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Peabody Journal of Education, Volume 90, Issue 1, 2015

The New Localism

Localism Rediscovered: Toward New Political Understandings in School District Governance
Claire S. Smrekar and Robert L. Crowson, Vanderbilt University

Our nation continues to struggle mightily with efforts to reform and to improve the public schools. The improvement efforts to date have been extraordinarily diverse—and there have been some major consequences over the years, particularly in the domains of curricular reform, teaching, and administration.

Federal pressures toward reform have been quite strong under a succession of presidents, and these pressures continue despite a current falloff in legislative action and rather stagnant funding of late. State-level initiatives in education have increased in recent years, but with much less than full consensus nationwide vis-à-vis direction(s) to take in state agenda setting. Controversies abound over matters of: choice (charters? vouchers?); core curricula and statewide testing; teacher assessment and retention; the improvement of teacher-training programs; the remediation of failing schools; early childhood education; a diminished racial and socioeconomic diversity from school to school, promoting school completion toward college access; and revising state financing/funding formulas.

Interestingly, although much of our national attention in educational reform has been upon national and state agendas, local (district- and community-level) action in educational policy has also been experiencing a revival. To a growing extent, there is a “new localism” currently underway in educational governance—reflected in a variety of contemporary movements, debates, coalition-building, and even some small “uprisings.”

The uprisings have included instances of parental pushback against standardized testing and the core curriculum, an occasional “triggering” of a parental takeover (or threats thereof) in low-performing schools, a decided increase in the number of candidates vying for positions on local school boards, and a notable upswing in the exercise of parental choice (representing many types and styles—e.g., charters, vouchers, magnets, residential location decisions, even “opportunity hoarding”).

Emerging local agendas have also included a widely varying range of grassroots activities both in response to and in the implementation of state and federal mandates (e.g., everything from changes in school lunches to added test-mindedness, curricular emphases, and behavior controls). Furthermore, there has also been a substantially increased frequency of district- and community-level efforts on their own to improve the schools—adding choices, altering curricula, changing attendance zones, upgrading professional performance, changing calendars and allocations of learning time, encouraging secondary school completion, and incentivizing teachers.

Rather curiously (amid all of this federal, to state, to local policymaking of late), a focusing of academic research upon policy and politics at the level of local schooling has not been a major emphasis currently in the extant literature. Public education has long been described and investigated as an endeavor that is formally state-run but in actuality “locally controlled.” Although there is more myth than reality to this notion, the study of local control in public schooling has indeed been a mainstay of inquiry into the politics of education. Localism has, however, been rather substantially pushed to the back burner in recent years (although with notable exceptions in the work particularly of Cohen & Moffitt, 2011; Henig, 2013; and Marsh & Wohlstetter, 2013).

The intent of this issue of the Peabody Journal of Education, focused upon a general topic of “localism rediscovered,” is to begin an exploration anew into the governance of schools at the community level of political involvement. To be sure, however, that which is local in policymaking for public education is a rather far cry today from the community-in-control myth that we long understood to be a societal foundation. Local governance in public education has changed mightily—at least in part in that (a) local governance is more deeply penetrated than ever by state and national agendas (see Grissom & Herrington, 2012); (b) the profession of educator and the performances of the individual schools are under much greater and broadened scrutiny than in times past (see Cohen & Moffitt, 2011); and, (c) the national spotlight on educational improvement brings an importance today to even the most localized, day-by-day decisions of school authorities. Thus, in an era of expanded public saliency, even individual and particularized school district actions are no longer quite as uniquely and separately “local” as the control notion may imply (see Wong, 2008).

On the other hand, that which is “local” in public education does remain (to a considerable degree) much as it traditionally has been—in that (a) each community brings its own idiosyncratic heritage, values, characteristics, and conditions to the implementation of state and national agendas; (b) the old phrase that “all politics is local” has lost none of its essential meaning—because community issues and controversies abound regarding such topics as the sources and use of resources, directions in school leadership, parental involvement and representation, the placement and upkeep of facilities, the health and safety of students, the allocation of learning time, and each locality's distribution of equitable opportunities to learn; plus (c) another old phrase (“It takes a village to raise a child”) acquires even greater political currency within the framework of a top-down reform agenda, with key questions regarding just how well the full resources of individual localities (tapping shared sources of social, cultural, and political capital) continue to assist the schools in meeting state and national expectations.

Again, we suggest in this issue of the Peabody Journal that it is time to give attention anew to the local politics of education. What questions and approaches to analysis best fit today's political context at the local level? How do the questions/approaches differ, or do they differ substantially, from the themes and strategies that guided the study of local educational policymaking in times past? What can be learned anew about local school district governance in this era of a more powerful “intergovernmental landscape” (both top-down and bottom-up) than ever before?

