The century-old scheme to disempower parents

Steven Miller

If you've ever wondered why public K-12 education in the Silver State is so resistant to genuine reform, the answer is quite simple.

It was designed to be that way.

Historians of public education regularly acknowledge this – most frequently when reporting on the origins of the school-board-school-district model that most states, including Nevada, still use today.

That model, about 100 years old, is the fruit of the so-called "progressive" movement. Early in the 20th Century, it attained dominance over American education.

Who were the progressives? In general, they were a group of American intellectuals enamored with European (primarily German) ideas of state socialism. Although then, as now, progressives often called themselves liberals, and even fought for some of the same reforms as did true, or classic, liberals, in their ultimate principles they were quite different.

The defining characteristic of the classic liberal creed was the defense of individual liberty (hence the word liberal, from the Latin word liberalis, meaning: "of freedom"). This was a creed, however, that the self-designated "Progressives" had abandoned. What united them instead was the appetite for power over others. Specifically, their enthusiasm was, and remains today, collective societal action, planned and administered by progressive "experts," and enforced on dissenting individuals through the instrumentality of government coercion.

Thus, in education also, the progressive agenda was ultimately illiberal. In city after city, while progressive victories often brought initial improvements in school management, on a more fundamental level school governance was re-structured to transfer control over local tax-supported schools away from parents, responsive lay leaders and community members. Control went instead into the hands of board members from the progressives' own social class, who then installed large, centralized bureaucracies to run the schools.

Dr. Jeffrey Mirel recounted this process in the 1999 Brookings Papers on Education Policy. He noted that America's 200-year-old local educational ward system, which the progressives replaced, had often been tainted by corruption around the millions of education tax dollars the local boards dispensed. Another problem, the large number of culturally unassimilated new immigrants, provided additional fodder for the progressives' campaigns to end the existing school system.

The wholesale disempowerment of local parents and their communities, however, had not been necessary. As time has shown, both issues – ending corrupt practices in the ward school boards and assimilating the cities' many new immigrants – could have been resolved far less drastically.

But the progressives, committed to elitism and afflicted with their own nativist prejudices, had wanted to throw the baby out with the bath water. As Mirel notes, diluting the political clout of immigrant and other local communities had been one of the covert goals of the progressives' push for city-wide, at-large school board elections. They were after the power to control the education of future generations, and knew that, to attain that power, they somehow had to seriously rupture the control of average Americans over their local schools.

"By 1920," writes Mirel, "every large-city school system was run by a small board of education … and was reorganized along bureaucratic lines. Almost without exception, these boards had shifted power over school operations from board committees to professionally trained administrators…. With these changes, the era of lay school boards with strong ties to local communities and intensive involvement in school operations was ended. The era of the professional educators had dawned."

Unfortunately for American public education, however, the reign of "professional educators" soon turned out to be no less problematic than that of their ward-school predecessors.

Most serious, doubtlessly, has been the educational damage inflicted on millions of American students over most of the 20th Century by administrators infatuated with faddish educational ideologies. Ensconced in their government-monopoly status, they were exempt from the marketplace disciplines that discerning parents would otherwise have exercised.

The school-district-school-board model was designed by elitists for elitists. Nevada needs something new.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This commentary was first published in the June 2008 issue of the Nevada Business Journal.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.