The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy

The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy What happens when historians think about U.S. suburbs not as the product of growth outward from a city but as encroachment on the rural landscape? Campbell F. Scribner's The Fight for Local Control takes this approach to reconceptualize the history of education in twentieth-century U.S. suburbs. Many valuable accounts of suburban politics focus on how bedroom-community dwellers built mutual alliances, often to defend racial and class-based exclusionary policies. Scribner recognizes this pattern but focuses instead on the encounter between white rural agricultural communities and their traditions of educational governance and financing, on the one hand, and new suburban and exurban residents and new educational ideas circulating nationally, on the other. Established and newly arrived inhabitants on the suburban fringe, Scribner argues, found common ground around the oft-contested idea of “local control” of public education. The practice of school consolidation—in which state governments pressed to combine small schools or districts into larger units—drew decades of rural resistance, informed by a deep sense of local attachment to community schools. As suburbanization accelerated in the post–World War II years, the mix of established and newly arrived local voters had to decide whether to fund a new facility or tolerate an aged one, and whether to seek higher-qualified and better-paid teachers. Raising taxes to support schooling could yield a property value appreciation enjoyed by those who slept in the exurbs. For those who worked the land, though, the same increases in value could threaten economic survival. Across disparate positions, new and established residents came to agree that they, rather than state or federal education officials, should make choices about school funding, curriculum, and the role of professional educators. Scribner explains that “rural traditions of community control seeped into suburban politics” as localities debated desegregation and teacher unionization (p. 58). By the late twentieth century, however, new debates—over school funding and increasingly national curricular trends—revealed fissures in rural and suburban commitment to local control. Property tax caps, for example, proved suburban voters were willing to limit local control in return for lower tax burdens. The Fight for Local Control draws most intensively on examples from Wisconsin, with additional cases from the upper Midwest and beyond. Scribner's account could provoke useful comparison with accounts of the Jim Crow South, where disfranchisement of black voters made “local control” a fiction, but he excludes these southern districts because they were geographically county-wide. Comparisons with urban black and Latino advocacy for community control of schools also would be fruitful. Suburban expressions of educational autonomy must also be heard against the backdrop of the many forms of state and federal subsidy on which suburban development depended. As fundamental questions about publicly governed education are intensely debated in the United States today, Scribner makes a valuable contribution to historians' understanding of the freighted and protean concept of “local control.” © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax520
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

What happens when historians think about U.S. suburbs not as the product of growth outward from a city but as encroachment on the rural landscape? Campbell F. Scribner's The Fight for Local Control takes this approach to reconceptualize the history of education in twentieth-century U.S. suburbs. Many valuable accounts of suburban politics focus on how bedroom-community dwellers built mutual alliances, often to defend racial and class-based exclusionary policies. Scribner recognizes this pattern but focuses instead on the encounter between white rural agricultural communities and their traditions of educational governance and financing, on the one hand, and new suburban and exurban residents and new educational ideas circulating nationally, on the other. Established and newly arrived inhabitants on the suburban fringe, Scribner argues, found common ground around the oft-contested idea of “local control” of public education. The practice of school consolidation—in which state governments pressed to combine small schools or districts into larger units—drew decades of rural resistance, informed by a deep sense of local attachment to community schools. As suburbanization accelerated in the post–World War II years, the mix of established and newly arrived local voters had to decide whether to fund a new facility or tolerate an aged one, and whether to seek higher-qualified and better-paid teachers. Raising taxes to support schooling could yield a property value appreciation enjoyed by those who slept in the exurbs. For those who worked the land, though, the same increases in value could threaten economic survival. Across disparate positions, new and established residents came to agree that they, rather than state or federal education officials, should make choices about school funding, curriculum, and the role of professional educators. Scribner explains that “rural traditions of community control seeped into suburban politics” as localities debated desegregation and teacher unionization (p. 58). By the late twentieth century, however, new debates—over school funding and increasingly national curricular trends—revealed fissures in rural and suburban commitment to local control. Property tax caps, for example, proved suburban voters were willing to limit local control in return for lower tax burdens. The Fight for Local Control draws most intensively on examples from Wisconsin, with additional cases from the upper Midwest and beyond. Scribner's account could provoke useful comparison with accounts of the Jim Crow South, where disfranchisement of black voters made “local control” a fiction, but he excludes these southern districts because they were geographically county-wide. Comparisons with urban black and Latino advocacy for community control of schools also would be fruitful. Suburban expressions of educational autonomy must also be heard against the backdrop of the many forms of state and federal subsidy on which suburban development depended. As fundamental questions about publicly governed education are intensely debated in the United States today, Scribner makes a valuable contribution to historians' understanding of the freighted and protean concept of “local control.” © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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