University of Maryland


Clarence N. Stone

University of Maryland

Abstract: In 1993 a team of political scientists launched an eleven-city study of school reform, centering on the concept of civic capacity. Though city civic life is not usually geared to wide and sustained engagement in big problems, on occasion localities have enhanced their capacity for such engagement (that is, their civic capacity) by mobilizing multiple sectors of the community around city-wide issues and developing a shared plan of action. In the field of urban education, the eleven-city study found places ranging from those with low levels of civic capacity in which diffuse and scattered concerns never became focused and synergistic to those with relatively high levels of civic capacity in which key actors came together in concerted action. Community leaders develop civic capacity in order to respond to major community-wide problems with a high potential for controversy. This means that a spirit of cooperation can quickly erode, and that civic capacity differs from micro versions of social capital. To be lasting, civic capacity needs an institutional foundation for interaction among elites and a "grass roots" base through which ordinary citizens are engaged.

Norton Long (1958) once described the urban community as an "ecology of games," in which few players display a sense of responsibility for the locality's common well-being. As Long saw it, the usual form of civic life little suits concerted action on community-wide problems. Banks play the financial game, politicians serve mainly as brokers and focus narrowly on the re-election game, unions engage in their individual collective bargaining games, developers play the land-use game, and so it goes. According to Long, the "protagonists of things in particular are well organized and know what they are about; the protagonists of things in general are few, vague and, weak" (1958: ).

In Long's account, broad topics of concern receive occasional attention at civic-club lunches. From time to time, civic staff prepare task force reports on community-wide issues, but, Long argued, civic life is not geared to wide and sustained engagement in big problems. Mostly people deal with issues that are immediate in their daily lives, not wider concerns of the community. Yet, Long suggested, most citizens feel a vague need for some group to take charge and bring the resources of the city to bear on its major problems.

In the decades since Long's article appeared, metropolitan areas have become increasingly fragmented, and, within cities, functional specialization continues to be a powerful force. Thus urban civic life has not changed drastically. Still, what Robert Salisbury (1964) once called "the new convergence of power" has on significant occasions swung into action. In many places, public-private partnerships took shape, and over time they contributed greatly to remaking the physical character of the contemporary city. It is not surprising, then, that, as the performance of urban schools has come to be a matter of rising concern, calls for civic action have spread. A few cities have held "education summits," but not always with effective follow-through. Education is different from urban redevelopment and concerted action around schools appears much harder to develop and perhaps even more difficult to sustain.

With this consideration in mind, in 1993, a team of political scientists launched a study, funded by the National Science Foundation, under the title of "Civic Capacity and Urban Education." One of our working assumption was that, even though talk about civic action was plenteous, cities differ substantially in ability to mobilize around education; therefore it is important to gain a better understanding of the nature of this varying capacity and what it looks like at different levels of development.

While the overall project has explored the politics of urban school reform from a variety of angles, the purpose of the present report is less far ranging. It is to hold up for consideration the concept of civic capacity, with specific attention to urban education. With this groundwork laid, it is then possible to differentiate between civic capacity and social capital. Though the two terms have some kinship, they represent quite distinct perspectives on the urban community and how to respond to its problems.

Civic capacity concerns the extent to which different sectors of the community -- business, parents, educators, state and local officeholders, nonprofits, and others -- act in concert around a matter of community-wide import. It involves mobilization, that is, bringing different sectors together, but also developing a shared plan of action. Much of the school reform literature talks about the need to assemble stakeholders and develop a common agenda, but language about stakeholders assumes that different elements of the community see themselves as having a stake in something they hold in common. Long's concept of the local community as an "ecology of games" cautions us that the role of stakeholder is not necessarily foremost for many community actors. For civic capacity to become a reality, "protagonists of things in particular" must come to view themselves as participants in a wider "game."

In taking a cue from Norton Long, as we looked at eleven cities (Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Washington, DC), our research team did not presuppose that various sectors of the community routinely see themselves as stakeholders in urban education. Indeed, we assumed that acting around a shared purpose would be atypical, and therefore it is important to explore the nature of city coalitions and the varying degrees to which they came together around the issue of urban education.

As indicated above, school reform is a distinctive kind of process, with a dynamic different from redevelopment or other processes centered in changing urban land use. Moreover, our research taught us quickly that, whatever might be the case with various forms of social capital, civic capacity is not a generic quality, easily transferable from one issue to another. An ability to address educational improvement is not simply an application of a general community capacity to solve problems, but requires its own particular development. A brief account of selected cities will illustrate.

Atlanta: A Case of Weak Civic Capacity

Over a period of many years, Atlanta has demonstrated its considerable capacity to pursue a policy of urban redevelopment, centered on the city’s main business district (Stone 1989). Yet, Atlanta has consistently failed to draw key sectors of the community together around an agenda of educational improvement. Consider Atlanta in 1993, a decade after the publication of A Nation At Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983). By the early 1990s, the national call for education reform had been made and remade in several forums. The state of Georgia had initiated its Quality Basic Education Act and had taken other initiatives. Yet none of this determined what the local response would be. Despite weakly performing schools and widespread worry about the situation, Atlanta did not come together around a comprehensive and sustained move to reform its educational system. The city shows what a low level of civic capacity looks like, significantly, not because various sectors of the city were indifferent, but because diffuse concerns and scattered activities never generated a community synergy.

In 1993, however, Atlanta seemed ripe for a thoroughgoing reform effort. Schools were performing at an abysmal level, with test scores lower even than some of Georgia’s rural counties. Moreover, the longer Atlanta students were in the education system, the worse they performed; high school scores were even more dismal than scores in the elementary grades. The drop out rate was high, at an estimated 30 percent. Even with per-pupil expenditures higher in Atlanta than in many of the surrounding suburbs, enrollment in city schools had gone down at an astonishing rate. From 1975 to 1993 enrollment halved, declining from 119,000 to 60,000.

