Education and Social Inequality in the Long 20th Century

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) and the Oral History Association

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Education


The ever-increasing importance of schools in structuring social opportunity makes them essential institutions to examine to understand the history of social inequality in the United States. These four papers contribute to a growing body of scholarship that situates the history of education within its broader social and political context, and rethinks the role of educational policy in shaping local, state, and federal governance and political economy. Schools - how they were funded, where they were located, who they served, and their ideological and political promise - were central to the creation and operation of residential segregation, regressive tax regimes, unequal labor markets, and regional economic development that favored business elites over residents.

These four papers explore several key moments of contestation over the expansion of publicly-financed education in the 20th century in different regions of the United States, revealing underlying conflicts about what role schools should play in society, and their role in shaping new social and economic disparities. Focusing on northern California in the early 20th century, Matt Kelly considers the role of state public finance policies on financial disparities between school districts. Shifting to the East Coast in the same era, Cristina Groeger examines the relationship between employer’s anti-union “open-shop” movement and their reliance on a new feminized clerical workforce, largely trained in public schools. Moving to the Midwest in the late 20th century, Kelly Goodman explores the role of organized teachers and labor leaders in pushing for more equitable systems of school finance, to address both economic and racial disparities, between the tax revolts in 1960s cities and 1970s states. Finally, turning to the South, William Goldsmith examines the political leaders in North Carolina who championed investment in “human capital” as essential to their program of Southern economic development, with policy consequences at the national level in the 1980s and 1990s. Nancy Beadie, expert in the history of school funding and the role of education in both economic development and state formation, will serve as commentator and chair.

By situating educational policy in distinct regions within broader contexts of social, economic, and political trends, these papers offer new explanations for the persistent “educationalization” of social problems. These papers show diverse ways in which, throughout the twentieth century, despite a longstanding faith in education as the “great equalizer,” educational policy has undergirded new structures of social inequality in the U.S. The panel as a whole seeks to shape new narratives about social inequality in the United States, with education playing a leading role.

Papers Presented

Fiscal Visions of Education Equality between Tax Revolts

This paper examines the intersection of labor and liberal strategies to equalize school funding between tax revolts in 1960s cities and 1970s states. After securing federal aid in 1965 and growing skeptical about integration, liberals looked to state aid for equal but separate schools. At the same time that both advocates of community control of schools and unionized teachers sought budget authority in the streets, a generation of professors of education and law sued in the courts. Here, I tell these histories of education, labor, and school finance together in the person of United Automobile Workers and American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees lawyer Abraham Zwerdling. Zwerdling led the Detroit Board of Education that ushered in public sector unionism in 1965, filed the first school finance reform lawsuit in 1968, and rezoned high schools for racial integration in a 1970 decision that ended metropolitan busing when the U.S. Supreme Court took up Milliken v. Bradley. After the California case Serrano v. Priest proved the “one child, one dollar” theory in 1971, the Ford Foundation invested in legal and community organizations to challenge the constitutionality of funding schools through property taxes in state courts across the country. During the two years this legal precedent lasted, the labor movement proposed new school finance systems, provoking a competing theory of constitutional tax limitation as early as California’s 1973 Proposition 1. Thus, I locate the contemporary school finance crisis before California’s infamous 1978 property tax cut Proposition 13.

Presented By
Kelly A. Goodman, Yale University

“Education for Economic Growth”: The Political Uses of Human Capital in the late 20th Century

This paper examines how liberal policy advocates and state politicians leveraged economists’ human capital framework to justify additional resources for public education. While some scholars contend that human capital displaced policy concerns with equity, this paper historicizes that process and argues that many policy advocates used human capital strategically to address social inequalities. They persuaded politicians that the economic future of cities and states depended on greater investment in human resources, but not until the 1990s did they look to human capital to guide policy for K–12 and higher education. Using North Carolina as a case study, this paper draws on governors’ personal and state archives, the records of nonprofit policy organizations, annual gubernatorial meetings, documents, oral history interviews, and press accounts to reconstruct how politicians and their advisors drew from ideas of human capital starting in the 1960s. They initially saw in human capital a capacious rationale for education spending writ large—whether in primary, secondary, or tertiary schools—one with bearing on budgets but not on policy otherwise. By the early 1980s, in conjunction with education reform typically marked by the report A Nation at Risk, many governors, especially southern governors, centered tenetsof human capital theory in their public rationales for “investment” in education, or, as North Carolina governor James B. Hunt called it, “education for economic growth.” Bill Clinton brought this approach to the White House in the 1990s, by which point policymakers looked to human capital for more concrete policy guidance, facilitating the testing and privatization agendas.

