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Legitimacy and Schools

Understanding why the political legitimacy of schools as institutions is central to democracy requires first establishing that schooling is necessarily political. Politics is a struggle over power and the distribution of goods, resources, and knowledge. Each of these takes place in schools, and each state, as indicated in their constitutions, entrusts schools to distribute these fairly and adequately so that all children have an equitable chance to live a happy life. Often within politics, people pursue their own self-interests, but when situated within democracy, schools help us to learn how to balance our own desires with the rights of others and public goods. To do so sometimes entails teaching moral and political values, which themselves arise from local publics and must be negotiated. Schools are political insofar as they are places where we come together to make collective decisions about the values we hold for our children and our communities, often entailing various players vying for power or influence. From the standpoint of participatory democracy, schools are productive places where we solve problems, craft solutions, and take action, all the while shaping schools’ aims and practices as they distribute goods, resources, and knowledge.9 Even when citizens choose to avoid such obviously political acts, choose not to participate, or choose to passively accept the order of things, they are engaging in a political act that denotes a certain political stance and conveys power, even if it does so by keeping the status quo in place.10

Historically in the United States, public schools have been a part of the pact between consenting citizens and the state. Citizens pay for and rely upon schools to provide youth with the skills and knowledge needed to pursue their own happiness and freedom as well as to pass on shared history, experiences, and values.11 When schools achieve the goals of citizens, goals typically defined through working together as publics, and when they uphold the criteria described above for social integration, the good of others, and democratic norms, they are judged to be legitimate—they are deemed worthy of support and respected as arms of the state. Said differently, legitimate schools reflect the will of the public and would hypothetically earn their consent if they were asked to explicitly provide it. It follows that, out of respect for the goods provided via schools and the role of schools in preserving democracy and identity, citizens have a responsibility to ensure that quality schools are passed on to the next generation. Enacting the type of active civic and public work that secures such education overtly demonstrates giving consent and legitimating the schools. So when citizens engage in responsibility by supporting public schools in the robust ways I describe in this book rather than, say, merely paying school taxes unquestioningly, they are actually fulfilling the important task of legitimation.

Political legitimacy of schools hinges on the view of democracy guiding it and the notion of community central to each school. For example, consider participatory and liberal democracy. Within participatory democracy, schools are viewed as political, deliberative spaces. They are valued as places of contestation, exchange, and communication, ultimately aimed at consensus if possible. They embody Benjamin Barber’s definition of politics as deciding what to do collectively in the midst of disagreement or uncertainty.12 For many participatory democrats, the public comes together in schools to engage in collective problem solving and to decide and enact the public good as it relates to that group or context, often emphasizing aspects of the community and their bonds that should be preserved.

Alternatively, liberal democrats emphasize equal opportunity as a key criterion of legitimacy. They celebrate public institutions that enable citizens to develop and pursue their own conception of the good life and nurture a conception of justice to guide such a life. So, unlike the participatory democrats, while liberals may value consensus regarding some norms, they do not typically seek consensus through participatory decision making, beyond that necessary among elected officials. They more highly value individual freedoms and the desire to pursue them, either independently or alongside like-minded others, without necessarily seeking to establish a clear community.

Within each of these theories of democracy, legitimacy of schools as democratic public institutions occurs when publics feel that their interests are being met through the aims of the schools, that schools’ practices are aligned with their vision of justice and effectiveness, and that they have the ability to shape schools through participating in governance. Hence, political legitimacy can be achieved and sustained even though citizens approach it from different perspectives on democracy, but it may require working through or at least acknowledging conflicts in ideology. Political legitimacy does not require uniform political orientation. Strike, drawing on dominant notions of justice reflected in our constitution and our cultural ideals, concludes that legitimate schools tend to feature fair participation, liberty, pluralism, and equal opportunity, among other characteristics.13 These elements tend to be valued across theories of democracy, though they may play out in different ways or are valued to different degrees.

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