Atlanta’s elected school board was scandal ridden and rife with conflict, leading one observer to characterize it as “the most criticized and ridiculed” body in the city government (Holmes 1993). One member had been removed for channeling funds at questionable payment levels to favored contractors, and another board member was under fire for accepting funds from the board’s highly paid ($300,000 per annum) attorney. The board was sharply split along racial lines, and personal disputes within and across racial lines heightened the conflict level. Civility was at a low level, and an argument between a member of the board of education and the school superintendent nearly turned violent. Though school board proceedings were televised and therefore viewed by the public, questions of education policy took a back seat to personal disputes about who was in charge of what and who was to get which contracts and jobs.

With school board elections upcoming, the time seemed right for coalition- building around a fresh start. If Atlanta were to build civic capacity around educational improvement, 1993 would seem to have been the time to do so.

Obstacles stood in the way, however. Racial tension was not confined to the school board, but extended throughout the education arena and beyond. Further, 20 years earlier under the auspices of a Federal District Court Judge hearing Atlanta’s school desegregation suit, a biracial group signed an agreement known as the Atlanta Compromise (Jackson 1978; Fleishman 1980). Though the signatories were biracial, the agreement essentially ceded control of the school system to the African American community, thereby eroding ground on which the interaction between the races could occur around issues of education.

In this earlier era of jurisprudence, when racial balance was a consideration, Atlanta, with a school system already heavily African American, posed the possibility that litigation could turn down the path of a metropolitan solution. White business leaders were eager to avoid that turn of events for fear that it would torpedo an ongoing effort to gain suburban support for a regional mass transit system. Leaders in the African American community were unsure that they could achieve a workable agreement centered on racial balance, and some had doubts that racial balance should be the top education priority in any case. With that background, a biracial committee reached an agreement to forego the busing of students for racial balance and instead to alter the racial balance of power in the administrative control of the school system. An African American would be named to replace the white superintendent, who was stepping down, and Black representation would be increased throughout the upper ranks of school administration. Informally, Black and white leaders understood the arrangement to be one of shifting control of the schools from white hands to Black.

Subsequently business involvement in education virtually disappeared. In 1993, two decades after the Atlanta compromise, one observer noted that, until the Chamber of Commerce's newly awakened interest in education that year, business leaders made no effort to be a voice in the deliberations of the city's school board.

Nevertheless, for 1993, business put aside its practice of disengagement and created a campaign organization, EDUPAC, to support a new majority on the nine-member school board. In an environment of rising opposition, four members of the board chose not to seek reelection. A biracial coalition came together in another organization, Erase the Board, and it was seeking a completely new school board. Erase the Board was led by the president of Concerned Black Clergy, and it enjoyed biracial support spanning a diverse set of groups: the Atlanta Council of PTA’s (a racially mixed but majority Black organization), 100 Black Men, Atlanta Parents and Public Linked to Education (Apple Corps, a small but well organized group headed largely by white women professionals), the education division of Jimmy Carter’s Atlanta Project (a group with strong business connections), the teachers' union, and the Council of In-Town Neighborhoods and Schools (another racially mixed group).

Whereas Erase the Board sought a complete ousting of incumbents, EDUPAC supported three incumbents, and those three were reelected. But two other incumbents were defeated, and the post-election board of education had six new members. The school superintendent also resigned, and the stage was set for a new era in Atlanta’s education politics. For a time, racial division had taken a back seat to a move for change.

With business having a renewed interest in education, the Chamber of Commerce formed a Committee on Public Education, as an organization to bridge the gap between business and schools. Already in place at that time was the Atlanta Partnership of Business and Education, concerned with such matters as adopt-a-school programs and teacher-of-the-year awards. In addition, like most cities, at this time, Atlanta had a number of advocacy groups for children as well as organizations concerned with various aspects of youth development. Overall there was no shortage of actors interested in education and related matters.

Diffuse concerns provide useful raw material, but in and of themselves they do not generate synergy. Someone has to see and act on a big picture of community-wide purpose and cooperation around that purpose. In Atlanta that did not happen.

Atlanta's Road not Taken

With schools desperately in need of attention, with the education issue prominent in public discussion, and with a diverse set of players coming together to elect a new school board, and with an opening to bring in a new school superintendent, Atlanta could have come together to build a high level of civic engagement around improving its education system. Stakeholders, however, did not join their efforts even though a high level of interest in school reform was clearly in evidence. Civic energy was scattered among several organizations, each of which continued to pursue its particular agenda. No one came forward to summon the disparate players to join efforts and form an encompassing coalition with a comprehensive program of action.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that during the school board election there were two separate campaign organizations despite the fact that their aims coincided closely. When the election was over, the two organizations folded and made no effort to join in a common cause of school reform. Instead, potential partners went their separate ways.

The business sector started 1993 off with a resurgent interest in education and a encouraging Chamber of Commerce study, and the Committee on Public Education held promise of an institutionalized commitment. The Chamber of Commerce study sounded a supportive note for the public schools, and it engaged in self-reproach over lack of business involvement in education. The study touched on the issue of workforce development and criticized business reliance on the graduates of suburban schools to meet labor needs.

Once the election was over, however, these broad concerns faded, and the business sector once again narrowed its focus to the conventional issues of containing costs, un-businesslike practices such as tenure (subsequently eliminated by state legislation), and excessive bureaucracy. The new school board and new superintendent embraced a kindred outlook and soon occupied themselves with various financial matters such as the underfunded pension plan and with economy measures such as school closings. Such issues as the use of closed schools, underutilized space for pre-kindergarten programs, and services for families and children went unpursued.

Among advocacy and social service organizations no move toward a comprehensive approach emerged. In some cases, the staff of such agencies, what Floyd Hunter (1953) called “under-structure professionals,” seemed, as one observer noted, to spend much of their time and energy in meetings with other professionals. In the eyes of some, the most effective groups in the city are the smaller and often unfinanced groups like 100 Black Men of Atlanta and Apple Corps. With small resource bases, these organizations have an impact through a sustained but narrow focus. Without major allies, they simply cannot afford a wider approach.

