Education Opinion

Rethinking the Agenda for Democratic Schooling

By Ann Bastian, Norm Fruchter, Marilyn Gittell, Colin Greer & Kenneth Haskins — February 04, 1987 17 min read
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For the general public, recent debate about public schooling expresses a rising fear about declining school performance and, perhaps more basically, fear about the future for youths in our society. This concern seems a natural product of recurring economic and social insecurity. The country is in the midst of profound structural shifts in technology, in job and income distribution, in family life, and in government commitments. These shifts intensify existing inequities and threaten familiar patterns of individual mobility and community cohesion.

Yet, the debate also expresses hope. People turn to the schools as a social tool, one of the few institutions that are both public and local, for adapting to new demands and for protecting the coming generation. But underlying the impulses to fear and hope is an unspoken tension between priorities for school change. We see this as a tension between two divergent goals for public education: a desire for schools to serve the competitive demands of a stratified society, and the desire for schools to play a socially integrative and democratic role, serving the right of all children to develop to their fullest potential.

Some people do not see these as incompatible functions; others deny that they require different kinds of schooling. Yet, choices are being made, and in the current wave of school reform, democratic values of education have not been the central concern.

Clearly, we feel that democratic concepts of schooling should govern the direction of change and, in particular, that the massive school failure experienced in low-income communities should be of primary concern. We believe that schools belong to citizens, not as clients but as owners of a public institution. And we believe that equality and participation in the educational process are essential conditions of educational excellence. But we are also aware that our beliefs require a much firmer vision of what constitutes quality schooling, and what is necessary to make quality a universal commitment, than has emerged in the debate thus far. The agenda for democratic schooling will itself be incomplete until a more active and cohesive citizens’ movement develops in education. What we propose are ways of viewing the options that help break through the polarities of equity and excellence and move beyond the limits of past reform or present reaction.

Most current reform initiatives can be framed in ways that either support or undermine the spirit of democratic schooling. For the most part, today’s popular reforms are put forward as universally beneficial panaceas, while in practice they function as elitist prescriptions. Struggles around reform designs can alter this direction and change the focus of public concern. If the first round of school reform in the 1980’s has gone to the new elitists, the coming rounds may well be more contested.

The excerpt that follows is from Choosing Equality, the final report of a two-year project, by The New World Foundation, to advance equity issues and democratic values in the national debate over public-school reform.

The book argues that the front-line constituencies of education are parents, students, classroom teachers, support staffs, local school administrators, and community members, including youths and education-advocacy groups. They are necessary resources for school improvement; they are also necessary agents of change in a system that is increasingly distant from those it serves. This excerpt centers discussion on the empowerment of parents, because this constituency represents one of the most independent variables in the school-change equation.

Involving parents in the school life of their children and in education as a public institution is not a new idea for school improvement. In principle at least, the elected school-board and parent-teacher-association systems were constructed in recognition of parents’ legitimate rights of consultation and their important support role in the education process. However, the parent role has been auxiliary and advisory, at best. Most typically, parent involvement is a token formality in both school governance and in the classroom.

Nonetheless, the benefits of parent participation are manifold. A number of recent studies show that active parent involvement in schooling is a consistent correlate of improved school performance and improved school climate.

With the decline of civil-rights activism in the 1970’s, widespread parent activism in urban, minority communities became more sporadic. The legacy of earlier organizing and recent battles over school-funding cuts have spurred a number of local efforts to improve distressed urban schools, but without the context of an overarching social movement. In the absence of broader social activism, the intrinsic barriers to participation are more sharply felt. School-advocacy organizations have identified these general problems:

