Engineering Inequality: Public Policy, School Finance, and the Roots of Educational Inequality in California, 1850-1950

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Stanford University, 2018
"Engineering Inequality" provides a social, intellectual, and political history of inequality in school funding. Various approaches to school finance competed for dominance during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with western states adopting alternatives to district-property taxation and the inequities produced by local financing. With California as its focal point, this dissertation explains why those alternatives were eventually rejected. The project explores the process through which politicians, reformers, residents of expanding communities, and experts in emerging fields like school administration and public finance came not only to accept inequities in school funding, but to recast them as inevitable and natural features of American public schooling. Based on government documents, regional newspapers, personal papers, court cases, and digitized quantitative and spatial data, this study examines the political and ideological struggles shaping school finance and situates those struggles within the broader history of public education, the state, and inequality. Ultimately, "Engineering Inequality" upends familiar historical narratives about how Americans have paid for their schools in the past, narratives that overstate the use of the district property tax and underestimate the extent to which inequality in school finance emerged through state action. In explaining how state policies created funding inequities at the precise moment that public education became the path to economic opportunity for many Americans, this project brings into view the role of educational finance, as an often neglected domain of social policy, in expanding and entrenching inequality in modern America.

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