Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Federal Control of Public Schools and the Decline of Community,” By Carl L. Bankston III

This essay was authored by Carl L. Bankston III, and it is republished here with permission from ISI.

Robert A. Nisbet was one of the great social theorists of the twentieth century and a profound analyst of the nature and sources of social order. In a summary of Nisbet’s thought, Brad Lowell Stone has pointed out that this theorist’s insights all stemmed from a single theme: the destruction of community by the extension of the power of the central state.1

Nisbet argued that the most effective social relations have existed historically within small, highly localized, face-toface ties. In the past, the “institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and distribution” were primarily the products of “family, local community, church, and the whole network of interpersonal relationships.”2Nisbet did not idealize these immediate interpersonal arrangements, but he did maintain that for all their imperfections they have been important sources of personal identity, security, and adaptation to environmental demands. These arrangements of social ties not only fulfilled functions; they were maintained by their functions. The continuing need for families and communities strengthened families and communities.

Centralized state power, from Nisbet’s perspective, has resulted in serious problems for modern societies. It has weakened traditional and immediate institutions, such as the family, without being able to replace fully the functions of those institutions. This has created settlements of atomized individuals in place of true communities as well as undermined the abilities of those individuals to work together for common goals. The egalitarian interventions of political power in society, at the same time, have introduced new tyrannies for the sake of universal leveling. The history of the growth of federal control of American public schools provides both an excellent illustration of and empirical support for Nisbet’s thesis. For that reason, Nisbet’s conceptualization can also help us understand the contemporary situation of our schools and raise questions about recent and current trends in educational policy.


The foundation of American political life, the U.S. Constitution, makes no reference to schools or education. The great controversy around the adoption of the Constitution concerned how much power the central government should have and how much power the states should have, and much of the document reflects compromises on these questions. Most noticeably, the Tenth Amendment reserves all powers not expressly delegated to the federal government for the states or the people. The absence of any mention of education evidently leaves educational policy, from a constitutional perspective, exclusively in the hands of local or state authorities.

Schools were so closely identified with local communities in the late eighteenth century that it probably never occurred to any of the framers of the Constitution that education might be a concern of any higher level of government. Whether or not towns or villages even had publicly available schools depended entirely on the towns or villages themselves.

The best-known early proposal for a public school system came from the pen of Thomas Jefferson in his 1779 essay “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” Jefferson outlined a plan for his own state of Virginia that entailed local districts creating three-year schools for children aged seven to ten, a set of higher three-year schools for the top graduates of the district schools, and a state college for the top graduates of those higher schools. Although the state college did come into existence as the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s blueprint was never translated into reality. In fact, Jefferson opposed an 1817 bill to provide free primary education in Virginia on the grounds that the creation of a state board of education would entail excessive centralization of political control.

Before the Civil War, the northeastern part of the country gradually achieved almost universal public education for young children. This region also had the greatest degree of state-level involvement in education, a degree of centralization already too much for Jefferson. As early as 1799, the Connecticut legislature passed an act to fund, encourage, and regulate schools. New York passed its first appropriation for state public schools in 1795 and established a permanent state school fund in 1805. By 1820 every town in Maine was required to raise an annual tax for schools. The common school movement, the push to establish free public schools, is usually dated from 1830, but this arbitrary date really marks the intensification of an existing trend.

The common schools were under the guidance of the states, and state involvement could become fairly extensive under the guidance of an active official, such as Massachusetts Board of Education Secretary Horace Mann, who took office in 1837. Although the federal government played no part in public schools, these schools did frequently have a highly nationalistic and socially reformist character, advocating citizenship training. The centralizing trend in American government, which first emerged from fear of France and Britain and was later promoted in the Northern states by conflicts with the South, encouraged the establishment of schools as instruments of national unification. Still, even in the states where the common school movement was strongest, schools remained under the immediate control and direction of officials elected by towns or cities.

The real birth of the American public school system as we know it today came after the Civil War, and it had close connections to the Progressive movement. Although Progressivism was a complicated phenomenon, its core feature was the goal of reforming society by political direction, especially through the efforts of the federal government. In Robert Nisbet’s terms, Progressivism aimed at the absorption of the social by the political. Born in the late nineteenth century, the Progressive education movement aimed at using the schools to socialize students for the emerging national industrial society. By World War I, public education was both universal and compulsory in the United States.