There have been suggestions that a back-burnered program of inquiry into local schooling has managed (for a time) to ignore our deeply embedded faith in the importance of local control. Douglas Mitchell observed (in 2011, p. 5) that it seemed a bit of a “surprise” to note how decidedly America's “gospel of localism” seemed lost amid the current rhetoric surrounding reform. Thirty years earlier, textbook author Roald Campbell and his co-authors (1975) wrote: “Educators have tended to treat school districts as something unique, almost to the point of attributing some degree of divinity to the operation of schools and the conduct of school affairs” (p. 77). Before that, in 1960, historian V. T. Thayer had claimed: “Throughout their history, Americans have attributed well-nigh magical qualities to the influence of the school” (p. 32).

With such descriptors as “gospel,” “divinity,” “magical,” and “unique,” it would certainly seem surprising for localism in U.S. education to have lost much of its historic appeal. And, indeed it hasn’t. Grissom and Herrington (2012) note that a sense of local control remains strong and has not softened amid federal and state activism. Marsh and Wohlstetter (2013) even went so far as to claim that “long-held values of local control are powerful forces pushing against attempts by higher levels of government to assert greater authority” (p. 280). In short, there may be much more resilience to the gospel of localism than we've thus far recognized in the reform movement.

It could be that in many more ways than we've fully understood to date, the district-level politics of education does remain heavily wrapped in deeply normative traditions of local control. However, district-level politics may be wrapped simultaneously in a complex array of many other forces that are “pushing against” such local autonomy as remains. To be sure, whatever the norm, locally controlled schooling thus far into the 21st century has acquired a far different meaning from our pictures and interpretations of localism from decades past. There has, indeed, been a marked centralization of policymaking and a standardization of both curricula and performance expectations, considerably reducing the discretion of localities. Discretionary spending has been reduced, regulatory oversight has increased, performance expectations increasingly come from nonlocal sources, and even our old-time images of “neighborhood schooling” in America seem to be fast disappearing. Indeed, just what is a public school today and who controls it? The answer is by no means clear amid our current array of charters, magnets, vouchered schools, for-profits, themed schools, virtual schools, zoned schools, reconstituted schools, and newly rezoned schools.

Even where there is local governance still to be found, with individual districts and their boards struggling (as before) with school-improvement issues, local decisions are now wrapped (more than before) in highly focused national movements. Among these are nationwide efforts to improve teacher education and performance, math and science education, early-childhood learning, high school graduation and college-going rates, equity (lowering a gap) in student achievement, children's health and nutrition, English language learning, and even the manner in which children treat one another (e.g., the issues of bullying and gender-equity).

Amid these national movements, a resurgence of interest in the local politics of education mentioned earlier does indeed appear to be well underway (even with a surfacing of added faith in the old “gospel” of localism). As mentioned in reference to the work of Henig (2013), localism continues its hold, but local school district politics are increasingly wrapped more widely now into broader, general-purpose systems of governance. Added mayoral activism in urban school improvement preceded much of the centralizing activity, and remains strong (see Viteritti, 2009; Wong & Farris, 2011; Wong, Shen, Anagnostopoulos, & Rutledge, 2007). Governors and other state-level actors have joined in readily of late not only by attending to statewide policymaking in education but by becoming involved as well in matters that tended to be left in years past to the locality (including issues of parental choice, procedures for teacher evaluation and compensation, and local board prerogatives in the approval of added charter schools).

There has also emerged a plethora of think-tank and philanthropic “idea champions” nationally (Shipps, 2011). Diverse networks of policy-minded individuals, special-purpose organizations, and even political action committees (PACs) have evolved locally (Ball & Junemann, 2012). Localized foundations (some with ties to national philanthropies, many without) are surfacing in abundance (Samuels, 2012). More and more advocacy groups, sporting such names as “Stand for Children” or “StudentsFirst” or “Education Reform Now” are developing locally and beginning to network nationally (Sawchuk, 2014).

Amid the enlarged array of actors and “champions” of school improvement, we find as well that some “old” indicators of faith in the public schools are also gaining traction. There has been a substantial uptick in the levels and styles of parental engagement—from increased levels of participation in parent-teacher organizations, to the formation locally of many new advocacy groups, to increased parental oversight (computer-assisted) of classroom activities and assignments, plus added varieties of local pressure anew regarding some age-old social issues (e.g., involving religion, student discipline, evolution, the extra-curriculum, and attendance zoning [see Ball & Juneman, 2012; Fine, 2012; Olson-Beal and Hendry, 2012; Sawchuk, 2014; Tilly, 2003]).

