Families & the Community Opinion

Education Is a Civic Question

By Kate Stoltzfus — September 13, 2017 8 min read
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Note to our readers, friends and colleagues: This is our final post in Bridging Differences, and Deb’s conclusion to a 10-year conversation with different partners. It is the end, but we also see this as a new beginning, a next stage of work that has never been more important. We describe this work as organizing to bring a democratic awakening, with schools at the center of the process. Many forces have been at work that erode the democratic purposes of education and the very meaning of “democracy” itself. But we believe, as the poet Walt Whitman does, that “democracy is a word / the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened...a great word whose history...remains unwritten.”

Dear readers,

“Children and youth, millions of them the world over, restless with tremendous energies...requiring only a dynamic purpose to make that force the most constructive factor in social progress,” wrote Stanford professor Paul Hanna for the Progressive Education Association in 1936. According to Hanna, “the supreme educational challenge” was joining “the energy of youth to the task of progressively improving conditions of community life.” What was true at the height of the Great Depression is even more urgent now.

Today Americans are not only divided about politics. They are increasingly distrustful of institutions, including public schools, and of each other. Last October, before the election, Nathaniel Persily of Stanford Law School and researcher Jon Cohen of Survey Monkey found in surveying more than 3,000 registered voters that 80 percent say the country is more divided than ever. Young adults are the most distrustful. There is little public discussion about joining energies of youth to the work of improving community life.

Education wars feed division and diminish the warriors. But an alternative to the wars is to pose education as a civic question, not a question of either government provision or market choice. This framework recognizes that the energy, talents, wisdom, and hard work of “we the people,” young as well as old, need to be at the center of creating the 21st-century education system we need. Government and businesses are civic partners, not the center of the action.

Today, citizenship is largely absent in the school debate, or when it is present, it is a sentimental afterthought. In 2007, Deborah Meier started her Bridging Differences blog conversation with Diane Ravitch on edweek.org by pointing out, “The notion that we can leave it to the whims of individual parent choice in marketplace fashion is problematic. Good parents are inclined to put their own children’s immediate interests first.”

Voucher champions like Betsy DeVos turn parents and children into customers, not citizens, since “What do I want for my children?” omits the idea of schools as a civic meeting ground. Further, conservatives in the mold of Donald Trump who seek to go back to “the good old days” forget that they were not all that “good” for many. Racial, ethnic, religious, political and other exclusions were the norm.

In the early decades of the nation, relatively few children, even among the European-American male population, received more than a few years of schooling. As Colin Greer pointed out 40 years ago in his book The Great School Legend, schools in urban areas were often seen then by the powerful as vehicles to teach deference to authority. They were often designed to “Americanize” millions of immigrants, severing people from cultural histories and traditions. Textbooks treated most groups with disdain. Catholics, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Irish, and Eastern Europeans, as well as African-Americans were “mean, criminal, drunken, sly, lazy and stupid in varying degrees,” as Greer described.

If liberals are often strong proponents of inclusion, their pro-public school stance regularly marginalizes the public in other ways. PTA membership is down to about 4 million from the peak of over 12 million in the 1960s. School consolidation has closed tens of thousands of small-town schools, wiping out civic centers in the life of communities. Luke Bretherton, a scholar of citizen participation at Duke University, observes that studies of lay-citizen-led school reform show an expert-knows-best bias. “What comes across time and again is the hostility ‘non-experts’ provoke,” says Bretherton.

It’s important to remember that citizens were once at the heart both of democracy and of schools, with citizens as co-creators of communities, not mainly voters and volunteers. We need to retrieve this idea while conveying a more inclusive idea of whom the citizenry includes.

In The Transformation of the School, author Lawrence Cremin described the citizen politics of education as a citizen-driven process. Pro-school coalitions created diverse coalitions. “The successful school leader was one who could with consummate skill simultaneously touch the hurt pride of the workingman, the pocketbook nerve of the wealthy, the status aspirations of the poor and the timid defensiveness of the cultured before the onslaught of the unlettered masses,” as Cremin described. Moreover, local school boards and Parent Teacher Associations created a strong sense of public ownership of schools, including a voice in the purposes of schools in community life.

In his 1902 speech “The School as Social Center,” John Dewey translated this citizen-centered school tradition and lessons from the Hull House settlement for new immigrants in Chicago into an inclusive vision for a changing America. Schools as civic centers should be places for diverse people to interact, teaching respect in a society which eroded it. They should be adult education centers for people of all ages. They could be mechanisms for people to shape a changing world of work.

All of these are relevant today to a revitalized sense of schools as civic centers.

Harry Boyte’s nephew Luke Truan lives in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, Ga. Like many in his area, he leans conservative, but he doesn’t like labels. Luke’s son Erik’s school, Camp Creek Elementary, reflects changing demographics as blacks and Hispanics are moving to the area. Luke says education has “moved to the forefront” of his attention since Erik started school.

Camp Creek is interwoven into civic life, with many ways for parents and others to get involved. The grocery store has a Camp Creek night. Parents come in and out of the school without permission. Almost half the families were involved in support of a school play last spring. Luke worries about loss of relationships in the digital age but believes Camp Creek offers lessons about connecting people through technology to get the community and parents involved.

Luke’s strong interest illustrates motivations behind the growing movement for community schools. The Coalition for Community Schools, a coalition of groups dedicated to reconnecting schools and communities, works with hundreds of schools across the country. It has a whole-child philosophy and a mission to reinvigorate the civic purposes of education.

Last year, an education fight in Georgia suggested how the idea of schools as centers of civic life might birth a new educational politics. The governor, Nathan Deal, put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow the governor to take charge of “chronically failing” schools. Under his plan, called the Opportunity School District, failed schools would either be run by a state agency or be converted to charter schools under management contracts open to profit-making businesses. Supporters claimed that the amendment would save kids trapped in cycles of poverty. With support from large corporations and charter school groups, Deal’s amendment was expected to pass easily.

The fight against the amendment began with a defensive tone. As the campaign developed and local civic leaders became involved, the framework shifted from defense of schools to local power over schools. The group against the amendment called themselves the Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local. They described the amendment as a power grab and pointed out that the amendment had no constructive ideas for actually changing troubled schools.

The coalition included the teachers’ union, black clergy and inner-city leaders, the Georgia Parent Teacher Association, rural school boards, and key Republican strongholds. Amendment One lost with over 60 percent voting in opposition. Gerald Taylor, a veteran community organizer who consulted on the campaign, believes that the fight shows the potential for an inclusive concept of “local community control” to bridge what many have seen as intractable racial and urban-rural divides. The key to the coalition’s success was shifting to an approach that encouraged local creativity, engagement with local cultures, local leadership and power. It reframes the vision of schools by the people in inclusive ways.

“We argued that schools are much more than places to teach kids,” he said. “They are rallying centers in rural communities and inner cities. They are economic engines. They are community assets where people should have ownership.”

If reframing the school debate as a civic question can happen in Georgia, it can happen anywhere. It is up to “we the people.”

Deb and Harry

Deborah Meier, founder of Central Park East Schools in New York and Mission Hill Schools in Boston, is author of the newly released These Schools Belong to You and Me (Beacon Press). Harry Boyte is founder of the international youth civic education and empowerment initiative Public Achievement and author of Pedagogy of the Empowered, forthcoming from Vanderbilt University Press.

Look for Education Week’s Q&A with Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi about their new book These Schools Belong to You and Me in the next few weeks.

Photo: Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch began a joint conversation about education issues more than 10 years ago, which evolved into the “Bridging Differences” blog. Credit: Todd Plitt for Education Week-File

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.