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Democratic Aspects of Public Schools

To build a case for a citizen’s responsibility to act on behalf of public schools as a central institution and site of democracy, I turn in this section to describing the democratic contributions of functionally public schools, thereby suggesting a rationale for why they are worthy of protection and support. Sustaining democracy as a political system and a way of life requires the skills and knowledge best, and at times even uniquely, offered in public schools. While admittedly, many traditional public schools have fallen quite short of the democratic life and goals I outline here, the nature of public schools provides the potential for meeting these ends in ways not always possible in private or for-profit public schools, even those that function publicly to a degree. It is in light of this potential that I highlight what public schools might best contribute to democracy, while recognizing that accountability outcries might also showcase ways in which schools have failed to educate for democracy.

Public schools should teach knowledge about and practice in the processes of democracy: skills in deliberation, in working across difference, and in decision making as well as in promoting the values of democracy that extend across many publics, such as liberty and equality.10 Sustaining democracy is a balancing act of rights and responsibilities— citizens earn liberties by virtue of citizenship, but they must also fulfill duties to their state that protect those liberties for others, which may include serving on juries or in the military. Schools should help students to learn how to balance private and public interests as they enact their rights and respect those of others. Constitutional democracies require the consent of the governed for laws and institutions to be seen as politically legitimate. In order to give consent, students must learn about the laws and practices they are consenting to, as well as be equipped with skills of protest so they can express dissent when they disagree with those laws and practices. By learning these within public schools, children develop appropriate respect for the law as well as a sense of their obligations as citizens.

Functionally public schools strive to develop a collective sense of “we" as well as an understanding of the well-being of individuals and their ability to pursue their own happiness. Barber writes, “Historically, the meaning of public education was precisely education into what it meant to belong to a public: education in the res publica—in commonality, in community, in the common constitution that made plurality and difference possible"11 As places where people come together to deliberate, learn, celebrate, and solve problems, public schools unite large and diverse groups of individuals around common elements or common culture, while still maintaining respect for individuality and distinction. Indeed, it is often the case that one of the key elements that binds us is our shared respect for our individual differences and the Constitution that protects them.12

Within schools that are functionally public, we have the capacity to develop toleration for a proliferation of views of the good life (to satisfy liberal democrats), as well as the ability to deliberate among them civilly (to satisfy participatory democrats). This cannot happen in private schools that adhere to one overarching religious worldview or in profit-driven public charter schools, because, by nature, these schools may offer a narrowed religious or economic view of the good life without sufficiently encouraging or allowing students to have or debate their own views of the good life.

Citizens must develop the skills and knowledge necessary to shape the future of their communities. Public schools are one of the institutions that provide an opportunity to do this because they have the ability to value and act upon the suggestions of both the students that compose them and the local adults who contribute their perspective to school governance. Though many public schools are increasingly connected to textbook companies and other for-profit educational service providers, they are rarely limited by corporate or other forms of oversight that are beyond the influence of children or citizens.

Democratic societies also rely upon rule by the people and, often, rule by the majority. Insofar as formally public schools mandate equal educational opportunity that is free and accessible to all children, they provide the best opportunity for everyone to learn the skills and content necessary to make wise decisions as citizens. Moreover, good public schools acknowledge all members of the nation and their rights, thereby working against the tyranny of the majority and establishing a precedent of concern for the well-being of minorities. One element of wise decision making is the ability to arrive at criteria for assessing the legitimacy of public institutions like schools, as I will explain in chapter seven. Citizens need a space and requisite skills to engage in discussions so that they arrive at individually and collectively defensible criteria for legitimacy on democratic grounds. This is best done in spaces where reasoned discourse is supported and encouraged, free from the type of indoctrination that occurs in some private religious schools.

In conclusion, public schools have important formalist and functionalist elements that render them capable of sustaining and engaging in democracy in the present and preparing for it in the future. If we focus on categorizing schools merely on the basis of their formal public elements and their service delivery mechanisms, as many people have tended to do lately as economic trends and consumerism reshape popular views of schools, we gloss over their important function as places of deliberation about the means and ends of schooling and their connection to good associated living. When defining and thinking about public schools we need to focus on what they do—and, more so, what they ideally can do for citizens and for democracy.

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