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Public Schools and Civil Society

While public schools might appear in form to be an extension of the state, and while they should be legitimated as formal bodies of the democratic state, they function as elements of civil society, and it is in that space that their legitimation is often procured. As I explained in chapter three, public schools are formally run by the state and can be categorized as state institutions in that regard, yet what makes them truly public is the way they function. Their functioning, as a location of social interaction that mediates between private individuals and the state, situates them within the civil realm. While getting a K-12 education is compulsory, public schools are largely voluntary institutions in which we choose to participate, especially for parents who not only invoke school choice to decide whether their children will attend the school, but also decide themselves whether to participate in events, meetings, and gatherings held at the school. Public schools are an important realm of civil society that offer a physical location as well as points of shared concern and interest, such as developing a child’s economic viability or love of learning, around which publics can form. While connected to the state, public schools form a bridge to the interests of the families who send their most precious assets to them daily. And they mediate between the desires of the state and those of the family as they set educational goals, curricula, and standards with input from elected officials, community members, and educational experts. Public actions within schools can influence governmental policy and practice, as well as beliefs and values in homes.

It is within civil society, then, that citizens committed to affirming, supporting, and strengthening public schools should operate, coming together to share their visions and work toward change through communication, collaboration, and negotiation. Within that realm, they should seek to influence not only the school itself, but also the state policies that guide it and the private goals of individuals that influence how the school is viewed or held accountable by citizens. And through their deliberation and reflections they can work together to determine whether the school is just, thereby legitimizing it.

Importantly, public schools are a space where citizenship can be cultivated and nurtured, as children learn how to interact with others and participate in publics and shared social living. However, as public schools are becoming increasingly privatized, thereby adding new criteria of exclusion and prohibiting open access to their buildings, their important role in civil society and as seedbeds for democracy is in jeopardy. When taxpayer dollars intended to support public schools as an institution serving democratic purposes are rerouted via vouchers to private schools, whose admission policies or vision of the good life may be exclusionary or narrow, we may preclude public schools from assuming a significant role in civil society altogether.

My call, then, for supporting public schools is one intended not only to protect those schools as spaces of civil society that facilitate democracy, but also to enhance publics and public life as a whole. The health of our public sphere relies, in part, on a strong civil society where groups of people can come together around shared problems to experience unification with others based on shared elements of concern and struggle. Institutions of civil society, like schools, in the assessment of Craig Calhoun, “enable us to communicate with each other in a public sphere or civic discussion, to carry on a discourse about what our country means, how we should live together, and what we all need and have to offer"51 In sum, we must work to shore up and enliven civil society, including our schools, in order to attend to changes in our culture and identity and to keep democracy strong. And within civil society we should seek to establish and maintain the legitimacy of public schools as central institutions of democracy, especially in the face of shifting practices and values of citizens and schools that I described in earlier chapters of this book.

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