Overall, volunteers and social-service organizations have nothing within their own dynamic that would lead them to generate a broad vision of community needs and how to meet them. The one move toward a comprehensive approach was the Atlanta Project of Jimmy Carter. Launched during the city’s preparation for the Summer Olympics, this was a business-backed and non-governmental effort to address poverty and show the world that Atlanta possessed a social conscience. It was a five-year program intended to spur volunteerism in Atlanta to new heights, but it came under criticism for its lack of focus, its paternalistic approach, and the unrealistic expectations it fostered (Stone and Pierannunzi 2000). It was weak on community consultation, and, after its planned five years, the Atlanta Project closed shop, leaving only a few of the initiatives it launched still operating. With opened-ended aims but a firm promise to business to remain unconnected to local government, the Atlanta Project lacked sustaining power, and possessed no institutional capacity to design broad programs to combat poverty and improve city schools.

Perhaps as an unintended legacy of the Atlanta Compromise, education has proved to be highly resistant to civic mobilization. During the 1990’s, the school system had four different superintendents (the fourth continues in office at this writing), and many of them have shown little inclination to court business involvement. Moreover, subsequent to the 1993 Chamber of Commerce study mentioned above, business has mainly been critical of Atlanta schools and their management practices.

To complicate matters further, the city and its schools have come under sharp attack by political representatives from the surrounding and overwhelmingly white suburbs. It is not surprising, then, that the Atlanta Project shared with many lesser initiatives an inability to overcome barriers of race and class and to genuinely engage Atlanta's nonaffluent African American population. To many residents, the city's civic climate is highly uninviting.

The depth of distrust can be seen in reactions to a 1999 proposal to convert Grady High School to charter status. Grady has a magnet program and is one of the few high schools in the city to have a racially mixed enrollment. As discussion proceeded, it became clear that Black parents, particularly those whose children were not part of the magnet program, strongly opposed change and distrusted the motives of those backing the charter move. In a series of meetings, these parents registered the following objections:

  1. Governance of the charter school would be dominated by magnet parents and white parents generally.
  2. In a charter school, programs for students not in the magnet program would be underfunded.
  3. Many parents would not be able to express their views because they could not attend governance meetings due to work and family commitments.
  4. Non-affluent parents would be better able to protect their interests by working through the elected board of education than through an autonomous board for a charter school.

Anxieties about white dominance serve to undermine support for change. Distrust at various levels and across lines of race and class gives rise to Atlanta’s weak form of civic capacity. With distrust widespread, actors tend to carve out small bits of turf and defend them. In the education arena, coalitions are ad hoc and short-lived. What should be noted, however, is how little effort is devoted to altering the situation. Broad-vision leadership is in short supply. Perhaps still operating in the shadow of the Atlanta Compromise, business ventures little. Activity lies largely in the hands of “under-structure” personnel, and they carry little credibility as "movers and shakers.” Yet, while civic élites can make change believable, the Atlanta Project reveals how shallow their legitimacy is. As the Grady High School experience illustrates, unless parents and other community-based actors can be engaged in the cause, resistance to reform may run deep. The striking feature of the Atlanta scene is the scarcity of people either seeking to enlist élites to come together on the education issue or to overcome the distrust among the masses. Despite the city’s long history of biracial governance around urban redevelopment, Atlanta’s education arena provides a striking example of weak civic capacity. As an issue, education remains tellingly disconnected from economic development, from general worries about the quality of city life, or other concerns that might power a reform-minded coalition willing to tackle school reform.

The other three cities with low civic capacity in the eleven city study are St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco. Significantly all three were under court-directed orders for school desegregation, and an unintended effect was to discourage the building of civic capacity -- many stakeholders saw education as the court's responsibility, not theirs (Stone et al., forthcoming).

Loosely Connected Civic Capacity

Atlanta represents a stubbornly low level of civic capacity around the issue of school improvement. Contrast Chicago’s widely written about experience with school reform. After A Nation at Risk and other reports put the spotlight on public education, the weak performance of many school districts became under close scrutiny. During a 1987 visit to Chicago, then U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett labeled the city's school system the “worst in America” and said to Chicagoans: “You’ve got close to educational meltdown”(Vander Weele 1994, 3). Bennett lent drama to what the city’s research and advocacy groups had already documented: a high dropout rate and low test scores were damning proof of the failure of Chicago schools.

In 1987, the same year that Bennett's comments caused a stir, a prolonged teacher’s strike (the ninth in 18 years) brought matters to a head, and Mayor Harold Washington initiated a summit process, bringing major sectors of the community together to address the need for school reform. The mayor had already taken a preliminary step to draw Chicago business into a more active and open role (Shipps 1998). After the strike settlement, Mayor Washington arranged for an all-day, open meeting on the city schools. “Attended by thousands,” this meeting led the mayor to appoint a Parent Community Council, and he asked it to sponsor “parent and community forums throughout the city” (Bryk and others 1998, 19). Though Harold Washington’s death a short time later weakened the effort to create a tight-knit coalition around school reform, the process had nevertheless been set in motion, and the reform coalition achieved far-reaching legislation to create decentralization and parent participation through a system of powerful Local School Councils. Subsequently, however, with a shift in party control of the Illinois legislature, a business-dominated coalition gained state authorization for an additional form of restructuring superimposed on the recent decentralization. It provided for business-style management, controlled by city hall, to guide and monitor the school system overall. Mayor Richard M. Daley embraced this version of school reform and put in place a management team to operate it.

