Teaching Opinion

What Is a Democracy School?

By Deborah Meier — December 10, 2015 2 min read

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Indeed, we’re stuck with each other on planet Earth. This is an unprecedented challenge to our human capacity to negotiate our way through the future together. As far as I know even the top .1 percent have nowhere else to go if the planet comes to a slow grinding halt. All our other disagreements will “soon” not matter. Or do “they” have a secret plan (bubble in our major cities for occupancy by only the top 5 percent? Or maybe they’re preparing Mars for the oligarchy as we speak?).

Our paranoias are not all the same, and mine (above) is probably no more realistic than the idea that scientists throughout the world could have come to a virtual consensus to dupe the public about climate change.

I’m a little less enamored of Henry Wallace than you. Perhaps his naiveté around the Communist influence on his later presidential campaign sours me a bit. But we both like the rhetoric. The notion, that a substantial number of white men in America today hold, that they are the products of generations of belief that they were the hard working, indispensable core of American democracy—rural and urban. The fall-out from this century’s catastrophic ability to do without them is surely part of what we are seeing in the “mood” behind a Trump. The fear that their white high school educated children may be part of the new undeserving lower class may be sinking in slowly and creating its own form of paranoia—and renewed familiar forms of racism and sexism.

So, can we rebuild the image of what it takes to have a thriving and open system of polities before we get a home-grown version of fascism? We used to call it “state capitalism"—where the state has a monopoly on coercive power and a small oligarchy working in close collaboration with the state, has a virtual monopoly on the marketplace. Meanwhile we might even be allowed to “play democracy.”

We used to ask our students when they went to weekly community service jobs that they use their time to learn how decisions on various levels of importance are made at their agency: by whom, where, and even when.

That’s the basic skepticism I want us to instill in all ordinary—trust, but verify. Assume good intentions, but check it out. “Where are the minutes kept?”

Which leads me back to how we might define the bottom line of what makes a school “public” with democracy in mind. What kinds of evidence would the school be able to present that would assuage my skepticism about their democratic foundations?

They should be able at least to show that all the adults whose children attend the school or who are employed directly by the school are able to “throw the rascals out” through some kind of agreed process—not to mention a process for deciding important matters like the school calendar, the curriculum, class sizes, and the forms that high-stake assessments would take—if any. Only on X matters (salaries and benefits, health, racism and sexism, due process for students and staff and transparency) would their local wisdom require a larger consensus, arrived at by the regional body which disburses the funds. Maybe a professional/lay “quality” body? One whose task is only to say whether the plan presented is “reasonable” and is being reasonably carried out.

I could add more details but do you think such a proposition would have any chance of being supported by most schools, parents, and teaches?


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