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Making the Grade: The Economic Evolution of American School Districts
Published by EH.NET (January 2010)
William A. Fischel, Making the Grade: The Economic Evolution of American School Districts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. xi + 298 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-25130-1.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Claudia Goldin, Department of Economics, Harvard University.
Despite its subtitle, Making the Grade: The Economic Evolution of American School Districts concerns far more than the evolution of the lowly American school district. It is also about how Americans educated their children when other nations did not and the role played by the small, fiscally-independent school district, numbering around 130,000 even by the 1920s.
The background to the book is the triumphant story of American education. Between the cohorts born from 1875 to 1950 Americans increased their educational attainment from 7.5 to 13.5 years. Americans, as a group, were more educated than the citizens of any other nation probably from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. American education was not necessarily superior in quality to that of other nations. But these other nations mainly educated their elites. Americans educated their masses. Mass education, like mass production, was typically American and served the bulk of the nation’s people and its economy very well.
How Americans managed to achieve the feat of mass education and convince those without children to finance the education of other people’s children is the subject of William Fischel’s engaging and highly informative volume. Fischel is a local public goods economist. The evolution of the school district is a natural topic for him. But historical details of these small units are difficult to locate and often appear to be of antiquarian interest. Fischel, however, connects each to a current issue in educational policy and transforms the most commonplace topic to one of significance. Fischel has a personal connection to the subject having spent “six years in a rural township school that had in-room coal stoves and two grades per classroom.”
Making the Grade explores some of the characteristics of American education that I have, elsewhere, deemed the “virtues” of U.S. education. They include: (1) many small fiscally-independent school districts, thus decentralization of taxation and spending; (2) public funding, mainly through the property tax; (3) public provision; (4) secular education; and (5) gender equality. These characteristics were virtuous because they enabled and furthered mass education in America. With the exception of (5), the current effectiveness of each has been questioned. Decentralization and funding by local property taxes have been altered by state legislation at least since the 1970s. Fischel’s book helps us understand why these features arose, what functions they once served and still serve, and why they are often difficult to change.
Decentralization and local authority were not imposed by the state or federal government and not dictated by national school leaders, according to Fischel. Rather, decentralization emerged largely from grassroots action. The large number of school districts spontaneously arose from common schools that served small numbers of rural families. The reduction in the number of districts, from around 130,000 in the 1920s to the 16,000 or so that exist today, came about almost entirely from the elimination of the single-room school and not from the consolidation of districts in the suburbs or in the larger cities. Consolidation was a natural consequence of smaller families, larger farms, better roads, the internal combustion engine, and the spread of the high school. Most consolidation efforts that did not emerge directly from the people were thwarted.
But why is decentralization good for mass education and why was it critical to the initial educational advance of the United States? The reason concerns majority rule. If an entire nation had to vote whether or not to have schools, particularly high schools, the median voter might decide against it. But if the nation were divided into small units of relatively homogeneous voters, a significant subgroup would probably have a median voter that would agree to fund the schools, even relatively expensive ones. In this way, small, fiscally-independent districts were instrumental in advancing education for the masses in the early period.
Making the Grade should be read by any historian or student of education who wants to learn about the evolution and functions of the school district. These mundane governmental units are a key to the initial success of the U.S. educational system. The book is also entertaining. Read it to learn why teaching became a female occupation, why summer vacations, standardized calendars, and age grading are ubiquitous, why property taxes pay for schools, why vouchers have gained adherents more in cities than in rural areas, and why teachers in many developing nations today, but not U.S. teachers in the nineteenth century, are frequently absent. My only criticisms are that the book would have benefited from better organization and a discussion that clearly linked the small fiscally-independent school district to its beneficial outcomes.
Overall, I have high praise for Making the Grade. It is a real contribution to the history of local public finance and a welcome corrective to many educational histories of the United States.
Claudia Goldin is Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and Director of the NBER Program in the Development of the American Economy. Goldin’s most recent book is The Race between Education and Technology (Belknap Press for Harvard University Press, 2008), co-authored with Lawrence F. Katz.