Chicago illustrates not a highly developed form of civic capacity, but rather a loosely connected form. Short on continuity, it nevertheless represents a markedly higher level than the diffuse and fragmented capacity Atlanta displays. From the outset, Chicago possessed research and advocacy groups able to focus attention on system-wide problems. Chicago business has a long record of involvement in education, and its concerns are broader than the low-taxation, economy-and-efficiency concerns that Atlanta business displays. In addition, first under Mayor Harold Washington and later under Mayor Richard M. Daley, City Hall has played an active role, of a more facilitative kind under Washington and of a more top-command kind under Daley. Significantly, however, parent and community-based groups have also played an important, albeit uneven, part, first in shaping the reform agenda and later in implementing decentralization. Though the major players have not always formed a tight-knit coalition, they have cohered to a significant degree around sundry efforts to improve schools. Chicago shows, however, that civic capacity is not constant and does not always build cumulatively. Civic capacity can and does sometime regress.

Among our eleven cities, Baltimore’s experience provides a rough parallel to that of Chicago in that a wide array of players have engaged to varying degrees in the furtherance of a school-improvement agenda, but, over time, one sees only a loose joining of efforts. In Baltimore, at roughly the same time as the Chicago summit, BUILD (an Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate) put school reform on the city’s action agenda, pressing for site-based management (decentralization) and also for the creation of an agreement between the schools and the city’s major business organization, the Greater Baltimore Committee, to deal with school-to-work and school-to-college issues. Unlike many cities, Baltimore organizes its school system as a department of the city government. And, when Kurt Schmoke became mayor in 1987, City Hall became an active participant in the reform coalition. Though Baltimore has never had the kind of city-wide forums, "attended by thousands," that Chicago has had, the city does have a rich array of neighborhood organizations. Over the years, several of them have taken up the school-reform issue - some of them stimulated by Baltimore’s Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a significant city-wide actor (Orr 1999). Moreover, another organization, Advocates for Children and Youth, monitors key aspects of school performance in the city. Sundry state officials have also been part of the loose coalition concerned to improve schools in Baltimore.

Chicago and Baltimore are alike in that business, community and advocacy groups, and public officials became loosely allied to improve public education. In both cities, administrators and teachers have offered resistance, and racial divisions over employment have hampered cooperation. The main difference between the two is the central role assumed by Chicago’s mayor, while the restructuring in Baltimore created a peculiar state-city partnership, in which the school system continues to enjoy a degree of autonomy. At the same time, the state set a short deadline for a master plan, and this worked against the engagement of parents and community groups in the planning process. Baltimore thus has a stronger base of school reform than Atlanta, but falls short of the scope of community engagement that Chicago has had.

Among the eleven cities, aside from Baltimore, three other cities fell into the middle category in level of civic capacity for the 1993-1994 period covered in the National Science Foundation project: Houston, Detroit, and Washington, DC. At the time of the field work, civic capacity in Houston was limited by conflict between Latino and African American communities (Longoria 1998). Since then, while Houston has moved forward in building civic capacity, Detroit and Washington, DC have experienced takeovers of their school systems and accompanying setbacks in community engagement.

High Civic Capacity

If neither Baltimore (among our eleven cities) nor Chicago (as a well publicized case nationally) represents a top level of civic capacity, is there an example? One strong candidate for that rating is El Paso, Texas (Navarro and Natalico 1999). In the early 1990’s, confronted, as were many other cities, by weakly performing schools, El Paso moved to foster community-wide collaboration around educational improvement. Following extensive discussion among a cross section of city leaders, a small group came together to form the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. The key figures were the superintendents of the three school districts that serve El Paso; the president of the University of Texas, El Paso; the president of the El Paso Community College; the executive director of the Texas Education Agency’s regional service center; the lead organizer of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation); the president of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce; the president of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; the mayor of the city; and the county judge. Unlike the loosely connected reform movement in Baltimore or the totally scattered activity in Atlanta, El Paso formed and still maintains (unlike Chicago’s short-lived summit effort) a tight-knit organization around a set of agreed upon concerns. The collaborative has a professional staff, and it pursues activities that involve parents and the broader community and has embarked on a project to develop “a cadre of community leaders and parents who are willing to support educational renewal for the long term” and help “keep the public engaged in the endeavor” (Navarro and Natalico 1999, 599).

The business sector has played a major part. In February 1998, city leaders came together in an Economic Summit identifying education and work force development as a top priority for the city. The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce followed this summit with a business/education white paper, including a series of recommendations for how businesses could address the concerns identified (El Paso Education Summit Briefing Book, 2000). Another period of community consultation followed, and in February of 2000, the city held an Education Summit to move on a wide array of specific recommendations.

Several things are noteworthy about El Paso’s experience. One is that all sectors of the community are represented, and this includes the leadership of the city’s three school districts. Moreover, not only is there a major community-based organization involved, but the development of parent and community leadership and the promotion of grass-roots engagement are also part of the ongoing activity of the Collaborative. Another feature is the strong representation of institutional basis of power and resources: the three school district’s, the state, the city, the county, two chambers of commerce, the university, and the community college. The durable character of the collaboration is another notable feature. Significantly, it is formally organized and staffed, and it maintains a high level of visible activity. Perhaps related to this feature of El Paso’s experience is the fact that collaboration focuses on concrete and specific courses of action; it is no mere expression of general sentiment. Further, grass roots and elite-level consultation and deliberation are ongoing activities. Finally, it should be noted that the Collaborative has received important material and intellectual support from extra-local sources: the National Science Foundation (the Urban Systemic Initiative); the Pew Charitable Trusts; the Education Trust, headed by Kati Haycock; and John Goodlad’s National Network for Educational Renewal.

What is relatively easy to trace, especially for a formally organized entity like the El Paso Collaborative for Educational Excellence, is the extent to which various segments of the community are mobilized to take part. Less easy to track is the interaction among those mobilized and the consequences of interaction for a shared understanding. However, it should be noted that El Paso uses a highly planned form of consultation. For most cities the process is more casual and even incidental. Yet, though the process sometimes breaks down, as it has on occasion in Baltimore (typically along the fault line of race), there is an identifiable path of development that can take place. It has to do with an enlarged understanding, a widened perspective on what is at issue. A simulation exercise on school reform generated the observation that the “importance of a mixed group of people considering what to do cannot be overstated” (Hill, Campbell, and Harvey 2000, 58). Most people start with what they know personally, from what they do and experience in everyday life. But, when given a collective commitment to solve a problem, they often find a need to listen to one another and consider what observations each has to offer. In the above simulation exercise, participants found themselves weighing a wide array of viewpoints and “attributed their expansive thinking to the ideas of other panelists who brought a variety of perspectives to the table” (Hill, Campbell, and Harvey 2000, 58).

