School & District Management Opinion

The Roles of Direct Versus Indirect Power in School Communities

By Deborah Meier — April 21, 2016 2 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,

Sorry about the pause in corresponding! I’ve gotten a bad eye infection which is slowing me down, to say the least.

But onward.

My problem with your three examples of work on behalf of democracy is that I can’t see why they might not exist in a dictatorship or even a totalitarian society. The quality of life, the culture of the CCC, might be different depending on the larger context within it exists, or the reasons for doing so, or the power of its workers within the corp.

Yes, keep going back to “who decides what"—how is power distributed—both the direct power of governance or the indirect power of money, education, leisure, etc. It’s even possible that one can have all these powers in somewhat equal degree, but have been habituated for so long that one just doesn’t trust oneself to exercise one’s own judgment in the face of “authority.”

So while there cannot be a flourishing and healthy democracy without some degree of all those indirect powers, alongside the habit of using them on behalf of oneself and one’s community (and having such a community), one cannot have a democracy at all without a some form of decisionmaking that allows those affected a direct vote or an indirect vote on who will speak for them.

The one without the others is a weak to fake democracy depending on. But without a system for decisionmaking that the community as a whole accepts as legitimate, all else is just window dressing. Sometimes one can get one’s way by sabotage or resistance or even pretending. For example, we did for years at the schools like Central Park East, which officially didn’t even exist. “They” let us alone for 30 to 40 years, cramping our style here and there, but not destroying the heart of the school. But the absence of formal legal autonomy over virtually anything certainly made it harder for us when challenged (as we are at the moment in NYC). It takes more energy and consistent and persistent wariness to avoid drifting back or being pulled back. It often relies on superwomen (or men) with a godfather here or there to hold off the wolf at the door.

So, while I appreciate the exploration of all the interweaving habits and projects that help keep us going and broaden our understanding, I ask first: Who has the right to decide what? And who has the right to change the rules of the game to initiate the kind of public work you so enticingly describe? Who chooses its so-called leaders who speak for the whole?

I think I am asking this of you rather urgently at the moment, because we are in a struggle for survival at the CPE we believe in, where two-thirds or more of the staff and parents have declared their distrust of the appointed principal and asked for her removal. But if and when they win, I hope they will lead a fight to change the rules of the game so that rebellion is not the only tool available to them. And I hope other public schools whose staff and families think they have something special they want to hold onto—while also always improving—begin to develop such rules of the game before they too face such a crisis.


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