Politics Of Education Essay

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The importance of education issues to the citizenry is clear. Public opinion polls and surveys of the U.S. electorate consistently show education at or near the top of a list of issues that interest them. For example, in national survey reports copublished by the Public Education Network and Education Week, citizens put education issues at the top of their list of concerns. In a 2003 report titled Demanding Quality Public Education in Tough Economic Times: What Voters Want From Elected Officials, 55 percent of those surveyed consider education the top national priority, followed by health care (51 percent), jobs and economic development (37 percent), retirement and social security (36 percent), and terrorism and security (28 percent). Reports published in 2001 and 2002 showed similar results.

Politicians view this as an invitation to propose programs and policy solutions to the “problems” existing in pubic education. Similarly, local politics between school board members and administrators is commonplace, arouses community contempt and/or support, and often provides fodder for local journalists. From school board meetings in which the superintendent’s performance is under review to budget meetings in which the tax rate is being debated, issues of power, conflict, and ideology are evident. Whereas this political theater may seem more prevalent today than in previous eras, the fact remains that politics has been a constant in educational practice and policy.

Politics Defined

The politics of education as a field of study was first introduced in 1959 by Thomas Eliot, when he called on researchers to examine the effects of political decisions on schooling by administrators and elected officials. He posed questions such as: Who should pay for schools? Who should lead schools? And, what should be taught in schools? Inherently political, these questions continue to drive the policy debate around school effectiveness, teaching, curriculum, and funding.

Although initial research on politics and education came from political scientists attempting to understand political phenomena in educational contexts, educational researchers soon began to study politics from educational administration and policy perspectives. Jay Scribner and Richard Englert attempted to define the field of the politics of education within educational administration research with a categorization of central concepts. Utilizing David Easton’s “authoritative allocation of values” definition of a political system, they framed their discussion around the concepts of government, power, conflict, and policy. As Easton described it, the political process involves an interaction that assigns a society’s values, values which are then used to inform the policy formation process. Along with other scholars, Scribner and Englert propose that understanding how a community’s values are manifested as policy and examining how such policy is advocated for, debated, and opposed prior to adoption becomes vital to understanding the politics of education and the democratic process.

Advocacy And Policy

School leadership, educators, parents, students, and community activists advocating on behalf of communities of color and marginalized students have historically questioned the political motivations or influence of certain policies and practices. These leaders have utilized advocacy frameworks to engage in the political and policy discourse. Educational historian Joel Spring traced the history of politics in schools from 1958 and the development of the National Defense Education Act to the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). He delineated how educational policy and politics have influenced the effectiveness, fairness, and equity in schools and described the key political players and the roles they have undertaken in this endeavor.

Catherine Marshall and Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin argued that understanding advocacy, politics, and policy requires that researchers consider multiple perspectives of reality, and the authors question the manner by which power and interests are used to benefit some. How was the political debate framed by civil rights lawyers and leaders at the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education landmark case? How did Chicano rights activists spur the development of bilingual education programs across the nation, which culminated in the federal bilingual education legislation in 1968? And, how are current advocates of multiple-criteria accountability legislation attempting to combat high-stakes testing systems or organizing and mobilizing their efforts? These questions are at the heart of understanding the political nature of educational reform and law. They also center on discussions of power, conflict, and interests.

Conflict And Power

In 1960, Elmer E. Schattschneider argued that the essence of politics is the privatizing or nationalizing of conflict. Without a public or nationalizing effect of political conflict, the multiple sides or competing interests cannot air their differences. Often, those in power attempt to suppress debate by privatizing the conflict, or keeping it from receiving the attention needed for debate, argument, or persuasion. More recently, however, G. R. López has contended that conflict must be considered while also understanding how power can be used to institute racial hierarchies. While understanding how educational conflict influences, for example, the adoption of history textbooks, the method of teaching science, evolution, or creationism, or the ability of students to meet in gay straight alliances, is essential and informs educational research. López has argued that the inherently and institutionally racist nature of educational policy, politics, and practices coupled with unequal power dynamics also influences political phenomena.

Macro- and Micropolitics

The politics of education exists at multiple levels of influence. Historically, the federal government did not play a significant role in making or influencing educational policy for public schools, but this has changed in recent years. State government is the level of government at which the most influence has been wielded over how schools are funded, how teachers are credentialed, what is taught to students, and what requirements will result in a high school diploma. Local level or school district governing structures have also influenced political reality. Along with campus or school-level micropolitics, local-level politics are influenced by the roles taken by their school board membership.

Having the ability to examine political phenomena from macropolitical and micropolitical frames enables researchers, educators, and students to better address issues of power, conflict, and interests. Although student and parent perspectives of political phenomena have remained scant in the politics of education literature, it is yet another level of micropolitical activity that deserves study, especially in regards to student activism, organization, and leadership.


  1. Apple, M. W. (2001). Educating the “right” way. New York: Routledge Falmer.
  2. Easton, D. (1965). A framework for political analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Eliot, T. H. (1959). Toward an understanding of public school politics. American Political Science Review, 53(4), 1032–1051.
  4. Freire, P. (2003). Pedagogy of the oppressed: Thirtieth anniversary edition. New York: Continuum.
  5. López, G. R. (2003). The (racially neutral) politics of education: A critical race theory perspective. Educational Administration Quarterly, 39(1), 69–94.
  6. Marshall, C., & Gerstl-Pepin, C. (2005). Re-framing educational politics for social justice. Boston: Pearson.
  7. Schattschneider, E. E. (1960). The semi-sovereign people.New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston
  8. Scribner, J. D., & Englert, R. M. (1977). The politics of education: An introduction. In J. D. Scribner (Ed.), The politics of education: The seventy-sixth yearbook of the national society for the study of education (pp. 1–29). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  9. Spring, J. (2005). Conflict of interests: The politics of American education (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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