A summit consultation can operate in just that manner. First it focuses attention on the community-wide dimensions of a problem. It is not a matter of addressing particular problems on an individual basis, but of considering a broad issue from the combined concerns and insights of a variety of participants. In short, it is a form of public deliberation, and it is this form of consultation that El Paso has intentionally cultivated. As we saw earlier, however, Chicago followed quite a different path, even though it started reform through a summit. Chicago's process later gave way to a more restricted form of consultation, as the traditional alliance between business and city hall displaced a more inclusive form of community engagement. Significantly, Chicago, unlike El Paso, did not institutionalize community-wide consultation as an integral part of school reform.

Pittsburgh, Boston, and Los Angeles

None of our 11 cities has as refined a form of civic capacity as El Paso displays, but three of them - Pittsburgh, Boston, and Los Angeles - achieved relatively high levels of civic capacity. Each reached that level in a somewhat different manner. At the time of our collective field research, 1993-1994, Pittsburgh had the highest level of civic capacity, though it was experiencing some significant transitions (Portz, Stein, and Jones 1999). Civic capacity in Pittsburgh’s education arena grew out of the desegregation struggles of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Key leaders came together around the idea of school improvement as a way to transcend battles over racial balance. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD), the business sector’s voice on major civic issues, made some vital moves. First, it created the Allegheny Conference Education Fund to support innovative projects within the school system, and it brought in national experts to foster school-business partnerships. Second, ACCD provided leadership for a Citizen’s Advisory Committee formed in 1980 and that committee developed a school improvement plan as well as launched a “community dialogue,” to engage neighborhood leaders. The committee also sponsored a public information campaign along with a series of troubleshooting meetings to emphasize the strengths of the school system.

The president of the teachers union was an important member of the school improvement coalition, providing a critical base of support for the reform process. In 1980, Richard Wallace was hired as superintendent, and he further shaped reform around an “excellence agenda,” and brought the education-research community in as participants in reform. During his 12 years as superintendent, Pittsburgh acquired a reputation as “a national model of urban educational reform” (Portz, Stein, and Jones 1999, 56). Wallace’s successor, Louse Brennan continued an activist agenda. Moving in the new direction of decentralization, she used a series of broad-based task forces to develop a strategic plan of action. The plan provided for an expanded and formally recognized role for parent and community involvement, and she also inaugurated a program of training for parent involvement in the new structure. Thus Pittsburgh established and made strong use of a tradition of civic collaboration in education, but ongoing events show that even such a tradition may rest on a tenuous basis, as a financial squeeze, the redirection of business attention to issues of regional economic decline, and continuing tensions over racial balance versus neighborhood schools have taken a toll on civic cooperation. The ACCD provided crucial institutional support for collaboration around education, and, with that organization now less focused on city issues than regional ones, civic cooperation is today less firmly anchored than at any time since the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Whereas Pittsburgh built civic capacity in order to avert a major battle over school desegregation, Boston built civic capacity amidst the ruins left by one of the nation’s bitterest struggles over busing. For a time the Boston business community kept a distance from education, and, at one stage, a corporate executive in Boston told the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that business did not see itself as “a major actor” in public education (Portz, Stein, and Jones, 87). Yet, during the time that Federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity presided over the desegregation process in Boston, unlike some of his judicial colleagues in other communities, he took steps to head off civic disengagement. Judge Garrity developed a number of initiatives to involve business and higher education in the Boston schools (Portz, Stein, and Jones 1999). He also formed a Citywide Coordinating Council to monitor school compliance with desegregation orders, and he created district advisory committees along with racial-ethnic parent councils at each school. As the 1970’s gave way to the 1980’s, three networks emerged, perhaps facilitated by Judge Garrity’s moves to enlist involvement in Boston education. In 1982, the Boston Compact became the channel for a partnership in which the school system would pursue improved learning outcomes and business would provide jobs to graduates. Subsequently the Boston Building and Trades Union joined the partnership, as did institutions of higher education, thereby expanding the job base and including post secondary education opportunities for graduates. Boston’s Private Industry Council provided an additional institutional base for school-business partnership. Boston Compact II followed in 1989, with an expanded agenda of school reform, and in 1994 Boston Compact III brought the teachers union into the partnership.

A second network, the Boston Plan for Excellence in Education in the Public Schools, was a spin-off of the Compact. It provided a means whereby corporate and foundation grants could be provided to further innovation in the school system. The third network was the Citywide Educational Coalition. It stemmed from a human services collaborative concerned with children and youth, and became a nonprofit entity with membership including parents, educators, and community organizations as well as business, foundations, and higher education. It assumed the important role of sponsoring public forums and disseminating information on the school system. An advocate of greater community involvement, it established parent councils at each school.

Even with these overlapping networks and their expanding memberships, civic cooperation often came in second to community conflict until a mayoral appointed school board replaced the elected board. This was much more than a formal reorganization of school governance; it represented a strong commitment by City Hall to add its weight to the coalition seeking school reform.

Thus neither Pittsburgh nor Boston created a single encompassing organization like the El Paso Collaborative for Excellence in Education, though the Boston Compact was a significant move in that direction. Pittsburgh was more dependent on informal civic cooperation, and as business attention came to focus on regional economic issues, the city’s civic capacity around school reform weakened. On the other hand, the involvement of the teachers union and the parent and community base in Pittsburgh are features of that city’s civic capacity that many places cannot match.

Though Boston has not completely overcome its history of community discord, it experienced a remarkable turn-around in civic cooperation. Despite an unsteady start, the institutional networks mobilized resources, offered channels of discussion and deliberation about the city's schools and about the school-community interface, and furnished a wide base of support for school reform. The mayor’s leadership provided a centripetal force that counterbalanced a history of civic discord and helped put school reform on track, but a history of community conflict is not easily put aside.

