Parental Challenges to Organizational Authority in an Elite School District: The Role of Cultural, Social, and Symbolic Capital

by Annette Lareau, Elliot B. Weininger & Amanda Cox - 2018

Background/Context: Most research on “elite” schools has focused on the private sector. However, as a result of economic residential segregation, a number of public school districts exist which may plausibly be construed as socioeconomically elite. Districts of this sort remain relatively understudied. In particular, few researchers have noted the fact that the same mechanism that concentrates substantial wealth in elite districts—the real estate market—also tends to concentrate substantial noneconomic resources.

Purpose/Objective: Our paper examines the consequences of the abundance of cultural, social, and symbolic capital held by parents in one elite district, which we call Kingsley. During the period in which we collected data, the district administration sought to re-draw attendance boundaries for the two high schools in Kingsley. We show how shifting coalitions of parents made use of the full range of available resources in opposing, or in some instances supporting, district officials’ plans.

Research Design, Data Collection, and Analysis: We carried out a qualitative case study of the year-long redistricting process. Our data include copies of letters and emails sent to the district during the redistricting process, transcriptions of all school board meetings that took place during the process, and over 1,800 postings to two online discussion boards devoted to the process. These data were systematically coded by the research team. We also draw on articles in the press, observational data, and interviews for background information.

Findings/Results: District administrators were subject to a torrent of “data” and “research findings” that parents used to criticize the district’s proposed plans. Parents frequently employed their professional expertise to directly challenge arguments put forth by officials in order to justify proposed policies. Furthermore, they drew on elaborate interpersonal networks in order to pool complementary forms of expertise and to mobilize large numbers of like-minded residents. Behind their challenges lay a sense of entitlement that rendered them unwilling to defer to the authority of the administration to make decisions concerning the needs of the system. While no single criticism was decisive, the ongoing challenges to proposed policies forced the district into a permanently defensive posture, resulting in a reduction of the board’s ability to use its own expert knowledge to decide which institutional policies would best serve students’ needs.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We suggest that elite districts may be prone to a distinctive type of conflict between residents and policymakers. As economic segregation increases, it is possible that more districts will experience these challenges.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 1, 2018, p. 1-46 ID Number: 21978, Date Accessed: 7/26/2021 9:01:27 AM

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