Out of the Civil War came the first federal involvement with elementary and secondary education (as well as federal involvement with post-secondary education through the Land Grant Act colleges). Reconstruction brought teachers employed by the federal government to the South, and the first federal Department of Education was established in 1867. This, however, was later downgraded to the Bureau of Education in the Department of the Interior, charged mainly with collecting school statistics. World War I gave a new push to federal efforts. The Children’s Bureau, established in 1912, began to call for standards of school health in 1919.3

Although schools were a nationwide phenomenon by the early twentieth century and had contributed to the political consolidation of the country, they remained highly localized institutions. The old tension between community and central government continued to be a part of American life, and the schools were centers of communitarian social pluralism. Political control remained in the hands of locally elected officials despite the fact that the states set the broad outlines of educational policy and communication among school officials, and maintained a general curricular coordination at the national level. School board members were the representatives with the most immediate links to small-scale constituencies. In the two decades before World War II, the United States had nearly 120,000 school districts, with board members who had to answer to relatively small numbers of families and neighborhoods. These small political communities controlled schools through funding, as well as the election of representatives, since the property taxes that primarily funded schools were decided upon by local districts.

Although both the Civil War and World War I had stimulated the expansion of the federal government, this government was still small in size and limited in authority compared to the one that appeared during and after World War II. Most of the initial involvement of this rapidly growing federal authority in education came in the form of support for post-secondary schooling, especially through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act or GI Bill, first passed in 1944. Yet, federal penetration of the elementary and secondary levels soon followed.

Although the Eisenhower Administration used National Guard troops to enforce the Supreme Court’s Brown decisions in Little Rock in 1957, the primary means of controlling local school districts was the federal purse. The more Washington became a source of money for school districts, the greater its power became. In 1958, the centralizing force of the Cold War led to the first major national education bill in the nation’s history, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). This $900,000,000 four-year bill marked the first move toward creating a national curriculum through grants to specific areas of study, funding for testing and counseling of students, and money for teacher training.

The federal power of the purse became far greater in the middle of the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson, fighting the Cold War and beginning to intensify U.S. involvement in Vietnam, drove the centralization of the state further by adopting a domestic form of mobilization through the War on Poverty. Under Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which enabled the federal author ity to withhold funds from districts that defied the Brown decisions or engaged in other forms of racial discrimination. The following year, Congress created one of the key weapons in the struggle for social reform through the schools when it passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This historic bill made enormous amounts of money available to school districts. All of this money, however, could be withheld under the Civil Rights Act. In addition, the bill aimed at restructuring American society to create greater equality among the citizens of the increasingly centralized state. As part of the War on Poverty, Title I directed funds to schools and school districts that held high percentages of low-income students. One of the perverse effects of this provision was that schools would eventually seek to achieve the status of a Title I school, making poverty a desirable quality for schools and districts.

The ESEA became the basis of future federal school legislation. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) was born out of a reauthorization of the 1965 bill. NCLB, as we shall see, was true to the social-redesign spirit of the original act through its effort to standardize and equalize the educational achievement of American citizens. By 2010, the Obama Administration was seeking a new reauthorization of the ESEA, as well as attempting to realize its own program of standardization and equalization through its Race to the Top program.

While the federal government increased its control of school districts, the districts themselves consolidated during the postwar period, so that the communities behind school boards became larger. In the 1939–40 school year, there were over 117,000 school districts in the United States. By 1949–50, this had dropped to under 84,000 districts. Even as the population of the United States grew rapidly, school districts grew fewer, so that there were under 15,000 districts by the last school year of the twentieth century. Fewer districts representing more people meant that each individual, family, or association in a district had a smaller voice while the voice of Washington, DC became ever larger.4

From 1961–62 to 1980–81, total federal revenues given to schools grew from $138 per student to $563 per student in 2007 dollars. Nevertheless, the apparent achievement level of students had dropped so much that the 1983 report A Nation at Risk warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in American schooling. In response, the report and successive public policy statements of course called for more federal programs and more federal intervention. By 2005–6, federal spending on schools had reached $993 for each student.5 The schools were no better for all this spending, however, because the political intervention behind the money undermined the basic social institutions on which education rests.

