Politics of Education


Welcome to Politics of Education! In this class, we’ll learn about how politics affects education, how education affects politics, and how structures of governance differentially impact education.

You might start by asking how politics is related to education. Ostensibly, education is led by democratic institutions such as school boards, superintendents, state boards of education, and at the highest level, the federal Department of Education. These are all governmental and in some sense political institutions, so by definition, education in the U.S. is controlled by political institutions. That being said, many American citizens generally agree that politics should stay out of education. Education is too important of an enterprise to let it be governed by short-term politicians.

As a result of this unique structure among public institutions, education policy is a particularly interesting and contentious. In this course, we will discuss how political institutions at many levels influence education, and we will see how different ways of government can change educational institutions as well.

Session 1

Today, we’ll introduce the class and discuss how three of the readings for this week play off each other. The Plank and Boyd, Moe, and McDonnell readings all represent different viewpoints on politics in education, and in some ways, the former two readings were remarkably prescient on how they saw education developing in the 1990s.

We begin by considering the pieces by Plank and Boyd and Moe. Writing in 1994, Plank and Boyd generally advocate for politics in education. Even as the political institutions that govern education face increasing criticism, a democratic structure allows for individuals to discuss and debate the merits of different strategies. In contrast, Moe posits that the buraucracy surrounding educational institutions has become too cumbersome, and it is in the best interest of society to let market forces govern education.

Of these two, which do you think ended up being more right about where education was headed? In fact, it was Moe! Since the time of Moe’s writing, the U.S. really has introduced school chioce, voucher programs, charter schools, and even corporate-run school systems in an effort to increase student achievement. That being said, has this been good?

To answer this question, we turn to McDonnell. Writing over a decade after Moe, McDonnell argues (nicely) that both of these researchers may have missed something. She calls it the “policy feedback loop.” In short, policy affects education, and education in turn affects policy. As a result, many of the policies we put in place to improve test scores such as these market-oriented policies may have had negative effects on students as well. For example, increasing competition among students, worse mental health, devaluing of trade schools, and soaring costs of higher education are all examples of unintended consequences that might be related to education policy from the 1990s. This is important to think about as we consider crafting education policy for the future.

Readings this week

  1. McDonnell, Lorraine (August/September 2009). “Repositioning Politics in Education’s Circle of Knowledge”. In: Educational Researcher 38(6), pp. 417–427. doi: 10.3102/0013189X09342584.
  2. Mitra, Dana (Dec. 2017). “Public Policy and Power”. In: Educational Change and the Political Process. Routledge. isbn: 978-1-138-69274-9.
  3. Moe, Terry (July 2000). “The Two Democratic Purposes of Public Education”. In: Rediscovering the Democratic Purposes of Education. University of Kansas: Lawrence. isbn: 0-7006-1027-8.
  4. Plank, David and William Lowe Boyd (June 1994). “Antipolitics, Education, and Institutional Choice: The Flight From Democracy”. In: American Educational Research Journal 31(2), pp. 263–281. doi: 10.3102/00028312031002263.

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