American federalism enables each of the 50 states to maintain its own educational system. From a constitutional-legal perspective, local educational authorities (LEAs) are political subordinates of the state, and local powers can be granted only with the consent of the state legislature. Despite interstate variation in governing tradition and culture, local school districts are seen as agencies of the state educational system. The states enjoy substantial control over compulsory attendance, accreditation, curriculum, graduation standards, and such housekeeping matters as calendar, records, and accounting procedures.
In practice, once their legal status has been established, local districts enjoy substantial control over critical resources that can be used to sustain their existence. LEAs can select their own governing representatives, decide on fiscal policies, and choose the scope and suppliers of their services. Districts generally maintain discretion over administrative organization, guidance and counseling, pupil-teacher ratios, staff recruitment, and extracurricular activities. Nonetheless, on school funding and accountability issues, the balance of power has shifted toward greater state control in recent years.
Historically, states moved toward district consolidation to provide uniform educational services in a more economical manner. Smaller districts often experienced difficulties in recruiting qualified teachers, upgrading physical facilities, and maintaining an enriched curriculum. As of 2002, there were 13,522 school districts governing over 90,000 schools across the nation. In the 1940’s, there were almost 109,000 school districts. School district consolidation occurred at a much faster pace than the consolidation of local governments overall. While school boards constituted 70 percent of all local governmental bodies in 1942, they accounted for about 15 percent in 2002. Although four out of five school districts are responsible for fewer than 3,000 students, the average size of districts has grown over the years. Today, about a third of the districts are located in 5 states: California, Texas, Illinois, Nebraska, and New York.
While the number of school districts has changed significantly over the years, district governance and administration have remained remarkably stable. The dominant mode for the selection of school board members is a nonpartisan election held in an off-year from the local general election. Board members can be elected from subdistricts or district wide (at-large). Term limits are not usually placed on board membership. These elections are rarely contested and usually involve very low voter turnout. Even fewer voters are likely to attend board meetings, which are often held on a monthly basis. Given the low political interest in school board politics, many researchers note the dominance of civic elites and interest groups in these elections.
Since the early 1990’s, a growing number of urban districts are taken over by the mayor or jointly by the mayor and the governor. Among these districts are Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Trenton, and Washington, D.C. Mayoral control is facilitated by public concern over school performance and by mayoral efforts to reframe school improvement as a quality of life issue.