The centralization of American education and the displacement of pluralistic local authorities could be seen in many aspects of American schooling. However, the revolution from above primarily took place through two movements: the desegregation movement and the standardization movement, both of which profoundly affected the connections between American society and American education.


In The Quest for Community, Nisbet argues that the French Revolution is often mischaracterized as a struggle to liberate individuals which evolved into the authoritarian use of state power to transform society. He countered that libertarianism and authoritarianism were parts of the same effort to destroy traditional, often unfair and oppressive, plural social authorities and replace them with a monistic state that would have a direct relationship with each individual and would seek to reorder and rationalize the lives of all. This description can also be applied to the most revolutionary movement in modern American education, the desegregation movement.

Brown v. the Board of Education, the ruling that began the federal fight against segregation, is often seen as a decision about the rights of individuals. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown that segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment can be seen as guaranteeing only the equal treatment of individual students. Thus, the Court proclaimed, “school children irrespective of race or color shall be required to attend the school in the district in which they reside and that color or race is no element of exceptional circumstances in warranting a deviation from this basic principle.”

Brown was not, however, expected merely to recognize the legal right of individuals to enroll in their schools. While commenting on the decision in 1954, attorney (later Justice) Thurgood Marshall said that he expected it would take “up to five years” to eliminate segregation in education throughout the United States. Further, the New York Times reported that Marshall “predicted that, by the time the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was observed in 1963, segregation in all forms would have been eliminated from the nation.”

Marshall and others initially expected that this transformation of American society would come about as the legal barriers to discrimination fell. It soon became evident, though, that these barriers would have to be battered down. In 1956, 101 Southern state senators put their names to a manifesto that repudiated the Court’s decision and declared the decision itself illegal. In Virginia, officials of Prince Edward County proclaimed in 1957 that they would shut down all public schools rather than comply with the law. The first real act of federal enforcement of Brown took place in Little Rock, Arkansas, where President Dwight Eisenhower activated the Arkansas National Guard to escort seven black students through a screaming mob in order to integrate Little Rock Central High School. The drama of Little Rock began to make the integration of American schools a focus of national attention.

Hannah Arendt’s controversial 1959 Dissent article “Reflections on Little Rock” recognizes that federal enforcement of racial integration could involve more than simply protecting a legal right to free access by individuals. In terms that were strikingly similar to Nisbet’s distinction between the political realm of the state and the social realm of non-state associations, Arendt distinguishes among the private, social, and political realms. She maintains that these three realms overlapped in schools, since schools were the places where the private concerns of parents to make decisions about their own children, the social right of people to associate according to their own choices, and the political obligations of the government came together. In her mind, this made schools the last places that should come into a project of racial integration, not the first.6

Arendt has been criticized for providing moral support to segregationists and for not recognizing that public schools are explicitly political institutions. However, if we look back at her reflections and think about the social realm in Nisbet’s terms, as the authorities that grow out of tradition and social networks, and not simply out of legally defined rights, then we should rec ognize that Arendt was expressing realistic and meaningful concerns. We might agree that citizens of the United States have the right to attend school without racial discrimination and that government has an obligation to protect that right. But at the same time, we can recognize that families and associations among people are not established on the basis of abstract rights and may frequently have goals that conflict with fairness and equality. To impose a political solution on this conflict is to displace a complex network of social relations.

Forty years after the Little Rock struggle, President Clinton visited the high school. By that time, two-thirds of the students in the formerly whites-only school were black. But it was internally segregated: black students in the majorityblack school accounted for only 13 percent of those in the advanced classes, and black students showed substantially lower rates of achievement, higher dropout rates, and more discipline problems than their white schoolmates.

Between the effort to protect individual rights by political means at Little Rock and the time of President Clinton’s celebration of that effort, the displacement of local social relations by central political direction had taken the shape of far more radical programs. From the assertion of individual rights in the era of integration, federal rule of American schools became a project of restructuring the whole society.