As mentioned earlier, there has also been a degree of local-level resistance to some aspects of the national reform movement—including the implementation of common-core–aligned curricula, test-score–based teacher evaluation systems, approvals for new charter schools, and reallocations of subject-matter time in the school day. Additionally, on their own levels of involvement and concern politically, individual school districts are struggling with how to best accommodate advances in technology (particularly iPad security), along with budgetary priorities amid declining revenues, enrollment losses in some communities leading to school closings, and burgeoning populations of homeless students as well as those needing English language assistance and/or special education.

The continued localism at the political heart of school district administration has been attested to as well in the courts, per usual. Some cases in 2013 involved questions regarding the use of drug-sniffing dogs vis-à-vis student backpacks and whether a student questioned by a principal in the presence of a school resource officer should have been given a proper Miranda warning. In early 2014, two local districts in North Carolina won a temporary freeze regarding a new state law that was attempting to phase out teacher tenure (see Sawchuk, 2014).

In sum, one of the deepest and most lasting of American values continues to be our faith in local school governance. The number of school districts in the United States has declined precipitously—with roughly 130,000 school districts in 1930 and just 13,000 left by 2013. Nevertheless, even with fewer of them, the local school district continues to serve as a bedrock institution of community representation and identity.

That which is “local” educationally today, however, has changed. School district decisions are now wrapped more than ever in national and state movements, and are a marked centralization of educational policymaking. The result is a “new localism” in today's environment for school governance—a localism that combines many added pressures upon individual communities to meet state/national standards and to provide hard evidence of effectiveness while simultaneously continuing to serve the multiple needs, interests, and demands of their specific localities. These local needs can range widely, and they do not always share common ground with state and federal mandates.

The recognition is that an emerging yet understudied (and little understood) politics of revised local control is well underway in American education. Those who govern and administer school districts are finding themselves engaged quite often in learning to adapt anew politically to situations demanding obeisance to old traditions of community control, while simultaneously attempting to find common ground with (or at least a bit of obeisance to) a range of state/national priorities and goals (see Henig, 2013).

The articles selected for this issue of the Peabody Journal fit into three categories of policy/politics analysis.

New Localism Amid New Federalism
The opening category of articles examines localism in public education via analyses of the specific responses and adaptations of school districts “below” to the array of federal and state mandates that are placing increasing levels of pressure from “above.”

An initial paper by Brooke Midkiff and Lora Cohen-Vogel (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) explores local (LEA) responses to federal accountability mandates—noting how thoroughly test-based accountability has penetrated public schooling and how many structural elements of time usage in the schools have changed accordingly, but (more deeply) how little has changed to date in traditionally institutionalized practices of actual classroom instruction.

A second paper in this initial category is provided by Sarah Yatsko, Robin Lake, Melissa Bowen, and Elizabeth Cooley Nelson—all with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington, Seattle. The authors examined the responses of local school districts in the state of Washington to a federally funded effort toward “turning around” chronically failing schools. The School Improvement Grant (SIG) Program (in their study thus far), was found to produce far less “turnaround” than desired. From state-level supports, to district-level planning, to school-site implementation—the capacities for and challenges surrounding turnaround appear to be far more intractable than current strategizing amid school reform has yet to recognize or accomplish.

The third paper in the opening category of the collection is a piece by Katrina E. Bulkley (Montclair State University) and Jeffrey R. Henig (Columbia University) analyzing developments in a number of urban districts toward “portfolio management” styles of school administration, amid the increasingly proactive policymaking of state and national governments. The authors describe portfolio management as part of a “new school reform ecology” at the district level, involving less direct regulatory oversight of individual schools and more attention to overseeing supplies/addressing needs. Issues of local control are newly complicated and much unresolved under portfolio management, with significant challenges to ongoing traditions of localism but also a few opportunities politically.

The Politics of a New Localism: Stakeholders as Both Linchpin and Liability
A second category of articles examines the age-old topic in local policymaking of “stakeholder.” Local stakeholder interests and roles have remained much the same traditionally over time, but they are also much changed in composition, incentive systems, and intent in today's additionally politicized school district environments.

An initial paper in this category by Mimi Engel and Marisa Cannata (Vanderbilt University) addresses the current politics of localism through the lens of an “old” (but now much altered) issue of teacher labor markets.

A second article in the “stakeholder” category by Dawn Lyken-Segosebe and Serena E. Hinz (Vanderbilt University) investigates altered political actions in the traditionally important arena of parental involvement. Much driven by school choice and interest-group realignments in local education, the phenomena of opportunity hoarding and opportunity prying have emerged as powerful political forces in today's brand of “stakeholderism.”

