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Ten Thousand Democracies

Politics and Public Opinion in America's School Districts

Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer

Publication Year: 2005

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 publicùits 10,000-plus local school boardsùrespond 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.

Published by: Georgetown University Press

Series: American Governance and Public Policy series


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List of Tables and Figures

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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. xv-xix

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 to sway public opinion, and expressing their opinions to journalists, pollsters, and anyone else who might convey their views to elected office holders....

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chapter one: Policy Responsiveness in American School Districts

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pp. 1-16

There are over 14,000 school districts in the United States. They range from the Mohawk Valley school district in Arizona, where 254 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade are taught in one school, to the Los Angeles public school system, where close to 600,000 students in all grades are taught in more than 600 schools. Each of these districts, and the thousands in between, are governed and administered by a stateempowered school board....

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chapter two: Financing Public Education

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pp. 17-34

In the early 1800s, the citizens in many American towns established local systems of public education. Yet by the beginning of the twentieth century, K–12 education had become a responsibility of the states (Strang 1987, 354). The federal government’s role, conversely, has always been small. Even though education is discussed by presidential candidates and Congress periodically passes major legislation, no more than 10 percent of public school revenues has ever come from the federal...

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chapter three: Public Opinion and Americans’ Commitment to Educational Spending

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pp. 35-62

According to Everett Ladd, “Americans are deeply committed to the enterprise of education. We say so every time we are asked, no matter how we are asked—and we put our money where our mouths are” (Ladd 1995, 22). Ladd points to government expenditures that have increased steadily since the 1960s and to public opinion polls showing that most Americans think that we ought to be spending more, rather than less, on public education....

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chapter four: Direct Democracy, Indirect Democracy, and Policy Responsiveness

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pp. 63-84

To what extent does policy responsiveness depend on ordinary citizens being closely involved in the formulation of tax and spending policies? Political institutions at all levels of the federal system have been designed with very different answers to this question. In his Federalist Paper 10, James Madison made a strong case against direct popular control, particularly in small polities. Larger republican governments are best, he argued, because representative bodies filter public views while a large and...

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chapter five: Voting Rights, Electoral Systems, and Policy Responsiveness

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pp. 85-111

Most school board elections are low-key affairs often held apart from more exciting and competitive national and state elections. If there is no controversial issue on the immediate agenda, there will likely be little campaigning and little discussion of the issues. Participation is usually minimal, turnout low, and the content of the campaign trivial unless the public is particularly dissatisfied by a recent policy decision. Candidates often run unopposed and unaffiliated with political parties (McDermott 1999). One could easily conclude that school board elections are not very important....

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chapter six: Teacher’s Unions in State and Local Politics

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pp. 112-127

Throughout this book, we have treated public schools as political rather than market institutions. Our emphasis on responsiveness stems from a belief that school boards must be accountable and responsive to their citizens, and—unlike private schools—not focused narrowly on their consumers (Chubb and Moe 1990). But public officials are exposed to forces other than citizens’ public opinion—whether this opinion is voiced through referenda or the next school board election—and in this and...

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chapter seven: The Gray Peril Reconsidered

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pp. 128-144

As baby boomers age and life expectancy increases, the country’s politics will be increasingly influenced by the needs and preferences of older Americans. By 2030, people over sixty-five years of age will outnumber those under twenty, reversing the nation’s demographic profile (MacManus 1995). These trends are especially disturbing to education policy scholars such as Michael Kirst, who identify the growing elderly population as one of several “major societal negative forces” (Sirkin 1985) that could...

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chapter eight: The Democratic Control of American School Boards

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pp. 145-159

Our tour across the landscape of local American public education has taken us through time and space. American local governments were the first to take responsibility for public education, and local control remains a strong force today despite the increasing role of the states and, in more recent years, the federal government. Indeed, localism explains quite a bit about how America’s public schools are organized, administered, and funded. But of equal importance is the accretion of institutional...

Appendix a: Analysis and Supporting Tables for Chapter 3

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pp. 161-168

Appendix b: Analysis and Supporting Tables for Chapter 4

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pp. 169-172

Appendix c: Analysis and Supporting Tables for Chapter 5

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pp. 173-177

Appendix d: Analysis and Supporting Tables for Chapter 6

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pp. 178-182

Appendix e: Analysis and Supporting Tables for Chapter 7

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pp. 183-186


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pp. 187-198


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pp. 199-206

E-ISBN-13: 9781589014206
E-ISBN-10: 1589014200
Print-ISBN-13: 9781589010765
Print-ISBN-10: 1589010760

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 27 figures, 23 tables
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: American Governance and Public Policy series
Series Editor Byline: Gerard W. Boychuk, Karen Mossberger, and Mark C. Rom, Series Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 614458264
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ten Thousand Democracies

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Subject Headings

  • School districts -- United States.
  • Education -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Education -- United States -- Public opinion.
  • Public opinion -- United States.
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