Teaching Opinion

Do Democracy Schools Depend on Homogeneity?

By Deborah Meier — May 26, 2016 4 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,

I love your examples of community-built institutions. That’s what good school should be. But we can’t just wait for communities to do so—so we have a government, top-down (by state) system of public schooling. I’m not for getting rid of that. But it poses problems.

Alabama in the 19th century? I’d need to know more. We need to dig up the stories and see what they each meant by democracy and who it served. Is there anything that we’d agree is beyond the pale for a democracy? At what point does one go from flawed democracy to not one at all?

Which trade-offs are inevitable? Is there no defining set of traits? Does it matter if it’s a private vs. a public institution? The “libertarians” often argue that they favor democracy/government when it’s voluntary (although that’s not quite a fair summary, it comes close). They are for school choice precisely because then, and only then, can “the people” rule themselves. They do not deny that it would cause various forms of school segregation—by choice—which is at the heart of their definition of democracy: personal choice.

Does democracy depend on homogeneity of some kind? The USA is a rare example (but not unique) of a society that up until the Civil War was defined by whoever hung around and was white. Most nations in Europe, Africa, and Asia—maybe also South America—are to some degree defined by ethnicity. Sometimes more than one. But we (and they) know what is meant by a “real” German or Frenchman. In the USA it just meant being “white"—which may be a broader definition but hardly encompasses the majority of the world’s ethnicities.

Can we say that the KKK could be democratic in its treatment of members who were not only of one “race” but also of one belief system, one political agenda? It complicates the recent arguments about whether the Republican or Democratic Party rules are democratic—since they are private organizations. Who’s to decide?

Sometimes these issues become very personal. Progressives, socialists, democrats like me to some degree bought into this ideology when we argued for self-governing schools of choice (that did not discriminate in any illegal way). But today we can see that advocacy of public school choice became popular and led NYC to be more segregated. It’s part of the current NY Times-worthy struggle over Central Park East (CPE), carried on by angry people who believe that they are the real upholders of integration, progressive education, and choice! Some of the arguments are based on myths—for example, that CPE was started as a city-wide magnet of choice to prove a point about integration and progressive education. Actually the attractive thing about the proposal made to us was that it offered a chance to prove that progressive education could thrive in a very poor community with families almost all of whom were Latino or African-American. And it did, which led the District to start CPE II and then River East and then a secondary school (CPESS)—that served almost entirely local children. Integration came some years later when the superintendent—Tony Alvarado—said it would be helpful to the district if we’d accept children from outside, to prevent it from losing another building.

So we added this to our task—with the added idea of demonstrating that a school whose white students were in a decided minority would work as well, if not better, than sending small groups of Black kids into primarily middle-class white schools. It worked, and after the first 30 years we had a pretty steady population mix in all four schools—40% Black, 35% Latino, and at most 20-25 white and other. Class-wise we qualified for Title I services. Today CPE I probably is way over 50% white and even more middle class. How this happened is another story, and to some degree has happened to too many progressive schools we helped initiate in NYC. Partly it’s due to NYC’s gentrification as well. And partly, perhaps, by intent during a time when progressive education did not buy into the system’s definition of success based on test scores. It was hard to gentrify a community (see NY Times real estate advertising) when its schools are labeled failures on the basis of test scores. Add a Talent and Gifted program to a “failing” school and lo and behold next year it is listed as a successful one. Rents go up.

My point, Harry, is not to rehash the fight over CPE I but to raise questions about whether it’s “natural” for democracy to survive a heterogeneous population base, where the disfavored ethnicities/races are not prepared to stay in their place and the country’s “mainstream” (not to mention elite) is not ready to embrace the idea of equality in its fullest sense. As long as “they” are in some negative way less desirable than “us,” the majority gives up on integration pretty fast. Where community is very strong, it sometimes can handle social class-integration, often through tracking in one form or another.

Can this change? I believe it can, but it won’t happen by focusing on schools alone as we further segregate neighborhoods and workplaces, nor until we better tackle the question of who is “us” in a democratic institution, community, or nation.


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.