Unsatisfactory Progress: The Pursuit of Good Schools in Suburban America, 1940-1980
Sullivan, Jeremy Patrick
Sicilia, David B.
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This project is a case study of educational politics in Montgomery County, Maryland, an affluent suburban county bordering Washington, D.C., from 1940 to 1980. Following World War Two the county experienced significant population growth due to the baby boom and migration, transforming it into a thriving suburb. Concurrently, state party control over the county's school system was replaced by a pluralist system characterized by local grassroots activism, allowing groups of citizens to articulate and organize around distinct educational visions influenced by attitudes about race, class, and political ideology. Citizens debated the meaning of good schools and discussed the best way to achieve them, and over time conflicts between proponents of different educational philosophies revealed clearly defined segments of people within the county. These divisions developed within a consensual yearning for excellent public schools, and this dissertation explores the tension between the shared desire for educational excellence and the specific, competing desires of activists to define educational quality and influence educational policy. Current scholarship on the history of education in America focuses on urban schools or examines particular issues, like desegregation or teacher unionization, in isolation. This investigation highlights suburban educational politics and explores how suburbanites confronted numerous challenges simultaneously as they worked to make good schools in their community. Four groups of county residents emerged and sorted themselves into associations and activist organizations during the postwar decades: liberals, African Americans, conservatives, and teachers. Members of competing activist organizations defined good schools differently and employed different strategies to implement their preferences, including lobbying, electoral activism, petitioning at public hearings, and direct action such as protests and strikes. Cooperation between activists seemed possible initially, but over time the democratic mechanisms of pluralist educational politics helped cultivate suspicion in the minds of many citizens, splintering the consensus about the quality of the school system and prompting people to view public schools as a limited resource, with benefits available only to some, as opposed to a common good. In this way, the democratization of educational politics constrained what these suburbanites thought public schools could achieve and tempered their hopes for the future.