By the late 1960s, it became evident that entrenched social patterns would not be changed by asserting the rights of individuals to attend their schools of choice or by prohibiting discrimination. Because black and white Americans frequently lived in separate neighborhoods, they enrolled in separate schools. In many cases, local school boards intentionally drew school boundaries to separate students by race. In the 1968 Supreme Court case Green v. County School Board, the Court ruled that a Virginia school district’s freedom of choice policy had not led to genuinely integrated schools and ordered the school board to come up with a plan that would effectively mix students by race. In the 1971 case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the court ruled that busing students to achieve integration was constitutional.

By the early 1970s, a desegregation order meant that a federal judge became overseer of a school district. Judges could and did order schools to redraw attendance boundaries, close schools, bus students, and transfer personnel in order to achieve desired racial compositions. In this atmosphere, advocates and policy makers began to argue that schooling was a mechanism by which American society could be redesigned to eliminate inequality, prejudice, and discrimination. The respected social scientist Christopher Jencks declared in 1972, “if we want a desegregated society, we should have desegregated schools.” The political realm would take authority away from the social and reshape the latter through the schools.

Many of the resulting clashes can be understood as the resistance of traditional communal authorities to the intrusion of the state. Nisbet observed in Twilight ofAuthority, published in 1975, that most of the opposition to busing came from “pride in and the sense of attachment to neighborhood.” 7 The neighborhoods of South Boston, for example, were tightly integrated ethnic communities of Irish Americans when the Boston school district was ordered to desegregate through busing in 1974. The widely televised rioting of white parents angry at the busing of their own children to the northern part of the city and the busing of black children to the southern part clearly involved intense racial prejudice. But it was also clear that the expressions of prejudice were the reactions of people who felt that their own communities and the schools that they saw as their own were being taken from them. With the putative success of desegregation, the schools lost the support and even the participation of people who had traditionally been active in them. White families began fleeing the system by the thousands, never to return. The percentage of white students in the average minority child’s classroom in Boston decreased every single year from the beginning of forced busing in 1974 to the turn of the twenty-first century, during which time the system went from 57 percent to 15 percent white.

The displacement of immediate nonstate social arrangements by desegregation may have affected black communities even more than white communities. Fundamental sources of social order for black Americans have long been under great pressures. The end of slavery did see the rise of black churches, and it is widely agreed that church has been critical to the structure and organization of black social networks in the United States. However, black church membership and participation has been declining, and other essential authorities have been vanishing.

By the 1930s, about one-third of newborn black children were the offspring of unmarried mothers. Whatever the origin of this demographic characteristic, at the time of the War on Poverty out-of-wedlock births began to increase rapidly among all Americans, but especially among black Americans. Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised the alarm about the crumbling of the fundamental social structure of the family among low-income blacks in a 1965 Department of Labor report, and called for “national action.” It was not clear just how the nation could reconstitute families. More plausibly, state intervention was removing the functional necessity for family, creating the kind of direct relationship between residents of inner-city minority neighborhoods and the central state described by Nisbet. By the 1990s, over three-quarters of black children were born to single mothers.

While their families crumbled, black neighborhoods saw their communities literally destroyed. The Housing Act of 1937 provided federal aid to municipal housing authorities to renovate urban areas. The Housing Act of 1949, in the atmosphere of governmentally directed change that followed World War II, provided funds that led to the bulldozing of poor, especially black, neighborhoods, and the gradual relocation of black families in many parts of the country to subsidized housing. Critics sardonically referred to urban renewal as “Negro removal.”

With these threats to the social organization of black social groups, neighborhood centers took on added importance in the late twentieth century. These centers were often schools. By closing or dissolving black neighborhood schools, federal authorities may have done even more damage to black communities than to the Irish of South Boston.

In the earliest years of desegregation, the effort to redistribute students already showed signs that it would damage black communities. After a comparison of black high schools in the 1962–63 school year with integrated high schools in 1972–73, Frederick A. Rogers concluded.

