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Citizen Responsibility to Public Schools

I contend that one of the role responsibilities of a citizen is maintaining and supporting a minimum threshold of education for democracy and public life within public schools. This responsibility arises from the necessity of passing on democracy as a way of life and as a governmental structure that best ensures liberty for future generations. Schools cultivate our skills of political agency and community influence, helping us to become viable citizens who can pursue our interests and engage our freedoms. Because of this, we must protect institutions that provide such education to future citizens in order to safeguard their equitable way of life and their ability to meaningfully engage in publics. We have a forward-driven concern for our fellow and maturing citizens.

Surely there are many activities and causes that are future- and outward- driven, from protecting the environment to ensuring the justice of the penal system. Those may also warrant concern and action. But I highlight our role responsibility as citizens to maintaining democracy and its related values and practices to emphasize the unique duties that arise by virtue of our political system and the rights and agency it enables for ourselves and others. Given the place of public schools in fulfilling and perpetuating our political system and way of life, public schools warrant not only special attention from citizens but also an obligation to act on their behalf. This is not to say that our responsibility to public schools as facilitators of democracy should be paramount to all other responsibilities, such as caring for one’s family. Rather, it is to say that this responsibility is worthy of significant attention and action because of our role as citizens and our role in preserving and improving democracy.

I am not claiming that public schooling is the only appropriate form of education or that public schools have been or are currently successful in their varied democratic and academic goals. Rather, I am claiming that democracy is best served by public schools as I have ideally described them, especially when they fulfill the five elements I outlined in chapter three. And, in order to preserve democracy, citizens have an obligation to sustain public schools and to go so far as to improve them by making them more richly and strongly democratic in necessary cases. Most likely because of the potential I have described previously, citizen-supported schools will be formally and functionally public schools, but there may also be rare, though important, privately run schools that are functionally public, with nondiscriminatory admissions and a sufficiently pluralistic ethos.

The responsibility of citizens includes upholding a commitment to schools as a central institution of democracy—something that sustains democracy but also, in its best forms, is democracy in action. It is important that we align means and ends when it comes to our expectations of democratic public schools. This spirit of alignment runs throughout Dewey’s work and he makes it explicit in several places, including when he proclaims, “The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by means that accord with those ends.”42 The practices of our schools and the goals we hold for them must work together toward sustaining democracy and liberty. Good democratic education includes both the means and ends of preserving democracy; it embodies democracy so that students not only learn about it, but are enculturated as citizens through it, taking it on as a way of life. We need a deeply democratic culture to support democracy, and schools can provide an environment where that culture flourishes, especially when actively supported and maintained by citizens outside the school walls.

Citizen responsibility to support public schools can take an array of forms. I highlight some specific possibilities in the next chapter, while acknowledging that the shape of these actions should itself arise from the unique needs of communities, the capacities of individuals, and recognition of differentials in power among citizens. Although basic support for public schools by paying one’s taxes, supporting reasonable school levies, and selecting public schools for one’s children to attend are important, they are not sufficient for maintaining the democracy that bestows the rights and benefits of citizenship. The support must be robust enough to sustain schools as the key institution for preparing citizens for democracy and preserving it. And, ideally, the support should take forms that themselves embody democracy in action, perhaps through establishing publics that champion school causes or through participating in school-based decision making that unites citizens in solving a shared problem, thereby aligning our means and ends.

In sum, collectively, citizen support—our support—should address multiple aspects of school life. It should work to curtail practices within school walls that might limit the development of democratic skills in children, such as silence policies that prohibit children from talking to each other, or the squeezing out of social studies education as No Child Left Behind-tested subjects are more valued. It should be proactive in supporting educational policies that better ensure equity in schools, such as improved proposals for school funding. Citizens should more directly participate in school governance, such as by attending school board meetings, and participate in the development of citizenship education curricula that engage children with people and problems in their communities so that they develop and become part of their local publics. Each of these types of support require, at minimum, knowledge of school practices and policies related to democracy and, in many cases, action to secure (and even, at times, improve) those practices and policies.

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