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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.

View a lecture by the author on the subject of the book.

304 pages | 1 halftone, 12 line drawings, 10 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Education: Education--Economics, Law, Politics


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.”

Martin West, Harvard Graduate School of Education

“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.”

Robert A. Margo, author of Race and Schooling in the South, 1880–1950: An Economic History

“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.”

Eric Hanushek, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

“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.”

Jon Sonstelie, University of California, Santa Barbara

"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. . . . 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."

Claudia Goldin |

"Through detailed research into topics from the content of the Northwest Ordinance and the politics of Jim Crow segregation to recent home prices and climate conditions, Mr. Fischel tells his own story, making the case that school districts are efficient and enjoy popular support. . . . Fischel’s apology for school districts is compelling."

Washington Times

"Highly readable. . . . The conventional ’top-down’ history of American education is at best incomplete. Instead, Fischel offers a ’bottom-up’ history that, with a few parsimonious concepts, explains quite a lot about the development of the American school system."

Education Next

"This accessible, thoughtful book examines the sources of political support for American local school districts, from the late 1700s through today with charter schools and vouchers. . . . Fischel draws interesting, sometimes surprising, conclusions from the scattered historical materials."


Table of Contents


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

Reference List


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