DEMOCRATIC SCHOOL GOVERNANCE
Another way in which citizens can fulfill their responsibilities to public schools is by participating in the democratic governance of schools—here employing one of the means to achieve the end of nourishing democracy. Thomas Jefferson defined schools as a responsibility of citizens from the start. Within his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which sought to establish public schools in early Virginia, he envisioned keeping citizens informed and capable of self-governance by involving them in running schools. They would be responsible for working within the political infrastructure to oversee the education of their children and those in their community. By doing so, citizens would be actively embodying democracy at work and would strengthen their own skills of self-governance and political participation.5
Even though the conditions of democracy have changed considerably today, with many more citizens and increasing populations from diverse backgrounds, we citizens can continue to participate in educational decision making or influence elected leaders who make such decisions. We should learn about and vote for school board members based on their stances regarding the publicness and democratic goals of education. While this seems to be a simple suggestion, it is not when considered in light of decades of low voter turnout during school board elections. We have to shift the level of concern for this public office and for citizens’ relationships with it. This may require not only becoming informed about candidates and upcoming election cycles ourselves, but also notifying others about them and urging them to cast an informed vote. Such collective work can have much greater impact on the composition of school boards and their decisions, while also showing that participating in school board elections is worthwhile. This is a noteworthy effort in a context where more and more communities are losing their democratically elected school boards. Indeed, exposing these changes and their undemocratic implications may serve as part of our call to motivate others to care about and participate in school board elections before they no longer have the ability to do so.
We can also engage in election campaigns and public debates in order to ensure that the decisions of elected officials reflect the collective will of the public guided by principles of democracy. We can not only write to our legislators about educational issues, but also follow up by meeting with them in person to share our personal experiences. In this way, we can help them learn more about citizen groups working on education issues in our communities so that they become aware of the growing publics for public schools among their constituencies. Or we can help to make school decisions more democratic by expanding the range of voices influencing decisions, thereby also increasing the legitimacy of those decisions insofar as they better reflect an inclusive public.
Performing this sort of public work requires knowing how school boards, mayoral control, recovery school districts, and school decision making work, as well as staying current on the activities and efforts of those governing bodies. As I noted in chapters three and four, this can be challenging given the rapidly changing structures of schools and their oversight. It requires seeking out explanations of these structures and opinions on their use in order to stay informed. One way to become better informed about local changes and challenges is to ask your school superintendent to keep you up to date about developing issues and to host public conversations about them. Draw upon relationships to share knowledge and build new understandings. And citizens with advanced understandings of how these systems work and are changing can enact their citizen responsibility by helping to inform those who are not as knowledgeable. I personally undertook such an effort recently by developing a short video to be shown at a community summit for Cincinnati residents concerned with poverty to explain how shifts in voucher and charter schools were depriving some traditional public schools of funding and how they might respond via school board actions. The video was later archived so that other citizens seeking to better understand changes in educational finance and management could access the material online.
Finally, we can take an active role in school decision-making bodies, choosing to run for elected office on the school board or the local school decision-making committee. Or we may voluntarily participate in groups such as the Parent Teacher Organization that influence school goals, policy, or practice. The aim here is not to act as a lone savior, but rather to further integrate ourselves into the publics of public schools and work in coordination with our fellow citizens there. Given that some of the school decision-making groups have considerable impact on schools, participating in them provides a more powerful route to ensuring that the well-being of future citizens is protected.
All of these actions require a commitment to being informed about school policies, practices, reform initiatives, and changing public school governance— including those I outlined briefly in chapter three. Being informed is essential to making wise judgments, engaging in productive deliberations, and detecting when policies or practices are flawed. Yet one significant recent study by the Brookings Institution found that most of us lack considerable knowledge of inputs impacting schools (such as teacher salaries and per-pupil expenditure), though we have more knowledge of school outputs (such as graduation rates).6 While this knowledge gap can be partially traced to our directing more time and attention to other aspects of our lives, it is noteworthy that important information about schools can be difficult to come by. For example, school funding, which combines federal, state, and local monies, can be difficult to track and obscured by complex funding formulas. A commitment to being informed can thus be challenging to fulfill. Continued requests for clear and accessible information from states, districts, and other sources will hopefully assuage some of those struggles. Seeking out critical analysis from informed experts, such as the one I briefly provided of EMO charter schools in chapter four, can also help citizens to sharpen their critiques of changing or problematic practices or policies.
As responsible citizens, we seek to educate ourselves, which includes pushing beyond our typical sources and circles of information to explore differing views and accounts that may challenge or complicate what we already know. This includes moving beyond narrow information to that pertinent to ourselves, our children, or people like us. And responsible citizens educate others about the happenings in our schools and related issues in democracy writ large, thereby developing new relationships with others who may help us shoulder shared responsibility. Moreover, responsible citizens not only take action on such knowledge ourselves, but also help others learn how to take action.