Education Opinion

The Truth of the Common School Movement

By Deborah Meier — October 31, 2016 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Is there a “common school movement” of any sort today? No. We’re split between basically school reform groups with a focus on teachers who have a shared set of ideas, several national parent groups to protect parental rights, and an assortment of national groups with a somewhat overlapping agenda such as Diane Ravitch’s PE, SOS, and more. This could be a strength, and it could be a weakness.

There are critical questions we remain not divided on, but unclear about. Probably the key one is “where should decisions be made about what?” In a legitimately distrustful society with race and class dividing us in serious ways, it’s hard to settle this question. What should remain a national imperative backed by the federal government and the courts? What should belong to the states in keeping with the original Constitutional conception? And equally what decisions must—for the sake of democracy and good education—be made as close to the family, teacher and child as possible with all the flexibility, and attention to context, that is required?

The shift away from local control has a long history—and of late, much has been driven by concerns over equal rights—civil rights, specific rights for other particular students (disabled, etc), parental rights—and by “the needs of the nation as a whole,” with its focus on the economy as viewed by various elites. Plus traditional teacher and labor rights.

From the viewpoint of a local teacher or parent I see no significant difference whether the mandates come from the state or federal government. Sometimes that can be said as well for rights written into union contracts that feel like orders from afar rather than protection from arbitrary power. Even “autonomy” for schools usually means more autonomy for principals who are not even directly responsible to parents, teachers or students.

Democracy as a principle rarely comes into the discussion, even though our young people presumably spend 12 or more years in a public institution that’s supposed to teach them “about” democracy—while not itself being in any way democratic.

Yes yes yes, Harry. We need a “common school movement” that builds schools that belong to its constituents—within as slim a set of limits as necessary. We need to figure out what those limits must be—for any school receiving tax-payer subsidies—and leave the rest of a body that represents all the needed constituents operating democratically.

In the 1990’s, with the help of the Annenberg Foundation—we had an idea about how this might work in large cities. Alas, on the verge of its launching a new chancellor vetoed it. The Pilot schools in Boston were another experiment that we can learn from although support for it has waned considerably since it was initiated twenty years go. The charter schools are another experiment we can learn from—since it operates somewhat differently in each state and even city. Even private school networks (Monetessori, etc) might be interesting to explore. Do you know of any places where democratic “common school” ideas have been tried out over a sufficiently long time to help us see what it might look like if scaled up—what were the positives as well as drawbacks?

Actually, Harry, I’m involved in imagining a book that tells some of the stories of individual schools, but what we also need to see is how this can be a movement—led not only by any single constituency but by all those who are directly affected and whatever allies they can bring along. For this we’ll need the help of community organizing groups and their years of experience.

Maybe we can attach this to the Sanders revolution? But maybe it is also a conservative idea?


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