The desegregation of public high schools in North Carolina destroyed “community” within the schools for the black student specifically, and ultimately this change is likely to contribute to the destruction or at the very least, a radically altered direction for the black community in general. Destruction of community within the black high schools is, in part, related to the loss of black influence and control over the shape, kind, and extent of educational experiences black youth are to have. In addition, the desegregation of public high schools in North Carolina proved to be school consolidation [italics in the original] and, as such, reduced the number of high schools (attendance units) in the state by almost one half and increased dramatically the student population in each attendance unit.8

Rogers found that while black high schools in North Carolina had been chronically short on funds and materials during the Jim Crow era, these schools did enjoy the participation of the adults around them. Thirty years after Rogers published his work, researchers Vivian Gunn Morris and Curtis L. Morris looked at the impact of desegregation on the small town of Tuscumbia, Alabama.9 The Morrises’ book does not romanticize the segregated schools of the Jim Crow era. Trenholm, the black high school in their study, was consistently shortchanged in instructional resources, physical plant, and technology. But it occupied the central place in local black society. It was a focal point of adult involvement. Although desegregation meant that students moved to a better physical structure with more materials, it also meant that this central place for forming commitments and voluntary associations was destroyed. Morris and Morris recount that students and adults were in shock when the school was torn down. The colors and other symbols of the school “were important socially and emotionally to the students and to the African American community. It was around these symbols that the school community rallied.”10 Asa G. Hilliard III, in a foreword to the Morrises’ study, summarizes the authors’ findings on the impact of desegregation: “The demands of the African community were hijacked in the court system and among supporters who saw the solutions to our problems as the breakdown of communities by sending children to be integrated into predominantly White schools.”11

To come full circle, we can return to Topeka, Kansas, where the historic Brown case had first originated. In 2004, the black former district superintendent of Topeka lamented the destruction of community during the previous half century. He complained to reporters of Time that “the closing of black neighborhood schools—with their traditions, yearbooks, mottoes, fight songs and halls of fame—ripped the centerpiece out of those communities.”12

The centralizing force of the national government, pursuing the egalitarian goal of liberating citizens, had imposed the political realm on the social. As the nation entered the twenty-first century, there were still many school districts operating under desegregation orders. However, the desegregation movement had lost much of its steam. While the black middle class had grown, the poorest black children, those most subject to being shifted around in the effort to achieve an ideal equality, were left in central-city areas almost destitute of two-parent families and functioning neighborhood social structures. There were no white or even middle-class black children left in many urban districts to ship around in the name of equality. The Obama Administration does seek to enforce racial equality as a social desideratum that could be imposed by federal policy. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for example, announced in March 2010 that he would send out legions of civil rights attorneys to enforce the quest for equal outcomes on schools. The extension of federal control over schools, though, increasingly placed more emphasis on a standardization movement.


As the ideology of the monistic political community replaces pluralistic social communities, the process of centralization expresses itself as rationalization, standardization, and uniformity, according to Nisbet. The mass collection of equals, each ideally bearing the same relation to the state, must become an assembly of interchangeable parts. Since statist ideology in the United States places a heavy emphasis on schools as places for reshaping individuals and reforming society, the standardization of schooling has become one of the most prominent features of the extension of federal control.

The contemporary push to achieve uniform standards in schooling, enforced by the federal government, can be traced back to the 1983 publication A Nation at Risk. Concerned about educational decline, the report issued a call for standardized curricula and standardized assessments to bring all American students up to prescribed levels of performance. The move toward centralization and greater federal control of schooling intensified as the twentieth century reached its last decade. For example, the New York Times proclaimed in 1988 that “the schools are the best place to forestall illiteracy, but are falling far short of meeting the needs of a challenging work force. To do so, the nation’s system of public education needs to be thoroughly revamped.”13 The federal government began to draw up the blueprints for reengineering “the nation’s system” the following year.

