Making the Grade
The Economic Evolution of American School Districts
A significant factor for many people deciding where to live is the quality of the local school district, with superior schools creating a price premium for housing. The result is a “race to the top,” as all school districts attempt to improve their performance in order to attract homebuyers. Given the importance of school districts to the daily lives of children and families, it is surprising that their evolution has not received much attention.
In this provocative book, William Fischel argues that the historical development of school districts reflects Americans’ desire to make their communities attractive to outsiders. The result has been a standardized, interchangeable system of education not overly demanding for either students or teachers, one that involved parents and local voters in its governance and finance. Innovative in its focus on bottom-up processes generated by individual behaviors rather than top-down decisions by bureaucrats, Making the Grade provides a new perspective on education reform that emphasizes how public schools form the basis for the localized social capital in American towns and cities.
“Making the Grade is an important contribution to the study of the political economy of public education, drawing on an eclectic body of evidence ranging from anecdotes to survey data to maps from Google Earth. Fischel has an unusually engaging prose style, and I am confident that the book will be widely read and discussed by economists and political scientists with an interest in education policy.”
“The American standard of living owes much to the early development of public schools. In this provocative and important new book, master economist William Fischel persuasively argues that many of the distinctive institutional features of American education—the proverbial one room school house, summer vacations, age-grading, school consolidation, and the geography of school districts—were ‘bottom-up’ demand-driven choices of parents and taxpayers seeking efficiency and maximal land values rather than ‘top-down’ decisions imposed by the educational bureaucracy. Just like politics schools, Fischel implores, are all local—and it’s a good thing, too. The lessons for latter day educational reformers are nothing short of profound.”
“Bill Fischel has done it again. He has taken a set of commonly accepted views about schools and turned them upside down—shattering our simplistic explanations for age-grading in schools, for the September to May school calendar, and for voter disapproval of voucher referenda. His clear and logical development of the interests of citizens and their impact on the geography and organization of schools is compelling. This fascinating book demonstrates the power of some simple economic ideas for organizing our interpretation of the world around us.”
“At a time in which K-12 education has increasingly become a focus of state and federal governments, William Fischel offers a refreshingly different perspective. His is a story of how school districts emerged from the concerns of local communities and adapted as those communities evolved. For those who are becoming weary of No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, and other top-down measures to improve our public schools, this book is a reminder of what we may be losing.”
chapter 1. Introduction: Mobility, Property, and Community
chapter 2. Early American Land Policies and the Marvelously Efficient One-Room School
chapter 3. Explaining the School District Consolidation Movement
chapter 4. “Will I See You in September?” Labor Mobility and the Standard School Calendar
chapter 5. The Economic Geography of School Districts
chapter 6. Education Reforms and Social Capital in School Districts