  • The majority of parents face consuming pressures of economic survival and family maintenance. For the poor, these pressures on time, energy, and income can be overwhelming. The need for both parents to work, the extraordinary burden on women heads of household, even the expense of child care and travel to attend school meetings are real factors limiting parent inclinations to activism.
  • Parents are often intimidated by cultural distances between themselves and school professionals. School practices are justified by educators who claim an expertise that working-class and poor parents cannot match. Professional elitism fosters the perception of parents as an intrusion rather than a resource. It is ironic that those whom the schools have most failed are considered the least qualified to speak on educational defects. The gap is reinforced when school personnel are not indigenous to the school community. In New York City, for example, 70 percent of public-school students are members of minorities, but 75 percent of the administrative and teaching staffs are not.
  • Parents are often uncertain about who is responsible for school failure. Professional mystification frequently carries the implicit message that parents are to blame for their children’s underachievement or alienated attitudes toward school. Parents may well reciprocate by holding teachers solely responsible for deficient school performance. An interlocking cycle of blame develops and, with it, a pervasive negativism that discourages interaction and cooperation.
  • Parents lack clarity about what would improve the schools, which may reflect confusion among professionals as well. The absence of programmatic approaches to school improvement tends to isolate single issues, such as discipline, and tends to focus concern on the most tangible items, such as building repair. Qualitative-learning issues that involve multiple and interrelated factors seem difficult to address with concrete recommendations.
  • Parents are shut out of the school-governance process. The existing participatory mechanisms do not provide genuine authority over key aspects of school management, such as budget and personnel, and are often controlled by professionals. Beyond the local school, the bureaucratic structures of education also pose formidable barriers. The complexity of the apparatus is inhibiting enough, but there is also a politics behind it. The centers of decisionmaking are systematically distanced from the local school, the level at which parents can most readily organize and sustain influence. It should not be surprising that parent disaffection is as often the expression of realism as of apathy.

Overwhelming as these barriers to parent involvement appear, there are signs that parent activism is reviving, particularly in the elementary schools. Parent-teacher organizations report that membership is at its highest levels since the early 1970’s; the number of parents working as volunteers in schools doubled in 10 years, to around 5 million in 1980.

Nonetheless, while barriers to participation remain high for working parents and single parents and for poor and under-educated parents, successful efforts to stimulate and support their activism suggest that avenues for more widescale participatory reform can be opened.

Fiscal crises and the deterioration of urban school systems have prompted the formation of several impressive public coalitions around the country, acting as political-pressure groups and cultivating active parent constituencies. Such groups include the Philadelphia Parents Union for Public Schools, New York’s Educational Priorities Panel, New Jersey’s Institute for Citizen Involvement in Education, and the Chicago Citizens Panel on School Finance.

Many of these groups have moved beyond fiscal issues to address school-improvement needs, including parent involvement, curriculum development, and supportive services. The Philadelphia Parents Union has initiated a three-year parent-workshop program, reaching 3,000 public-school families, to ensure that new curricular, testing, and disciplinary standards are implemented to increase access, equity, and parent participation.

There is a wide range of concerns that stimulates parent organizing, apart from critical funding and instructional issues. A unique parent-organizing campaign, the Asbestos in School Project, has developed in New Jersey to remove asbestos hazards from school buildings. In the process, parents have challenged school-budget controls, designed state legislation, and sparked other parent groups to organize on the asbestos danger nationally.

Low-income parents have responded to the weakening of earlier Title I guidelines for parent involvement, which included explicit requirements for parent participation, consultation, and training through Parent Advisory Councils. Spearheaded by the national Title I/Chapter 1 Parent Coalition and state affiliates, parent activists are looking to both Congress and the states to restore the councils’ strong mandates.

These programs provide clearly defined roles for parents, and work to implement participatory school-based management systems in low-income communities.

Campaigns for school accountability, when they engage and inform parents in a genuine attempt at reform, show that barriers to participation can be transcended and that a sophisticated and resilient core of local school activists can be formed. Through sustained organizing, parents can overcome intimidation and self-blame, can offer constructive criticism and assistance, can focus on issues that are central to improvement, and can create participatory vehicles.