A third contribution in this second category was provided by Diane Massell (University of Michigan), Margaret E. Goertz (University of Pennsylvania), and Carol A. Barnes (University of Michigan). Their paper proceeds from an awareness of a long-recognized gap between state education agency (SEA) policymaking and the grassroots activities of local school authorities in policy implementation. The authors examined three state agencies and their respective school-improvement initiatives, finding that, indeed, the state agencies are beginning to be more aware of and to include local stakeholders and local practitioners (to some degree) in their structures of support for complex school reform. The authors conclude, however, that there is yet a long way to go in effectively adding practitioner input and “the diverse voices of practitioners” to the work of the states in educational agenda setting.

Community Contexts Up Close: Shifting Landscapes, Local Imperatives
The third category of articles in this issue examines anew the traditionally important question of community “context” as a variable of continuing importance in today's shifting patterns of localism.

An initial contribution by Claire Smrekar and Ngaire Honey (Vanderbilt University) summarizes a study of magnet school policies and practices across four countywide school districts. Social contexts (particularly location) continue to matter heavily in parental choice, along with parental perceptions of school quality differences within defined geographical spaces. The authors suggest that parental choice patterns provide local districts with a new, yet-unrecognized “pivot point” for attaining added educational equity and racial diversity.

The second paper in this third category is a study of the creation (via state legislation) of a regional “Learning Community” in public education, examined by co-authors Jennifer Jellison Holme (University of Texas, Austin) and Sarah Diem (University of Missouri, Columbia). Their case study of efforts toward the creation of a regional governance structure in metropolitan Omaha found tensions aplenty between regionalizing reform and a pushback movement to preserve the traditional local context of separate (and racially isolated) suburban school boards. The very definition of “local,” note the authors, is being tested politically in this boundary-changing reform.

The third and final paper in this category is authored by Robert L. Crowson and Serena E. Hinz, both of Vanderbilt University. This paper addresses, at a primarily theoretical level, the under-explored topic of legitimacy, and particularly the role of the locality in public education as a central source of legitimizing activities in today's school improvement environment. The paper argues that although educational reform has heavily identified in recent years with state and national initiatives, and a well-recognized press across the nation continues in a demand for evidence of improvement in school performance, there is a different framework to be drawn upon in examining legitimacy imperatives in public schooling. Responding to constituency needs and interests, managing to satisfy and “do right” morally vis-à-vis community traditions and expectations, and continuing to provide a sense of “place” in local educational policymaking for the members of the community have lost none of their legitimizing importance and saliency amid today's more heavily centralized effort to improve public schooling.


1. Ball, S.J., & Junemann, C. (2012). Networks, new governance and education. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. [CrossRef]OpenURL VUL Vanderbilt University
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3. Cohen, D.K., & Moffitt, S.L. (2011). The influence of practice on policy. In D.E. Mitchell, R.L. Crowson, & D. Shipps (Eds.), Shaping education policy: Power and process (pp. 63–80). New York, NY: Routledge. OpenURL VUL Vanderbilt University
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13. Thayer, V.T. (1960). The role of the schools in American society. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co. OpenURL VUL Vanderbilt University
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Journal abstracts are linked to titles.

Understanding Local Instructional Responses to Federal and State Accountability Mandates: A Typology of Extended Learning Time
Brooke Midkiff & Lora Cohen-Vogel
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 9-26.

Federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs): How Capacity and Local Conditions Matter
Sarah Yatsko, Robin Lake, Melissa Bowen, & Elizabeth Cooley Nelson
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 27-52.

Local Politics and Portfolio Management Models: National Reform Ideas and Local Control
Katrina E. Bulkley & Jeffrey R. Henig
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 53-83.

Localism and Teacher Labor Markets: How Geography and Decision Making May Contribute to Inequality
Mimi Engel & Marisa Cannata
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 84-92.

The Politics of Parental Involvement: How Opportunity Hoarding and Prying Shape Educational Opportunity
Dawn Lyken-Segosebe & Serena E. Hinz
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 93-112.

Engaging Practitioners in State School Improvement Initiatives
Diane Massell, Margaret E. Goertz & Carol A. Barnes
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 113-127.

The Desegregation Aims and Demographic Contexts of Magnet Schools: How Parents Choose and Why Siting Policies Matter
Claire Smrekar & Ngaire Honey
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 128-155.

Regional Governance in Education: A Case Study of the Metro Area Learning Community in Omaha, Nebraska
Jennifer Jellison Holme & Sarah Diem
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 156-177.

Community Contexts Up Close: What Does It Mean to Be “Legitimate” in Today’s Education Policy Environment?
Robert L. Crowson & Serena E. Hinz
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 1: pages 178-189.