Teaching Opinion

School Choice Is Not Always Democratic

By Deborah Meier — November 05, 2015 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,

As you noted a week ago, Harry, this is getting interesting. I enjoyed the responses of Mike Miller, long time community organizer, to our conversation and want to address both your comments and his. Mike’s comments are on the website of the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College.

I’d also like readers to take a look at a gathering on Martha’s Vineyard that should concern us all called “CampPhilos.”

What’s our alternative?

I’m struggling to picture the alternative form of organizing you are suggesting, Harry. Miller’s comments helped a bit. But, as he notes, he has no successful examples to show us. Yes, I took the path I did (creating small self-governing public schools serving primarily low-income minority kids) because I wanted something to “show” others—and myself. They do have language, their families do care, they can, etc. I wanted to show that relationships based on democratic principles are the vital ground floor for building a better society. I wasn’t totally naïve (Mike Miller). I wasn’t truly “amazed” at the lack of attention and support as our ideas took on more and more reach. But we kept being told “but what’s the alternative”? And by people I respect. So we kept upping the ante. And yes, the Boston project was actually initiated within the teachers union of Boston and it was—as Miller suggests—a way of giving us a legal status and a power base, in the contract. But we got out-foxed. Management undermined the agreement and the leadership of the Boston AFT chapter found it increasingly hard to defend.

My old mentor, the late Lillian Weber, was not enamored of our decision to create separate small schools within the system. She feared exactly what Mike Miller does. We’d shift our attention from the larger struggle to the protection of our particular schools. The Open Corridor program, which she invented, was an effort to work from within schools to transform them. Maybe we should have paid more attention to both strategies.

Your remarks, and Miller’s, remind me of one of my serious concerns about the “choice” argument. My first: that it confuses choice with democracy. There’s a connection, in fact, but choice alone doesn’t even work under “free enterprise"—as monopolies form. We’re seeing that a lot of late. But my new concern is that it creates communities separate from the ones we actually live in—and vote in. Of course, there are lots of these, but schools were one of the few left-over geographically-based public spaces where we could organize together, although they don’t often do so. It’s even one of my concerns about creating integrated schools that chop up political communities. In East Harlem that wasn’t a dilemma.

There’s almost too much for me to think about, but where can we find the place and space and time to think together? Maybe I’ll come back from the Coalition of Essential Schools fall forum in Portland, Maine with some new ideas.


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