At the Charlottesville Education Summit in September 1989, President George H. W. Bush, who had described himself as “the education president,” met with state governors to attempt to create a nationwide educational reform agenda. The constitutional basis for such a program was unclear, but the participants agreed on six goals, which President Bush repeated in his 1990 State of the Union Address. The summit and President Bush declared that by the year 2000, the following would be accomplished: (1) All children in America would start school ready to learn; (2) The high school graduation rate would increase to at least 90 percent; (3) American students would leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter, including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; and every school in America would ensure that all students had learned to use their minds well, so they would be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in the modern economy; (4) American students would be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement; (5) Every adult American would be literate and would possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; (6) Every school in America would be free of drugs and violence and would offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.14

This set of aims was later expanded slightly by the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994. By 2000, every school in the United States would also be free of drugs, violence, the unauthorized presence of firearms, and alcohol, while offering a disciplined environment conducive to learning. In addition, every school would promote partnerships that would increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.15

This ambitious agenda might remind the critical reader of old Soviet Five-Year Plans, with delusional schedules for trac torization and hydroelectric power replaced by dictates for the progress of American minds. The final goal completely reversed the role of family in public and political life found in Nisbet’s communitarian approach. Instead of seeing education growing out of the family and community relations formed by people to meet their own needs, the federal government would act through schools to shape family and community relations.

President Clinton participated in the Charlottesville Summit as then-governor of Arkansas and supported the program of national education standards when he became president. The federal government took the biggest step toward national standardization, however, under the administration of George W. Bush. The second President Bush declared his dedication to an educational reform program based on his “deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America.”16

This national mission took the concrete form of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which became law in 2002. NCLB was not a new initiative: it grew out of all the efforts to extend federal reach into education of the previous decades. It reauthorized President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, carrying the War on Poverty into the twenty-first century, and it provided a means for translating the goals of Goals 2000 into action.

The new act mandated the annual administration of standardized tests to children in grades three through eight and required that all states develop progress objectives to ensure that all groups of students would reach proficiency (which is another way of saying at or above average) by 2014. The test results and the progress objectives were to be broken down by classifications of poverty status, racial and ethnic groups, disability status, and English proficiency. All groups were to advance at the same rates on essentially the same measures of achievement.

NCLB was explicitly intended to erase all variations among students produced by their historical traditions, social networks, neighborhood contexts, or family influences. One of its particular projects was closing achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups in order to achieve universal equality among all groups. Although the Bush Administration opposed affirmative action in education, it made racial and ethnic categories a key part of its strategy for using testing and corrective measures in schools to eliminate group variations in outcomes.

One of NCLB’s key concerns, then, was with the idea of equity on a single scale, with school, district, state, and federal efforts concentrated on the historically disadvantaged or educationally weakest groups. There were penalties for any school that failed to meet goals for any group, including special education students and students who did not speak English (on English administered tests). Students could transfer out of schools that had failed to meet standards for any group. In addition, school districts had to use federal Title I funds to pay for extra tutoring or other educational services for students in schools that consistently failed to meet overall goals or goals for specific groups. The idea that uniformly high educational achievement could be distributed by schools to all children had left schools with the responsibility (and the blame) for any shortcomings.

Researchers often distinguish between “input factors” and “process factors” in education. The former are the assets or liabilities that students bring with them to their schools from families and communi ties. In other words, these are the pluralistic social authorities that give students differing and unequal backgrounds. The latter are the administrative, curricular, and pedagogical offerings of the school. The NCLB approach to education seeks to completely cancel out all of the “inputs” so that schooling in America will be purely a matter of “processes.”

On the one side, the schools, as administrative manifestations of the state, have all the volition and all of the responsibility for the fates of their students. The students, as atomized individuals, should become identical units. The point of the testing is to identify any gaps or variations that may be due to associations outside of the school and eliminate these categorical differences. On the other side, students, as citizens of an egalitarian mass democracy, have the right to demand equal results from their bureaucratic institutions.

The attempt to flatten all social realities in order to leave only administrative processes from above and abstract individual rights from below accounts for the reduction of thought about education to statistics and jargon in contemporary standardized testing. Statistical data are most useful for representing masses of entities that differ only numerically. Jargon is a technique of restricting what can be thought and said to some simple set of unquestioned assumptions.

The impersonal leveling-out of social realities is reflected as well in a redistributive ethic that NCLB inherited from its War on Poverty origins and that it shares with the desegregation crusade. The transfer policy, in particular, shares many similarities with the desegregation strategy of moving students among institutions in order to achieve an abstract equality of results among individuals in different groups. Transfers have also, in some instances, done just as much damage as desegregation to social order in schools.