Among our eleven cities, Los Angeles is the third community that ranks high on civic mobilization behind school reform. Like Pittsburgh and Boston, however, it shows that civic capacity can be tenuous. Our field interviews in 1993-1994 caught Pittsburgh just before a weakening of its school reform coalition. They caught Boston on the rise, just as mayoral leadership clinched the coalescence of reform forces. In Los Angeles, 1993-94 found the city at the point where its newly formed coalition had momentum, but before budget problems, the death of the president of the teachers union, and other changes reduced that momentum.

The key event in Los Angeles was the creation of LEARN, Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now. It was preceded by two organizations that came together to form LEARN. One of the predecessor organizations was the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a business-formed organization to promote reform and arrange for consulting by corporate management with selected schools. The other predecessor organization was Kids 1st, a grass roots coalition representing Latino, African American, Jewish, and other ethnic neighborhoods. Its co-chair was Richard Riordan, subsequently mayor, but in the early stage a crucial link between Kids 1st and the business sector. He thus became a key figure in the creation of LEARN. In forming LEARN, the two predecessor organizations forged an alliance with the teachers union and the school superintendent. To increase involvement, LEARN organized seven task forces covering various aspects of educational improvement. With broad backing, LEARN gained school board acceptance of its plan.

LEARN clearly was a formidable organization, with the chief executive of Atlantic Ritchfield Corporation as chairman and a former state legislator as the president and principal action person. However, city budget problems, resistance to the reform agenda among secondary school teachers, and strong political crosscurrents, combined with the loss of some central players, narrowed the number of schools LEARN targeted. It continues as a force, and is now allied with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Project, the channel for the Annenberg Challenge Grant funds for Los Angeles.

Missing, however, is the kind solidified or expanding base of collaboration achieved in El Paso and that held sway for many years in Pittsburgh. Also missing is the kind of citywide deliberation and consultation that other reform coalitions have set in motion to try to ensure that they have a continuing base of grassroots support. In the massive Los Angeles school district, LEARN has narrowed its focus to a relatively small body of pilot schools, and it is no longer the force it once promised to be.


In a recent examination of school reform, Paul Hill, Christine Campbell, and James Harvey offered the telling observation that “the normal politics of school systems cannot support fundamental reform” (2000, ix). Such reform never comes from people who are engaged in running routine operations. It comes, instead, only when the members of a community acknowledge that they have a problem in need of the attention of the community as a civic body. The ability to give that attention is what we term civic capacity.

Significantly, Hill, Campbell and Harvey argue that even a highly innovative superintendent is unlikely to have an enduring impact without a strong foundation of community support: "Leadership must come from a longer-lasting source and one that is both more deeply rooted in the community than a superintendent and less protective of the status quo than a school board or district central office" (2000, 107).

Consider what is implied in this statement. School boards and school administrators tend to focus on the immediate responsibilities of running a system, and, because they are an integral part of that system, their reflexes are to defend it (Rich 1996). They do not ask fundamental questions about how effectively the community is being served. For those questions to be raised and pursued, people need to embrace a special kind of civic-mindedness. They do that by being brought together on a community-serving basis to confront a common need. This is what theorist Hannah Arendt (1968) regards as politics. For her, politics is not the everyday pushing and shoving around particular interests, but an activity out of the ordinary in which people become conscious of their common welfare and act upon it. In this light, civic capacity has two facets: assembling in recognition of a problem to be tackled and developing an understanding from a community-wide perspective. With these two facets in mind, let’s look again at the varying levels of civic capacity displayed among sundry cities.

Atlanta provides an example of a community not totally lacking in civic spirit around education, but one in which concerns about improving schools are scattered among a variety of groups with no organized means of coming together, discovering and expanding their shared concerns, and developing an overall strategy of action.

El Paso falls at the other end of the spectrum. Here a conscious effort brought all segments of the community together, drawing on the major institutional bases of power and resources, to form an organization and sponsor efforts to keep all sectors of the community involved, and indeed to widen and deepen that involvement. Actions have both fostered wide-ranging consultation and also moved from discussion to concrete action.

Among our 11 cities, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Los Angeles created in different ways versions of comprehensive coalitions, and they engaged in wide consultation around issues of fundamental reform. None has achieved quite the same high level of civic action that El Paso has, but each has demonstrated a capacity for community-minded deliberation and action. Less cohesive efforts in Chicago and Baltimore set these cities apart from the scattered activities of Atlanta. Both represent loosely connected capacities, with mayoral leadership giving school reform in Chicago a centripetal force missing in Baltimore. However, as Chicago's top-down leadership emerged, wider consultation weakened. Consultation in Baltimore has simply been more loosely joined throughout.

Drawn partly from our eleven-city study, but in the cases of El Paso and Chicago from a broader base of experience, these examples show significant variation. Some cities move more haltingly toward school reform than others, and the role of business and other stakeholders is irregular across cities and over time. Moreover, race and ethnicity are often significant barriers. The public character of civic capacity is itself a two-edged sword. On the one side, bringing representatives of various sectors of the community together to consider a community-wide problem has the potential to expand understanding and move people out of their pattern of narrow, every-day thinking. On the other hand, the process is public, and the actors are on a public stage. It is never simply a matter of stimulating particular individuals to think more broadly. Players in a reform process perform in an arena in which the public is not an undifferentiated mass, but a public sometimes deeply divided by group differences.

