Teaching Opinion

What Is ‘Public’ Education?

By Harry C. Boyte — September 22, 2015 4 min read
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Dear Harry and friends,

It’s good to get back to a schedule with deadlines. After a lifetime of deadlines this retirement life is sometimes harder to enjoy than it ought to be.

Harry Boyte is a very old friend, although not as old as I am. We’ve always been sort of on the same page but coming to it from different dispositions, life experiences and ways of seeing the world. As a result I often turn to him when I’m perplexed and worried for the possibility that he can come up with a way of looking at the issues that gives me a new thread to pull at.

Our basic commitment to democracy has posed problems for us both, as you will discover. We’ve “played” with it in different venues and settings, with occasional shared ones. That helps. Harry has managed to make life even more difficult for himself (and helpful to me) by having a longstanding and personal commitment to the saga of South Africa.

But we’re going to tackle the complexity of the idea itself--as a way of living as well as a way of governing, and in the process we hope to help our friends and allies reexamine their positions around public schooling so that, at the very least, we are all on something closer to the same side than we often are now. How can we define public in a democracy in such a way that it helps us separate the efforts to privatize education and the efforts to figure out how to more successfully provide an education for democracy for all of us?

Lucky are those who can go to a free public school, close to home, where they can feel confident that their child is in good hands, with people you can trust, and with people who will take your concerns seriously and respectfully. How to give professionals the respect and autonomy they want while you, their family, doesn’t have any reason to fear that their autonomy will be used against their children’s and their own best interests? While also...still another hitch--expecting the larger public to pay the bill.

Even families who have the means and desire to pay for private school make compromises--but they have choices when and if the compromises become intolerable. What about the rest of us? Is choice an answer? Or does it simply lead to pretending that an unequal market place is equally good for rich ad poor, white and black, atheists and the devoutly religious? Of course, Harry, we may not end up covering all this, since as we go along we may discover many interesting bypaths--like when is representative democracy best vs direct? Who should be “included"--the custodian, the cook? Which tax payers? And on and on.....

Dear Deb and colleagues,

I have always greatly appreciated your passion for democracy as the most important end of education, as well as your deep respect for teachers’ roles, and your view of education as a living, relational, consequential activity that should “liberate the powers” of each student, in Dewey’s phrase.

We also have differences on what is “public” education and what erodes it. My story helps to explain.

I was shaped as a young white southerner in the 1960s by my family’s involvement in the “civil rights” movement. I also agree with Martin Luther King’s friend Vincent Harding, who said in Hope and History, “civil rights movement is too narrow a description...in fact [the movement] was a powerful outcropping of the continuing struggle for the expansion of democracy...in which Africa-Americans have always been integrally engaged [and] in which we provided major leadership from the mid-1950s at least to the 1970s.”

My father, Harry George Boyte, manager of the Atlanta Red Cross, became one of a handful of white southerners active in Georgia school desegregation in the 1950s. In 1963 he went on staff of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In and out of college at Duke, I worked for SCLC’s little known “Citizenship Education Program” (CEP) organizing “citizenship schools” across the South - community organizing skills 101. We organized in church basements, beauty parlors, and anywhere we could find “public space” to use. Teachers and beauticians were key.

CEP came from the movement center called Highlander Folk School, inspired by Danish folk schools and 1930s movements, so I learned popular education: you begin where people are, draw on their strengths, culture, and experiences, and see education as less about cognitive knowledge - though it’s relevant - than about democracy as a way of life. As the CEP philosopher Septima Clark put it, the goal was “To broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.”

In the Public Achievement (PA) youth civic empowerment initiative I started in 1990, seeking to revive the empowering experiences of CEP for today’s young people, we initially found public schools were often difficult (too expert-driven, rigid, detached from community life). Our first great site was a low income Catholic elementary school, St. Bernard’s in St. Paul. Through leadership of the principal Dennis Donovan, students, teachers and staff all came to see themselves as “citizens” (citizen teachers, citizen staff, as well as citizen students) who could make democratic change on issues from bullying to building a playground in a community deemed too dangerous by the neighbors. The students won them over through what we call citizen politics. St. Bernard’s connected deeply to the diverse community in the process.

As PA expanded to other schools, communities, and countries, we’ve not made the distinction between “public,” “parochial,” and “charter” schools - all have potential to become democracy schools. So, yes to “democracy,” yes to “public,” and no to “privatization.”

I look forward to exploring what these mean.


Harry Boyte, Augsburg College, is founder of the youth civic empowerment initiative Public Achievement, and a leader in the movement to democratize higher education.

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.