U.S. News and World Report formerly ranked Dewey High School in Brooklyn as one of the top 505 high schools in the nation. However, a nearby school held large numbers of failing students. Following the standardized approach to students as equal units, the pupils at this other school were encouraged to transfer to Dewey, which would presumably be able to educate the newcomers in the same manner and to the same level as its previous scholars. Instead, the transfers reportedly did serious damage to the social order of the school. Dewey teacher Chung Chan observed that “when I was first here, we had no discipline problems . . . [but] we’ve had an influx of students who are unprepared. It’s destroying our entire school.” One of the students who had been at Dewey before the transfers remarked that “there are more police here than I’ve ever seen in my life. It feels like a jail. It doesn’t feel like a school.”17 This student’s lament recalls Nisbet’s account of how Jeremy Bentham’s vision of “the rationally and impersonally organized” administration of the political community had led Bentham to “the policeman and the penitentiary.”18

President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative contains the core of the standardization program: a set of nationwide standards to be assessed and maintained by testing. On the surface, it gave some appearance of decentralization. Each state participating in the initiative was to design its means of achieving the standards and compete for funding. Moreover, the Common Core State Initiatives (CCSI), the set of goals to be achieved, came out of work by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. However, state participation in a nationally coordinated effort was the strategy employed earlier in Goals 2000. The use of funding as a means of federal control is at least as old as the initial adoption of the ESEA in 1965. Most important, Race to the Top aimed primarily at equalization, at eliminating achievement gaps among politically defined racial and economic categories of students by means of federally approved policies. Thus, it seems evident that the Race to the Top project and its associated activities that set the stage for a reauthorization of the ESEA proposed in late 2010 were simply new forms of centralized government control of education. Delaware and Tennessee, the two states that won funding through Race to the Top in the first round of competitions in 2010, won by having state bureaucracies design federally approved means of applying uniform, standardized outcomes to achieve goals set by the federal government. They did not devolve control and decision-making to locally elected officials or neighborhoods.


One might argue that a modern nationstate needs a uniform approach to education in order to compete effectively with other unified nation-states, as well as to guarantee equality of opportunity to citizens. This argument implicitly supports some form of centralized national economic planning, with educational programs serving as the means of workforce training. Along these lines, Clintonera Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich argued that American educational strategies should be part of a national industrial policy.19 Similarly, President Obama’s Race to the Top program was created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), aimed at stimulating the economy and investing in key sectors.

One may question whether placing education within the setting of investment policy is consistent with more traditional humanistic concepts of learning. Nisbet argued that precisely this type of investment- oriented thinking had led to the degradation of higher education.20 Beyond this, however, we should be highly skeptical of claims that we can improve education through greater federal direction and standardization. It does not appear that schooling in America has actually improved since the original passage of the Elementary and Secondary School Act.

If we think about schools as outgrowths of families and communities, we can see why central planning and efforts at uniformity and equalization have in fact vitiated our schools. Families do not support schools because they are trained to do so by government programs aimed at increasing participation. They support schools because these institutions belong to them and are part of their own communities. When students go to school, moreover, they bring with them the attitudes, expectations, and values of their own neighborhoods and they create school cultures out of the cultures they bring with them. These surrounding cultures must emerge from strong networks of relations that grow over time within religious institutions and neighborhood groups. Central state planning cuts off schools from the roots of tradition.

One of the great ironies of the central government’s undermining of local authorities is that it is likely to have the worst consequences for those that federal policy intends to help, the relatively disadvantaged. As schools have been removed from the control of families and communities, individual families have retained some power over the education of their own children. Some, of course, have more power than others. The United States is not a totalitarian nation. As Nisbet acknowledged in his introductory text, The Social Bond:

One may grant that the totalitarian state is but an intensification of tendencies present in the modern limited state, an extension of political powers possessed under the doctrine of sovereignty even by democratic states. There is still a profound difference between a political order in which power stemming from government is limited and significant areas of intellectual, cultural, and economic autonomy are left intact, and a political order whose aim is systematic extermination of these areas of autonomy.21

Precisely because there are still areas of autonomy in the United States, the extension of political power tends to drive those who can to desert the social realms that have been taken over by the central government. Public participation, then, often goes down as public realms are drawn into the political arena. This appears to be happening in American public schools.

