School Choice & Charters Opinion

How Do We Rebuild Democratic Communities for Education?

By Deborah Meier — September 15, 2016 3 min read
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Dear Harry and friends,

I’m fascinated by how differently we come at this topic which, I think, we are at heart in agreement. But, I’m trying to figure out our differences.

As you know I love Public Achievement. It serves a very different purpose than the kind of Community Service projects we did at CPESS and Mission Hill, which were more “just” getting kids out into the world, seeing the world in a different role—as co-workers versus as students. It also offered chances to meet adults who might interest them, engage them and be part of their future network. It did all that pretty well.

But, it didn’t directly take on the democratic engagement issues that matter so much to both of us—at least not directly. Interestingly, a few of the questions we “required” everyone to look into were: How are decisions made at your place of work? How is the organization run? Who has power? etc.? Demystifying power relations in the workplace is important in a democracy after all.

I’ve also always appreciated your use of the word commonwealth, with its history of what you call co-creation. That phrase also resonates. The best classrooms and schools are precisely co-creations. Part of what worries me in the world today, and in the movement for increasing school choice (which I aided in its early stages—maybe alas) is that it focuses entirely on individual choice, not communities choosing together. It splits communities apart rather than bringing them together. I still see the face-to-face community as the solid bulwark of democracy that has no replacement that I know of—whether in the workplace or in the neighborhood. Maybe we (and here I suspect I do not speak of my generation as part of that “we”) must invent another type of community that can serve the purposes the old one did? The on-line ones I know are interesting, but I don’t see them replacing unions or communities—but maybe they will come to do so.

Your words on the subject of hyper-individualism were much appreciated, and that issue is a real danger for democracy, just as the absence of individualism is a danger to democracy as well! That’s the dilemma.

Among the other things that school choice (vouchers, charters, etc.) gives rise to is ethnic and partisan separatism. Instead of schools being designed to meet the dreams of all of their students and families, each school seeks its own separate clientele. It makes life easier—which is one reason it appealed to me. But it also too often turns into re-segregation—there was never much desegregation anyway I suppose. Like TV news stations, each with very different audiences, we see how dangerous segregated communities have turned out to be—ala Trump et al.

So, I see, as I write, how actually we are saying mostly the same thing. I think I’m personally bridging what I started this letter thinking were differences!

In the sphere of schooling, perhaps we are focused on different “enemies”? I’m immediately mostly frightened by the success that conservatives have had in attacking even the thin public education we have had. Yes, it needed to be attacked, but our attack is over quite different failings of schools as we know them. In the puzzling climate we now live, we need ways to shift the focus from how schools help individuals to grab the scarce future opportunities kids are faced with, to building communities that can rebuild democracies that provide futures for all children.

What might be the center of such a movement, and what language would help it thrive? We’re not alone in this, which gives me hope. Maybe it even bridges a divide between us and many a conservative.


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.