Accountability Opinion

The Power of Citizens Over Public Education

By Deborah Meier — September 09, 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,

Why do I have ambivalent feelings about the word citizen? I think probably because it has so often been used as a synonym for dutiful rather than powerful.

Like you, I know voting is but a small part of democracy. But it’s also a critical part because it relates to the power to throw the rascals out without the blood and drama, or revolution. It’s precisely the undramatic nature of voting that appeals to me. Its ordinariness!

But it can also be meaningless—and a lot in-between that and truly representing the will of “the people.”

Of course, citizenship is a contested word itself—or concept. Not everyone living within a certain domain is a citizen of it. Women, people of color, and sometimes immigrants in general may be equally affected by the laws and policies of the city, state or nation they live in—but not be citizens. Throughout most of western history that has been commonplace, if not universally true.

Still, there were citizens going back to ancient times—but they were only a minority of “the people.”

I want to emphasize the power that comes with being a citizen and the powerlessness of not truly being one. We have found a way in the U.S. (and many other places) to provide citizenship without power. The power of money, connections, information, and leisure belong to a precious few and make our “right to vote” sometime irrelevant. Or nearly so.

It’s in that context that I see education playing a major role—one of providing a model of greater equality of power or of how democracy invokes the word, including voting, to describe a sham. Neither teachers, parents nor students have real power in schools—from pre-K through college! They are brought up in part by public institutions which don’t belong, in a meaningful sense, to the public. Yes, democracy and schooling connect in many roundabout ways in America, meaning the money is allotted by an elected legislature, the rules are determined by authorities authorized to act by some elected person or body. But then this is true of arms contracts—funded publicly but built by private profit-making firms.

But for the constituents of that school and the community which it directly serves, power is entirely lacking. The one-time power of locally elected school boards has been almost entirely wiped away. Even when they remain elected bodies they have less and less power to make important decisions about what is to be studied and how, who teaches and how they are certified, hired or fired, how the school will be assessed, and the consequences that follow such assessment. Even issues of how students are graded, sorted, and disciplined are frequently not in the hands of anyone who knows the students at all.

How might Public Achievement be used both to expose this reality and to make changes in it? That’s the job facing us. When and where should we say “no"—engage in nonviolent resistance of one sort or another?

The “Opt Out” movement is one such way. The builders of the Opt Out movement are trying to persuade parents throughout the country to refuse to have their children take high stakes tests designed for purposes that are not student and learner-friendly. They are making inroads in both expected and unexpected places.

The efforts to curtail or eliminate private schools with public monies is another political fight today, and it is gaining ground in circles that had previously been enthusiastic “privatizers"—although the vehicle they favored (charter schools) have not always been synonymous with external control by outside private parties. But skepticism is growing around the substantial role of money-interests in profiteering with public monies, and replacing public schooling with market-place incentives.

Are these efforts that Public Achievement can join with? How best might we join together the various movements seeking to re-democratize America?


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.