The key, however, is generating a parallel institutional commitment to reform that recognizes the citizenship rights of parents in shaping school change. Such institutional commitment must include openness to structural reform in the policymaking and administrative process, so that parents become an established element of school authority. Parent involvement is most decisively discouraged when it does not make a difference. The incentives for parent participation do not arise out of moral or civic duties, but because children’s well-being is at stake and because real possibilities exist to influence the outcome in an ongoing way.

Several structural approaches to promote parent empowerment have been raised or revived in the national school debate. Here we address an idea that has become more widely fashionable in school-policy circles: the concept of parent (and student) choice exercised through optional enrollment or voucher systems.

There is a growing call to restructure schools to compete for enrollments on the basis of performance and specialized programs. Given the vigor with which optional enrollment and voucher concepts are being espoused, it is important to clarify the different forms they take, as well as the dangers and potentials they represent in practice.

First, there can be no mistaking that the voucher programs advocated by the right, including the Reagan Administration’s 1985 TEACH proposal, are designed to promote public funding of private education and the eventual displacement of public education. This intent was explicitly expressed in a fall 1985 commentary in the Heritage Foundation’s Education Update, which urged Christian educators to support the TEACH initiative. The article states: “Americans interested in educational reform need to pursue the dual strategy of deregulation and educational choice. The Chapter 1 voucher, if passed, surely will be the forerunner of a much more I fundamental and comprehensive move to restructure the U.S. educational system through a general voucher. Therefore, steps must be taken to reduce the threat of regulation accompanying a voucher program.”

Clearly, the ultra-conservative version of vouchers is directed by the broader policy goal of divesting government services in favor of the private sector, including, in the case of education, religious institutions. At stake is not only the viability of public-school services but, as these conservatives note, the public’s capacity to regulate its investment in education.

By eroding or dismantling coherent public- school systems, by dispersing enrollments and atomizing parents into individual consumers, such voucher systems provide ample opportunity both to undermine community accountability and to circumvent mandates protecting both civil and equity rights. This danger is heightened by the Supreme Court’s retreat on civil- rights enforcement, from the Bakke decision to the Grove City decision. Grove City bans discriminatory practices only in the specific program or department that receives federal funds, regardless of the discriminatory practices of the institution as a whole. The Reagan Administration goes further by claiming that vouchers, since given to parents, do not even qualify as federal funding to institutions.

When vouchers are proposed entirely within the public-education system, they present somewhat different potentials, although a parallel set of concerns. One immediate concern is that public voucher plans clear the path for extending vouchers into private schooling. This is certainly one motive behind conservative support for the choice movement in public schools. Yet, if we set aside this political consideration, what are the positive and negative arguments for public-school voucher plans?

Public-school vouchers are intended to encourage wider educational options and allow parents and students to vote with their feet on the ability of individual schools to meet standards and expectations.

In theory, this voucher concept endorses the expansion of alternative approaches and the flexibility of the system to meet the diverse needs it encompasses. Schools that do not suit a significant level of parent/student preferences or do not live up to their program goals would be faced with declining enrollments, not just declining test scores. Presumably, the result would be a mix of decent schools, from the traditional neighborhood school to the curriculum-specialized school to the pedagogically specialized school--and poorly functioning schools would simply go out of business.

But the theory of the open market is not the same as its practice. Where conditions throughout a school district are fairly equivalent, where populations are homogeneous and transportation feasible, it is possible that local schools will have equal resources to develop responsive programs and that students will have even chances of selecting an appropriate enrollment. Yet, apart from some suburban school districts, most systems start with wide differentials between schools and between students.

Enrollment options may compound these differentials by creaming the best-prepared students into limited, select institutions--leaving only undesirable and neglected schools for disadvantaged students to choose among. Choices in the school marketplace can end up as they do in the economic marketplace, where low-income consumers are free to live in tenements, free to pay higher prices in ghetto stores, free to compete for too few jobs, but not free or welcome to live somewhere else.

