Reimagining Educational Localism: Periodic Redistricting of Public Schools
Aaron Saiger

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Fordham University School of Law

Primary Discipline

Political Science
American educational governance relies upon small, local school districts. Its localism is deeply entrenched. Localism commands ferocious support from powerful constituencies that reap its benefits. It also, somewhat more surprisingly, has been repeatedly endorsed by both federal and state constitutional courts. Nevertheless, localism is widely, and properly, identified as a root of educational inequity and distress. Given the intense economic stratification of the American metropolis, the localist paradigm guarantees that low-income students have few if any classmates who are not poor, which dramatically depresses their educational achievement. Isolating the poor in districts of their own also deforms educational politics, policy, and finance at local, state, and federal levels.This critique of localism has led many to advocate that it be abandoned or severely curtailed. This conclusion, however, fails to credit localism’s virtues. In terms of sound public administration, schools are the archetypal “loosely coupled” bureaucracy, where agents—administrators and teachers—must apply unavoidably imprecise policies to complex, unpredictable situations. Students of public management will recognize the mismatch between this sort of governmental activity and central administration. Perhaps more fundamental are normative political justifications of localism. Social theorists and jurists have argued that school districts ought to be not just bureaucracies but polities, where a local community joins together to shape a public service that is the font of its hopes and values and the foundation of its civic culture. School communities ought to be local because their problems and goals are local.This research seeks to reimagine American educational localism so as to mitigate its costs while preserving and even extending its benefits. Rather than define school district boundaries as geographically fixed, like cities’ or counties’, it proposes that legislatures and courts reconceptualize school districts on the model of electoral districts. Just as electoral boundaries are decennially revised in service of the one-person-one-vote principle, absent which individuals’ right to vote is vitiated, school districts would be periodically redrawn to ensure that each has a minimal level of economic diversity, without which some students cannot realize their right to adequate or equal education. The periodicity of redistricting would blunt the extent to which relocation decisions of relatively privileged families could over time undermine the goal of socioeconomic integration.The analogy between schooling and voting, though imperfect, is robust enough to overcome resistance, particularly in the courts. Voting rights provides a familiar conceptual toolkit, reassuring reluctant judges that the setting of district boundaries is susceptible to judicial management. Moreover, the proposal respects the law’s (justified) commitment to localism as the foundation of both educational administration and the educational polity.This research will operationalize a legal proposal for school redistricting; argue that it is legally sound, politically feasible, and normatively attractive; and assess its potential impacts on educational governance, education law, and metropolitan land use. In doing so, it will both advance a policy alternative that could greatly benefit children now stuck in impoverished school districts, and provide a lens through which to investigate several understudied costs and benefits of educational localism.
About Aaron Saiger

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