6 minute read

Educational Interest Groups

Diversity, Autonomous Power Centers, Postmaterialism

Public schools in the United States operate in a pluralist democracy that enables competing interests to gain access to the decision-making process. Quite frequently, conflicts over educational issues occur. Political leaders and educational professionals formulate policies that attempt to mediate competing views and contending interests. There are, however, three understandings about the interaction between interest groups and the public educational enterprise. One school of thought finds that the school system benefits from interest group activities as it incorporates diverse demands. Another perspective views interest groups as autonomous centers that can undermine the schools' legitimacy. A third perspective observes a reconfiguration of the goals and functions of interest groups in an era in the early twenty-first century of "postmaterialism."


Pluralistic representation, according to many researchers, can strengthen public schools. Historically, school responsiveness to its diverse clients is seen in the development of an increasingly professionalized system. In his study of three central-city districts from 1870 to 1940, Paul Peterson observed in 1985 the "politics of institutionalization," where clients who had previously been excluded from school services gradually gained admission to the system. As schools expanded their client base, Peterson saw no single interest as dominant over all school issues. Although though the business elites tended to prevail in fiscal issues, working-class organizations exercised substantial influence over compulsory education. Because diverse actors and interests contributed to an expanding school system, the real winners were the school system and its broadening clientele. The urban public school system practiced the politics of nonexclusion, gradually extending services from the middle class to the low-income populations, and from groups with roots in the United States to various immigrant and racial groups.

Conceptually, Peterson's analysis is consistent with the tradition of pluralist scholarship in political science as exemplified by Robert Dahl's classic 1961 work Who Governs?. From a policy point of view, interest group competition has encouraged the school bureaucracy to adopt objective, universal criteria in distributing resources to neighborhood schools.

School responsiveness to its diverse clients also improves equal educational opportunity for the disadvantaged since the 1960s. In 1986 Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton discussed "group rights" politics in securing governmental resources for low-income inner-city African Americans in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Further, using data from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in districts with at least 15,000 students and 1 percent African-American enrollment, Kenneth Meier and colleagues examined in 1989 the practice of second-generation discrimination in the classroom following the implementation of a school desegregation plan. They found that African-American representation on the school board has contributed to the recruitment of African-American administrators, who in turn hired more African-American teachers. African-American teachers, according to the study, are crucial in reducing the assignment of African-American students to classes for the educable mentally retarded. African-American representation in the instructional staff also reduces the number of disciplinary actions against African-American students and increases the latter's participation in classes for the gifted. Luis Fraga and colleagues found a similar situation in 1986 with Hispanic students in thirty-five large urban districts. Thus, "group rights" politics is critical to ensure allocative practices that benefit the disadvantaged.

Autonomous Power Centers

Although interest group politics may facilitate collective concerns, organized interests can become autonomous power centers that undermine the organizational capacity of the school system. A major interest group is the teacher union. William Grimshaw's 1979 study of Chicago's teacher union suggested that the union had gone through two phases in its relationship with the city and school administration. During the formative years, the union largely cooperated with the administration (and the mayor) in return for a legitimate role in the policy-making process. In the second phase, which Grimshaw characterized as "union rule," the union became independent of both the local political machine and the reform fractions. Instead, it looked to the national union leadership for guidance and engaged in tough bargaining with the administration over better compensation and working conditions. Consequently, Grimshaw argued that policymakers "no longer are able to set policy unless the policy is consistent with the union's objectives" (p. 150).

Organizational growth, in Bruce Cooper's view, has led to problems of "mature institutions," where union leaders have to mediate trade-offs between quality and supply. Seeing a new trend in school competition, Susan Moore Johnson observed the need for replacing "collective bargaining" with "reform bargaining."

Another organized interest is the increasingly well-organized taxpaying public, a substantial portion of which no longer has children in the public schools. The aging population has placed public education in competition with transportation, public safety, community development, and health care over budgetary allocation. Discontent with property taxes became widespread during the time of the much-publicized campaign for Proposition 13 in California. According to Jack Citrin, between 1978 and 1983, of the sixty-seven tax or spending limitation measures on state ballots across the nation, thirty-nine were approved. During the 1990s, business-organized lobbying groups have been successful in pushing for higher academic standards and stronger accountability measures. In districts where public schools fail repeatedly, political leaders tend to seek for alternative ways of delivering schooling services, including privatization or creating charter schools. At the federal level, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that was passed in January 2002 allowed for public school choice as a corrective action to schools that fail repeatedly.


A third perspective sees a weakening of the hierarchical structures of organizing interests. In the post-materialist era, Ronald Inglehard, Terry Clark, Jeffrey Berry, and other social scientists argue that political parties no longer play a key role in mobilizing voter turnout. The union is losing its direct influence over its membership. Ideologically based groups, both left and right, seem to have lost much of their reputation in the nation's capital. Instead, organized interests are realigned in several ways. They have become more focused on "quality of life" issues, less organized along rigid class cleavages, and more pragmatic about governmental and market solutions to educational and social problems. Increasingly, racial and class categories are less predictive of how citizens view and decide on educational policy issues. In short, this early-twenty-first-century reconfiguration of interest group politics is likely to shape the research community's understanding of group-based influence in public education.


CITRIN, JACK. 1984. "Introduction: The Legacy of Proposition 13." In California and the American Tax Revolt: Proposition 13 Five Years Later, ed. Terry Schwadron. Berkeley: University of California Press.

CLARK, TERRY N., and HOFFMANN-MARTINOT, VINCENT. 1998. The New Political Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview.

COOPER, BRUCE S. 2000. "An International Perspective on Teachers Unions." In Conflicting Missions? Teachers Unions and Educational Reform, ed. Tom Loveless. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

DAHL, ROBERT. 1961. Who Governs? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

FRAGA, LUIS; MEIER, KENNETH; and ENGLAND, ROBERT. 1986. "Hispanic Americans and Educational Policy: Limits to Equal Access." Journal of Politics 48:850–876.

GRIMSHAW, WILLIAM. 1979. Union Rule in the Schools. Lexington: Heath.

HILL, PAUL; CAMPBELL, CHRISTINE; and HARVEY, JAMES. 2000. It Takes A City. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

INGLEHART, RONALD. 1990. Culture Shift. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

JOHNSON, SUSAN MOORE. 2001. "Reform Bargaining and Its Promise for School Improvement." In Conflicting Missions? Teachers Unions and Education Reform, ed. Tom Loveless. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

MEIER, KENNETH; STEWART, JOSEPH; and ENGLAND, ROBERT. 1989. Race, Class, and Education. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

ORFIELD, GARY, and EATON, SUSAN. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation. New York: New Press.

PETERSON, PAUL E. 1985. The Politics of School Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

WONG, KENNETH K. 1999. Funding Public Schools. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: Education Reform - OVERVIEW to Correspondence course