Not by the Hand of Horace Mann
This paper by William A. Fischel is an economic history of K–12 education and the structure of school districts. As the second part of the title suggests, Fischel argues that land or property values have been a motivating force throughout the history of American education, beginning with the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established school section endowments for public land sold by the national government. The first part of the title refers to the decentralized system of local control of public education that is one of the unique features of K–12 education in the United States. (Horace Mann, the first superintendent of schools in Massachusetts, argued in favor of centralization and against local school district autonomy.) Among other points, Fischel asserts that school district boundaries were not decided by state policy makers, but rather by “the same thing that motivates modern support for education by the majority of voters who have no children in public schools: land values.”
Two additional themes of his chapter are the changing technology of education and the diversity in school district structure across the United States. Fischel’s description of the tutorial-recitation method of instruction common in one-room schoolhouses and the transition to the multiclass-room age-graded system that followed provides a useful context for considering today’s changing technology, such as flipped classrooms and virtual schools. Fischel shows that the South and arid West have many fewer school districts per land area than much of the rest of the country. For example, a single school district serves the, entire Las Vegas urbanized area, while the top four school districts in Boston serve less than 9 percent of the urbanized area. Thus, the school district structure around Boston is more competitive than the structure around Las Vegas, thereby, offering parents more school choices.
This paper was presented at the Lincoln Institute’s annual Land Policy Conference in 2013 and is Chapter 5 of the book Education, Land, and Location.