Rural school consolidation in New York State, 1795-1993: A struggle for control

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education


John W. Briggs


Rural school consolidation, rural education

Subject Categories

Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education


Between 1795 and 1993 elementary and secondary schooling in New York State shifted from a private-local to a public-State activity. In 1795 schools were not tax supported; no level of government had oversight or regulatory authority; there were no licensure requirements for staff, buildings, or programs; and neither attendance at nor provision of formal education was mandatory. By 1993 elementary and secondary schooling was mandatory both in provision and use, and schooling had been organized into a standardized, centralized, and consolidated system of tax supported schools operated under the direct regulation and oversight of the State. The change was evolutionary in nature and cannot be attributed to a single act or period of time.

That shift from local to State control and identity involved a lengthy political struggle and reveals the historical working out of two conflicting themes in the American political tradition: (1) Popular democratic control, represented by the political theories espoused by Thomas Jefferson, and (2) Administrative efficiency and filtered representation, represented by the writings of Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson's profound insight was that citizens gain civic education and competence through apprenticeship in public office. In this sense, local control serves an important function of civic education.

State-directed consolidation and centralization brought some beneficial reforms. It also effectively eliminated the civic education function of the local school for adult residents and produced secondary effects such as the loss of community identity and involvement in education. Current State reform efforts contradict themselves by continuing past attacks on local control while simultaneously trying to foster the sort of civic education and community involvement that increased State control had eliminated.

Since 1900 the total number of school district nationwide has decreased from 150,000 to less than 16,000; a loss of 90%. In New York the decrease is from 11,000 to 720; a loss of 93%. Those losses represent dramatic shifts in school governance and school-community relations. They also support the claim that American voters today are perhaps less apathetic than they are disenfranchised, or at least disconnected from any meaningful role in a society where deference is paid to technical expertise and public institutions are increasingly run by centralized professional bureaucracies


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