The New York City experience with specialized high schools, often called magnet schools, illustrates the double-edged potentials of optional enrollment systems. In New York, where magnet schools draw enrollment across the city through competitive admissions, a four-tiered structure has emerged that puts the comprehensive neighborhood high school in serious jeopardy.

The top-ranked academic high schools cream the most achieving and advantaged students out of the local schools. A second level of specialized theme schools, and a third level of vocational high schools, cater to the middle range of students and also draw off teaching resources in a particular field. What is left at the bottom is the neighborhood high school, with a restricted basic curriculum, the highest concentration of disadvantaged and poorly prepared students, and the most hard-pressed teachers.

Many of New York City’s neighborhood high schools are little different today from the child warehouses faced by immigrants in the past, only now the students are overwhelmingly black and Latino. Counseling and preparation for high-school selection and entry are grossly deficient in the intermediate schools, so that students without independent resources cannot exercise meaningful or informed choices.

The New York City example suggests that an optional-enrollment system that does not equalize resources, mandate open admissions and retention, expand guidance services for parents and students, and simultaneously upgrade the quality of comprehensive schools can become another mechanism for stratification and segregation.

Geographic scope is an essential consideration in optional-enrollment or voucher systems. For the danger that voucherized schooling will be less accessible and responsive to parents and communities exists in public-school-option designs as well as in those that apply to private education. Parent choices about the education of their children should not begin and end with the selection of the school; and community accountability is not satisfied solely by parent choice. Some public voucher proposals advocate that competitive-enrollment systems be established over wide areas, even statewide.

In such dispersed systems, disadvantaged children and parents will typically be the ones to travel and bear the costs of choice. Disadvantaged communities, particularly inner cities and rural townships, may well lose their local school institutions. Working parents, taxpayers, and citizens will be further removed from the practical conduct of the school, concentrating greater control in the hands of school professionals and state administrators. Some schools may gain from a community of purpose, but there is also a community of people, a social and civic life, that schools should be rooted within and draw upon. We do not need to make schools worlds unto themselves to make them better; we need, in fact, to open schooling to the world that is shaping children and families.

Clearly, diverse school environments can benefit students, as demonstrated by the success of many alternative schools, and alternative programs within schools, over the past decade. Clearly, voluntary options in school and program assignments, for teachers as well as parents and students, can increase motivation and engagement. Clearly, the reconstruction of enrollment patterns across heterogeneous socioeconomic and racial groups can promote equity and opportunity.

Yet, public voucher systems and magnet schools are not, in themselves, sufficient strategies for meeting these goals or for fostering school improvement. Where optional-enrollment systems function as open markets with scarce resources, elitist sorting processes will prevail; students will not participate equally in selecting schools and schools will not function equitably in selecting students. However, where enrollment options are part of a larger commitment to enrich disadvantaged schools, to accommodate all varieties of need, and to stimulate community access, they may well enhance innovation, involvement, and meaningful choice.

Voucher concepts confined to public schooling can thus be vehicles for either divestiture or diversity, and the politics of schooling, not the ab tract merits of choice, will determine which. In today’s context, where meritocratic concepts prevail and educational stratification is accelerating, public-school vouchers must be closely scrutinized for their impacts on equity, civic accountability, and community integrity.

Moreover, the present politics of schooling mean that we cannot disregard the privatization agenda of the right-wing choice movement and its vision of the educational marketplace. The fact that vouchers, public or private, have become their opening wedge for the deregulation and atomization of public commitments to education must weigh heavily in the debate. If we have learned anything from 20 years of school reform, it is that influence over the implementation of social policy counts far more than good intentions.

From Choosing Equality: The Case for Democratic Schooling, by Ann Bastian, Norm Fruchter, Marilyn Gittell, Colin Greer, and Kenneth Haskins, published by Temple University Press, Philadelphia. Copyright 1986 Temple University. Reprinted by permission.
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 1987 edition of Education Week


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