Teaching Profession Opinion

Living Democracy Every School Day

By Deborah Meier — October 14, 2014 4 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute.

Dear Leo,

We agree. Mostly.

Since each and every decision in life has some trade-offs (e.g. we can’t be in two places at once, for starters), most of the remaining issues between us have to do with these trade-offs, which in turn often depend on how we read the risks at the moment of decision.

One difference may be of a different order. I recognize the importance of representative democracy. All 300-plus million Americans can’t hear each other out and then raise their hands for and against, etc. And many decisions need to be made for the nation as a whole. (Ditto for the UN, which has worked out its own peculiar system for making decisions, for example.) But ...

But, my general “rule” is that, where possible, decisions should be made by those who are most affected, must live by them, and who must implement them. That’s complicated, too, as we decide who is which. Where possible I favor direct “participatory” democracy. It’s worth some inconveniences—and the risks that go with it—to try to live by this principle. The best size for deciding stuff “together” is probably under 30. The number who can sit around one table—no one in the second row—and see each other’s faces. Time after time. Under such circumstances various forms of consensus are feasible. I was surprised, at Mission Hill, how well the “rule of five” worked (a fist is a NO, and 5 fingers is a YES YES YES.) In the end we all figured out how to get to no fists after non-disabling discourse. But it’s hardly going to work for all numbers and situations. Majority rule and two-thirds, etc., work, too, with some serious drawbacks. It helps to recognize those drawbacks.

I suspect that we may disagree about how powerful this kind of direct democracy is—and that it’s worth some sacrifices to make it possible. Next best ...?

Representation—which is essentially an agreement to delegate power to others—is the last, not first, resort in my book. Still that actually makes it pretty commonplace for making many decisions that affect towns, cities, states, and nations. But let’s not overrate what is simply common sense when the numbers get too great.

That’s why I’m for introducing the next generation to the nature of participatory, direct democracy by living within such a community during their K-12 years. I want them to hunger for being able to join the process. I’m quite comfortable with, within this structure, delegating different responsibilities/powers to different constituents, and treating those under x-age differently than adults on many of the decisions to be made.

This also requires, as do all forms of democracy, access both to complicated information and the time needed to sort through difficult trade-offs: time to hear each other and time to reflect on what we’ve heard (or read). There’s a reason why the old ruling class was called the “leisure class.”

This leads me to underscoring how badly we’ve arranged the schedule for working teachers—as though they are “working” only when they have a group of students in front of them. It also speaks to the absence of time for families and staff to spend together in fruitful exchanges, not to mention the community within which a school resides. There’s also the question of “who else” has a stake, beyond the immediate constituents? What about the broader tax base that schools depend on, or the people as a whole who have a stake in the outcomes of schools? What’s the best official ladder of responsibility? Who can “veto,” “monitor,” etc.?

At the schools that I was principal of, I had a temporary veto power over decisions for which I would be held legally responsible: matters of health and safety, and questions involving fiscal integrity. If we couldn’t within a certain time frame resolve this, it would require mediation. It never got to that in the 40 years I served as principal of such schools.

At Mission Hill, given our “autonomies,” we went further in including families and community in the decisionmaking process. We created a representative body which, however, was required to get a three-fifths vote of each constituency to hire a new principal, for example, as well as a number of other priority matters. So far, it has worked. Note. All forms of governance fail sometimes, and all require a certain degree of good luck. One can’t legislate a no-fail plan.

But at all times I think we must ask ourselves: Does this or that practice help everyone feel ownership over the whole, or does it alienate and distance some from their responsibilities and loyalties to the whole? I think some of the practices of even the AFT (and the UAW) have been deleterious to the important sense of membership (sometimes called brotherhood and sisterhood) that lies at the heart of democracy. I’m suspicious about any arrangement that leads to one party in power for as long as has been the case in the AFT—and produces no useful potentially successful opposition party.

We need to expand the direct experience of democracy to as many citizens and would-be citizens as possible. It’s the most powerful teaching tool we have. Inventing more opportunities to directly see what the dilemmas facing democracy are should be No. 1 in these days when the whole idea seems at risk. We may have to take a few risks within the union, too, in order to make democracy more immediately real to its members—to see the UFT as a member versus a client. We need, perhaps, to look at each and every one of our “normal” procedures to see if it helps or hinders our understanding of why democracy is so precious, with all its flaws.


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