An American Oddity: The Law, History, and Toll of the School District

Shoked, Nadav | June 1, 2017

The school district is a staple of American law. As the local government tasked with controlling our public schools, the school district is so well-entrenched that lawmakers and commentators ignore its uniqueness as a legal institution. The school district is peculiar to American law, and it is a peculiarity within American law. General purpose governments—cities and counties—are the local governments controlling schools outside the United States. In the United States itself, these governments control almost all other major local functions. But they do not control education here. Why? Why does American law rely on a separate local government for the provision of education? This Article tackles this fundamental—yet heretofore largely neglected—historical and normative question. It offers a legal history of the school district, tracing its roots to colonial Massachusetts and chronicling its consolidation and spread through successive centuries. This exploration demonstrates that the school district was adopted as an expedient solution to varied practical problems presented by the unique patterns of early settlement that prevailed in different places and times in American history. Yet the historical investigation additionally shows that at distinct periods lawmakers, commentators, and activists also asserted substantive arguments, of potentially enduring relevance, for the school district’s embrace. These actors ascribed to the school district a capacity to outperform other, general purpose, local governments in promoting certain core values. Those normative values included citizen participation, community building, school improvement through expert management, and stable school funding. Unfortunately, due to modern legal, economic, and social developments, the current school district fails to serve any of these values that were at times attributed to its antecedents; worse, the contemporary school district often undermines them. Accordingly, the Article concludes that state lawmakers should consider abolishing the school district and bestowing control over schools on general governments.