Although rates of attending public rather than private schools increased among American children in general in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, those with the greatest power to choose increasingly opted out of public education. Among elementary- and secondary-school children in households headed by individuals in the top quartile of income earners, rates of attending private schools went up steadily from 18.2 percent of students in 1970 to 23.5 percent in 2008. Among children in households whose heads were in the top decile of earners, private school enrollment increased every decade from 20.8 percent in 1970 to 29.3 percent in 2008.22 Homeschooling, still a relatively limited phenomenon, also began to grow among those for whom this was an option. In 1999, 1.7 percent of all school-aged children were homeschooled. By 2007, this had gone up to 2.9 percent. Among children living in two-parent households, in which only one parent worked, these percentages grew from 4.6 percent in 1999 to 7.5 percent in 2007.23 Those who were most able to do so were walking away from public schools in ever-increasing proportions, removing their contributions and participation.

Much of the discussion about education in the United States concerns what national policy approach is best. Should we emphasize charter schools or vouchers? Should we concentrate on teacher training or curricular reform? Vouchers and specific curricular requirements may certainly have many virtues. Ultimately, however, I think we need to ask whether we should have a national educational policy at all or whether education, like economic and social life in general, is best left to the decisions and traditions of local communities.

CARL L. BANKSTON III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University. This essay was originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of Modern Age, and it is republished here with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

  1. Brad Lowell Stone, Robert Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000).
  2. Robert A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 54.
  3. A coauthor and I provide a more detailed version of this history in chapters 2 and 3 of Carl L. Bankston III and Stephen J. Caldas, Public Education— America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).
  4. U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2008, Table 87.
  5. U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2008, Table 171.
  6. Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” Dissent 6, No. 1 (Winter 1959), 47–58. Arendt makes the distinction between the private, social, and political in other places as well, notably in The Human Condition (Chicago: Univer sity of Chicago, 1958). In The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), as Nisbet points out in The Quest for Community, Arendt recognized the attempted absorption of the private by the political as a key characteristic of totalitarian regimes.
  7. Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 261.
  8. Frederick A. Rogers, The Black High School and Its Community (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath & Co., 1975).
  9. Vivian Gunn Morris and Curtis L. Morris, The Price They Paid: Desegregation in an African American Community (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002).
  10. Ibid., 79.
  11. Ibid., x.
  12. David E. Thigpen, “An Elusive Dream in the Promised Land,” Time Magazine (May 10, 2004).
  13. L. A. Daniels, “Illiteracy Seen as Threat to U.S. Economic Edge,” New York Times(September 7, 1988), B8.
  14. Maris A. Vinovskis, The Road to Charlottesville: The 1989 Education Summit(Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel, 1999).
  15. Goals 2000: Educate America Act (P. L. 103– 227) (Washington, DC: USGPO, 1994).
  16. President George W. Bush, “Foreword,” No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), 2001 (P. L. 107–110) (Washington, DC: USGPO, 2002).
  17. Samuel G. Friedman, “Failings of One Brooklyn High School May Threaten Another’s Success,” New York Times (May 7, 2008), B6.
  18. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 277.
  19. See, for example, Robert B. Reich, “Making Industrial Policy,” Foreign Affairs 60 (Spring 1982), 852–81.
  20. Nisbet, Degradation of the Academic Dogma (New York: Basic Books, 1971).
  21. Nisbet, The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society (New York: Knopf, 1970).
  22. These are my own calculations from Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database] (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010).
  23. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Parent Survey of the 1999 National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES),Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the 2003 and 2007 NHES.

2 Responses to ““Federal Control of Public Schools and the Decline of Community,” By Carl L. Bankston III”

  1. gabe

    Wonderful piece!

    My first thought was that there IS some need for standardization in education – at least with respect to citizenship / civics etc.
    However, as the years have passed, I find that even this would be problematic as the leftist / statist elements which control american education would soon make a mockery of that also.

    I think even Washington who asserted the need for a thorough and uniform civics education would refrain from making such a suggestion at this time were he to be able to see how we have politicized it.

    take care


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