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Key Elements of and Recent Developments in Public Schooling

Recent changes in school governance and practice have arisen in response to some legitimate and some wrongly perceived failures of public schools. Too often, some public schools have only been formally public—that is, they have been merely government run, taxpayer funded, subject to accountability measures, and open to all children. And, even then, some have struggled to fulfill basic expectations of providing equal opportunity for all children. Many citizens have been content to accept formal publicness as a sufficient descriptive criterion for public schools, overlooking normative criteria for how schools ought to function. Some proponents of newer types of public schools, such as corporate-run charter schools often overseen by Education Management Organizations (EMOs), have overtly cast public schools in mere formalist terms. One such advocate, Chester Finn, says, “A public school is any school that is open to the public, paid for by the public, and accountable to the public. It need not be run by the government"13 Such labeling allows private and for-profit service providers to run public schools as long as they do so in other formally public ways. But this label fails to fully encapsulate how new corporate-managed charter schools, while they may be accountable to citizens in some limited ways, operate mostly as private, autonomous entities and often draw on additional funding from private investors who in turn hold the management organizations to their own expectations for profit and success.

It may be in the interests of those advocating for alternative types of schools to redefine the nature of public schools in ways that will benefit themselves, as opposed to using the functional definition of public schools aimed at serving democracy and the common good that I have outlined in these pages. Increasingly, our schools are becoming more difficult to categorize, and these changes warrant more careful scrutiny insofar as they may impact the type of education children receive, including schools’ ability to develop good citizens who sustain democracy, or may jeopardize the ability of parents and citizens to take democratic action in schools.

As the arrangements, management, and goals of our public schools are undergoing considerable change right now, it is worthwhile to more closely analyze both the form and the function of public schools, especially as they relate to the practice and future of democracy. As a baseline for navigating this changing terrain, I contend that there are five things, at minimum, public schools should be and do. First, they should be open to the public. This means that all citizens are welcome, even if their education may be more costly than average, such as that of students with exceptionalities. Second, they should serve the public, by meeting societal needs like preparing active citizens to maintain the government and economy. Third, they should be responsive to the public, enabling citizens to vote out education officials or change school policies through meaningful and viable avenues like elections, referendums, and open school meetings. Fourth, they should be creators of publicness, meaning that they cultivate citizens who know how to collective-mindedly exchange ideas and respond to the ideas of others, while tolerating and working across differences. Finally, they should sustain democracy by developing skills and dispositions within children for participating in it and enacting democratic, justice, and freedom-oriented decision making.

Mirroring, in some ways, the responsibilities citizens have toward democracy that I will describe in chapter five, these five elements represent the responsibilities of public schools toward fulfilling the promises of democracy and sustaining it as a political system and way of life.14 They are future directed, concerned with the well-being of all citizens, and aligned with democratic principles of justice.

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