Baltimore's experience with a pilot project -- the contracting out of the management of nine schools to Education Alternative, Inc. -- illustrates the problem (Orr 1999, 143-164). When Kurt Schmoke was elected mayor, he was eager to turn around the performance of Baltimore City Schools, but found the central school bureaucracy to be a formidable force of resistance. Even though BUILD, a community-based organization, and the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization of major businesses, had already done groundwork for school reform, there was little forward momentum. With a new school superintendent of his choosing in place, Mayor Schmoke sought an innovative way of moving the school system toward greater decentralization and improved academic performance. Supported by a local foundation, the mayor had the school superintendent and union officials make site visits and consider a private company, Education Alternatives, Inc, for a pilot project of managing nine of the city schools. The teachers and principals in these schools would be kept in place if they so chose or they could transfer to other positions in the system. The teacher’s union president endorsed the idea. However, once the project was put in place and the company transferred teacher’s aides out of the nine pilot schools and replaced them with college-educated interns, apprehensions about job security rose. This transfer of teacher’s aides helped foster unease within the African American community about privatization and contracting out. It set off alarm bells about a potential threat to the school system as a source of employment for the city’s African American community. The school system was the city’s largest employer, and over 70 percent of the jobs in the system were held by African Americans (Orr 1999, 149).

As the contracting-out pilot moved to implementation, BUILD and the city’s Black clergy criticized Mayor Schmoke for acting without consultation, and the president of the teachers union shifted from support to opposition. Limited consultation was a major hindrance to continued momentum toward school reform, but it is also significant that an initial focus on what was “good for kids” (as phrased by the teachers union president) gave way to concerns about race and employment as the proposal became public and a wider array of players added their voices (Orr 1999, 143-164).

Whether or not Education Alternatives, Inc. was a sound project to pursue is not the issue. The point is that agreement among a small number of individuals, even though they held key institutional positions and even though they enjoyed support from the newspaper and the Greater Baltimore Community, did not constitute strong civic capacity. The larger racial context asserted itself, reversed momentum toward school reform, weakened the mayor’s standing as a leader in education, and heightened community tensions. Civic capacity proved highly fragile and earlier experiences of working together quickly lost their weight. A wider form of deliberation might have maintained momentum behind reform, but in the mayor’s judgement it would simply have cut off a chance to pursue an experiment and left him still stymied by an uncooperative school bureaucracy. Subsequently a reform alliance has been reassembled, but it is more narrowly based than the earlier coalition. As a result, civic capacity in Baltimore remains at an intermediate level, loosely connected in form, and still hampered by the city’s racial divide.


From this brief look at civic capacity, we can offer a couple of observations. One is that civic capacity works in quite a different way from our conventional understanding of social capital. In Robert Putnam’s (1993) treatment, social capital comes about as people learn to work with one another, practice reciprocity, and develop trust. In this view, social capital does not become depleted from use. Quite the contrary, use strengthens it. The more people work with one another and practice reciprocity, the greater the trust among them. And greater trust encourages more working together and wider practice of reciprocity. This view of social capital contains valuable insights about human behavior, but it seems to apply most readily to micro-behavior - informal kinds of helping among people engaged in everyday activities. Repeated interactions provide opportunities for people to become comfortable with one another, develop understanding, and cooperate with minimal negotiations. Yet, useful as they may be for some purposes, such micro-behaviors do not yield civic capacity.

In education especially, civic capacity is about mobilizing various segments of the community to become engaged in considering and acting upon a problem in a way that is out of the ordinary. To the degree that such a mobilization is successful, it takes people outside the channeled thinking that normally prevails. Hill, Campbell, and Harvey (2000) remind us that fundamental reform in education requires that "normal politics" be bypassed or overcome in some way. They caution that: “School boards are not good forums for creating integrated strategy, but they are excellent platforms from which reform initiatives and their leaders can be destroyed” (2000, 111). In many ways, civic cooperation is inherently unstable, especially when it operates out of the ordinary. Unlike the conventional social capital described by Putnam, civic capacity may not be self-replenishing. The public nature of civic capacity and its connection to issues that are potentially controversial mean that a spirit of cooperation can be speedily eroded. To the extent that civic capacity rests on a narrow foundation of elite cooperation, it is vulnerable to quick collapse. Though representatives of institutional interests and group leaders may develop good interpersonal relationships, they are never simply individuals learning to cooperate with one another. The public stage on which they perform is centrally important. The Baltimore experience shows that simply having a few key actors embrace a reform idea may only invite opposition from those not part of the deliberation and fearful of its consequences. For a mayor or teachers' union president to get out of line with important constituencies may thus set back the whole process of moving toward fundamental reform.

Yet El Paso, Pittsburgh, Boston, and even Los Angeles are examples of something much more potent than fragile coalitions around particular initiatives. As examples of strong civic capacity, they represent an ability to bring diverse elements and resources together in a sustained effort to meet a major community challenge. The highest levels of civic capacity rest on an ability to engage not just an array of strategic elites but also a broad base of ordinary participants. To withstand the corrosive power of public contention, civic capacity needs strong pillars of support.

Informal alliances are relatively weak pillars; formal and fully staffed collaboration is stronger. Informal alliances are by definition dependent on continuity among central players, and, as Los Angeles demonstrates, such continuity may be hard to come by. The reform coalition in Los Angeles has survived changes in key actors and a climate of strong contention only because LEARN was in place.

All of this is a difficult set of arrangements to maintain, and if these arrangements break down at some point or never quite gel, then there is a risk that misunderstanding and mistrust will carry the day. That civic capacity centers on community-problem solving means that major public issues are considered, and these are matters always apt to become contentious. Any civic consensus is far from stable, and therefore the process of building support for a program of action around one problem is not easily transferred to (or borrowed from) another exercise in problem-solving. Civic capacity is therefore not akin to the micro-level social capital described by Putnam and others. That kind of social capital is largely the unconscious byproduct of everyday interactions. Civic capacity is the conscious creation of actors seeking to establish a context in which extraordinary problem-solving can occur. As such it is always across the grain of what Hanna Arendt calls “automatic processes” and therefore subject to erosion (1968, 169). Civic capacity is neither easy to establish nor easy to maintain once it is set in motion. For that reason, institutionalization is a surer foundation than informal understandings among select individuals.


