Accounting for Legitimacy: Fiscal Crisis and the Politicization of School District Accounting Systems in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island

Daniel R. Alvord, Oklahoma State University
Emily Rauscher, Brown University

Public schools face growing challenges to their legitimacy. How do district administrators respond to these challenges, particularly during a period of budget cuts and fiscal crisis? Through in-depth interviews with 58 administrators in 3 states, we explore how districts navigate these challenges to maintain school operations and organizational legitimacy. Although administrators may typically seek increased autonomy, we find that accounting regulations provide accountability and legitimacy districts need to function effectively in the broader policy environment. Fiscal flexibility and stakeholder confusion presented threats to public school legitimacy and administrators responded by explaining, leveraging, and reaffirming accounting rules. Administrators use accounting as a substantive tool to buffer symbolic threats. Both harrowing and heartwarming, administrator efforts to protect and serve their students, staff, and residents reveal that school districts and policymakers are in a fight over the legitimacy of public schools. Institutionalized rules could help districts counter future threats to legitimacy.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 42. Political Economy of Knowledge and Education: Political Process and Policy Outcomes (Part 1)