Presented By
William Dixon Goldsmith, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Public Finance, State-Sponsored Inequalities, and the Race for Progressive Era Education Reform in Northern California

This paper considers how public finance policies influenced the trajectory of Progressive Era education reform in the nine counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay. Specifically, the paper examines the evolution of policies regulating state and local taxation, bonded indebtedness, municipal incorporation, and municipal annexation. A host of Progressive Era education reforms—from administrative centralization to the creation of school playgrounds—were profoundly shaped by these policies. Yet, historians have rarely considered their impact on education reform during the Progressive Era. This paper contends that state public finance policies encouraged, often by design, competition between communities over financial resources for education reforms and a narrow view of the purposes of Progressive Era public schooling. These policies, in turn, created new disparities between school districts and new forms of inequality in the region. The paper argues that incorporating a concern for public finance policies into histories of Progressive Era education reform allows us to better understand the history of educational inequality and the state’s role in shaping it. The paper draws on state and local financial and legal documents, newspaper accounts, legislative records, the personal papers of lawmakers, and digitized financial data. Following the insights of postwar metropolitan historians, the paper places a mixture of urban, suburban, and rural communities in the same analytic space. In doing so, the paper brings into view disparities between school districts too easily missed by isolated studies of urban schools or broader state and national syntheses during the Progressive Era.

Presented By
Matthew Gardner Kelly, Pennsylvania State University

Educational Growth and Worker Power in the Early Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, employers launched fierce “open shop” drives to purge union members and decrease predominantly male craft union power. At the same time, firms hired large numbers of women clerical workers and sales personnel to staff their growing corporate bureaucracies, which became a vast pool of contingent “pink-collar” workers by 1930. The majority of these pink collar workers received their training in schools, leading to surging enrollments and expenditures for publicly-funded education. Although economic, labor, and educational historians have noted these trends, less understood is the relationship between this enormous educational boom and the declining power of craft unions before 1930. Using historical census data, personnel records, trade journals, newspapers, and narrative testimony, this paper argues that while schools opened up new, eagerly sought opportunities for women and immigrant workers, the triumph of a school-based work force allowed employers to undercut craft union power and shift toward a work force made up of contingent staff under constant threat of replacement. While industrial unions in the wake of the Great Depression offered workers alternative paths to workplace power, the first decades of the twentieth century offer important lessons for rethinking the relationship between educational expansion, worker power, and social inequality in our own time.

Presented By
Cristina Viviana Groeger, Lake Forest College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Tracy L. Steffes, Brown University

Presenter: Matthew Gardner Kelly, Pennsylvania State University
Matthew Gardner Kelly (Ph.D., Stanford University; M.A., Stanford University; B.A., Bard College) is an Assistant Professor in the Education Policy Studies Department at Pennsylvania State University. His research examines the political, economic, and cultural forces shaping school funding inequities in the United States. His book manuscript, tentatively titled Unequal by Design: School Finance, Taxation, and the Politics of Educational Inequality in California, 1850-1950, provides a history of taxation policies and school funding inequities in California during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His 2016 article on the creation of common schools in California received the prize for Best Article Published in a Refereed Journal awarded by the History of Education Society. He also researches contemporary issues in school finance, especially the consequences of state funding and taxation policies for racial and economic inequality. He was previously a middle school teacher in New York City.

Presenter: William Dixon Goldsmith, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
William D. Goldsmith (Ph.D., Duke University, 2018; B.A., Yale University, 2002) is a history instructor at Duke University. His dissertation, “Educating for a New Economy: The Struggle to Redevelop a Jim Crow State, 1960-2000,” shows how the civil rights revolution empowered a new array of policymakers who challenged the vestiges of plantation slavery by emphasizing human development and welcoming the New Economy. He was a 2017 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow. Before graduate school, Goldsmith worked as a journalist in Charlottesville, Virginia and a high school teacher in Halifax County, North Carolina.

Presenter: Kelly A. Goodman, Yale University
Kelly Goodman is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University where she researches the political economy of American school finance. Her dissertation about tax limitation movements in the twentieth century follows shifting political coalitions of organized teachers, businesses, and farmers who pursued fiscal methods both constitutional and democratic to decide how to fund schools through taxes. Following popular economic ideas about government spending from this research, her writing on the history of economic thought finds free market ideas in journalism from the agricultural Midwest and nineteenth-century school textbooks rather than in high theory. Her research has been supported by grants from the American Federation of Teachers and the Walter P. Reuther Library, the Hagley and Bentley Libraries, and the Hoover and Rockefeller Archives.

Presenter: Cristina Viviana Groeger, Lake Forest College
Cristina V. Groeger is an Assistant Professor of History at Lake Forest College whose scholarship examines the relationship between education, labor markets, and social inequality in the modern United States. Her book manuscript, “Paths to Work: Credentialing Inequality in the United States” examines how increased access to education, so often hailed as the primary road to opportunity, gave rise to new forms of inequality by restructuring pathways into employment. She received her PhD in History at Harvard University in 2017. Her research has been funded by the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation and has been published in the History of Education Quarterly, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and the New England Quarterly.