  1. Portions of this article are adapted, with permission, from a forthcoming book, Building civic capacity: The new politics of urban school reform, to be published by the University Press of Kansas.
  2. Funding came from the Education and Human Resources Directorate of the National Science Foundation, (Grant no. RED 9350139). For listing of the research team, see the appendix.
  3. Off-the-record interview by Carol Pierannunzi.
  4. From personal notes by Carol Pierannunzi, who attended several meetings in the spring and fall of 1999 leading up to a parent vote against charter status.
  5. Hess 1991; Shipps 1997; Bryk et al 1998; Wong 1998; and Shipps, Kahne, and Smylie 1999.
  6. Significantly, however, the creation of the Local School Councils had the unintended effect of focusing attention on individual neighborhood schools to the detriment of citizens concerns about city-wide education policies and issues -- Shipps 1998, 179.
  7. On Baltimore, see various works by Marion Orr, especially his book-lenght study Black Social Capital (1999). See also Henig et al. 1999; and Baum 1999.
  8. On Detroit and Washington, DC, generally, see Henig et al 1999. On the takeover in DC, see Henig 1997.
  9. On the Importance of external organizations as sources of ideas and support for local initiatives, see Schorr 1997.
  10. For a brief but recent account of the formation nad evolution of LEARN, see Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1999, 22-25.


The Civic Capacity and Urban Education project (including its planning stage) involved both a long time span and a large number of participants. Started informally in 1990 with a two-day brainstorming session involving eleven scholars, the project over time added several members and lost a few to moves, shifting research obligations, and, in the case of Byran Jackson, the death of one of our most valued and beloved team mates.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the study officially launched in May of 1993. I served as Principal Investigator, Jeffrey Henig and Bryan Jones as Co-Principal Investigators. Field research for the eleven cities divided as follows:

Bryan Jones, Whitney Grace, and Heather Strickland did all of the steps in the coding of the 516 interviews across eleven cities. Jeffrey Henig and Mark Kugler, assisted by Cheryl Jones, Connie Hill, and Kathryn Doherty, collected and analyzed a large body of demographic, program, and financial data.

In addition to these contributors to the project, several other individuals also helped shape the research design and the field research protocol. These include the late Byran Jackson, Alan DiGaetano, Barbara Ferman, Valerie Johnson, Katherine McFate, Timothy Ross, Jorge Ruiz de la Vasco, and Marta Tellado.

The overall research protocol included a guide for data collection, a template for case narratives, interview schedules for three categories of respondents (General Influentials, Community Advocates, and Program Specialists), and a designated set of interviewees. Over a three year period, the team met annually for a two-day workshop on issues of research and analysis, and we also put on a number of panels at various professional conferences and piggybacked additional team meetings on these conferences. Subgroups of the overall team also met for workshops.

Intellectually, the project was rooted in work on issue definition and urban regimes. Methodologically, it represented an effort to combine the case-study approach with comparative analysis. The eleven cities were chosen to extend across the nation's major regions and to make use of in-depth knowledge that participating scholars had of various cities. The team members were diverse in race and ethnicity, gender, and age, but all shared grounding in the discipline of political science, albeit representing sundry approaches. Though there were notable exceptions, many of us came into the project with limited research experience in education. All of us shared a strong interest in public policy. Collectively, we benefited from the advice and suggestions at various stages of a number of fellow scholars: Marilyn Gittell, Jennifer Hochschild, Michael Kirst, Kathryn McDermott, Dorothy Shipps, Stephen S. Smith, Margaret Weir, Frederick Wirt, John Witte, and Kenneth Wong, each of whom has enormous depth in the politics of education. As PI, I benefited especially from the advice and suggestions of three colleagues in education: Edward Andrews, Betty Malen, and Sylvia Rosenfield.

Some might view the research team as so large as to be cumbersome. In many ways, they would be right. Yet the process worked. Three books out at this writing are a direct result of the project: Stone, (1998); Henig, Hula, Orr, and Pedescleaux (1999); and Portz, Stein, and Jones (1999). In addition, Marion Orr's Black social capital (1999) draws partly on the project as well as on his individual research work on Baltimore. Two additional books are in production: Stone, Henig, Jones, and Pierannunzi (forthcoming) and Clarke et al. (forthcoming). The listing of book authors reveal a significant point. A large team has to subdivide into small groups to remain viable. Yet, there are advantages in scope of understanding that come from deploying a large team, so long as the tasks of collaboration are kept manageable. The more the large team comes together for joint deliberation, the more understanding can be expanded.

Though there are advantages to the assemblage of a large team, centrifugal forces are strong. Our team held together (with the significant reinforcement of summer stipends) for two years of field research, 1993 and 1994. Data collection and case narratives reached back to encompass the period from 1989 to 1994. Analysis and writing continued after 1994, but this work fell mainly to subgroups. And even the maintenance of subgroups presented challenges. Thus, even though much would have been learned by sustaining field research over a longer span of time, a large research team cannot expect to hold in place for such an effort. For comparative case analysis of the kind undertaken in the Civic Capacity and Urban Education project, scope of study necessarily trades off against coverage over time. While the trade-off was highly useful, it was nonetheless a trade-off. Education politics is a volatile and ever-changing arena. For that reason, important work remains to be done by individuals and small research teams and, yes, at some point again by a large research crew. Large as it was, the Civic Capacity and Urban Education project can only be seen as a step in an ongoing research process. In a long tradition, it has raised more questions that it has answered.

Urban education is too important for the future of cities to deserve anything less than a strong and varied field of researchers. I can only hope, then, that the Civic Capacity and Urban Education project will encourage research to continue at a pace and in forms that will prove fruitful both for scholars and for those who seek to put policy ideas into practice.


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_____. 1998. Corporate involvement in school reform. In Changing urban education, edited by C.N. Stone, 161-183. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

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Stone, C. and C. Pierannunzi. 1997. Atlanta and the limited reach of electoral control. In Racial politics in American cities, 2nd ed. Edited by R.P. Browning, D.R. Marshall, and D.H. Tabb.

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