessary to develop actual or potential widespread popular support, possibly through such school-oriented organizations as the PTA, to define the issue in non-controversial terms, and to take all precautions to assure that it will not be detrimental to any group of people. Citizens' committees composed of community influentials (including potential opponents) should be organized to study and advise on major educational issues. Fortunately, top influentials will often serve on such committees, one reason being that so doing is frequently considered to be a symbol of prestige by other influentials.


It may be that decision-making in school districts is unique in nature because they have characteristics different from other arenas of government. Study of decision-making in school districts has been undertaken only recently and by a relatively small number of investigators. Although some of the studies describe decision-making in much the same terms as do the general studies (25, 39), others have suggested reasons why decision-making may be a different kind of process in school districts (6, 31, 37). One of these reasons may be that power in the school district is less closely tied to the economics of the local community than it is in the general municipality. Another may be that the role of the state is often dominant over the local school district with respect to educational policy; the federal government also appears to be playing an increasing role in local educational decisions. Also, there is probably no other area of local government where the administrator and his staff are credited with as high a degree of professional expertise. Minar stated that “the monolithic-pluralistic distinction as it is ordinarily used makes little sense in a substantially unifunctional, single 'scope' polity,” such as the school district (31).

“Expertness” is probably the greatest power resource available to the school superintendent; consequently it behooves him continuously to develop specialized knowledge of concepts and practices of education as well as the ability to communicate this knowledge to others, and particularly to the influentials of the community. Because many school administrators do possess such expertise, the writer believes the idea that they are not influential in educational policy making is a myth. Both political scientists (28, 31) and sociologists (6, 37) who have given especial attention to decision-making or power structures in public education report that the educational administrator is, or can be, an influential decision-maker. Martin stated that “Nowhere else in American public life is the professional accorded greater deference than in the public school system” (28), and Minar stated that when the board of education and community leaders “trust and value expertise, he (the school superintendent) is likely to have much discretion and initiative right up to the highest policy level” (31). A part of the expectations for the role of persons who head community institutions is that they should continuously propose appropriate changes in institutional goals, programs, and services. Moreover, these executives, for example the superintendents of schools, do or should hold the self-image of a constant innovator of defensible policies and changes in the public schools. All this adds up to the inescapable conclusion that educational administrators do, indeed, live and work in a thoroughly political environment.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 67 Number 2, 1965, p. 118-128
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 2278, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 4:25:42 PM

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