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Seven Dictates for Schools That Accept Public Funding

Today Deborah Meier writes to Joe Nathan on what makes a school "public." Read their full conversation here

Dear Joe,

The challenge: what makes a school "public" and what, as a public institution, is its bottom line?

A school has a public responsibility whenever it accepts public funding, above all when it rests on such public funding  be it local, state or federal.

The bottom line must be (1) the school's concern for the common good and, (2) its willingness to pass on to the next generation the basic concepts of democracy and the skills needed to protect and nourish it.

How can we nourish democracy while keeping both these imperatives in mind? There's a tension between the concept of "subsidiarity" (as expressed in Catholic doctrine with its reliance on decisions made close to those effected) and our obligation to the broader public and common good. It's a tension I hope will never be resolved for good. The alternative is reliance on the power of those with most power — which is what we are suffering from now more than we suffer from the shortcomings of democratic rules.

Schools play a critical role both in protecting subsidiarity and learning habits that make undemocratic power easier to resist!

In a political system whose basic building blocks are geographic voting districts, schools can play these dual roles best if their school constituency overlaps with their political constituency. But this too is a complicated balancing act given how such voting districts have been established — often in ways that are truly dumfounding. Sometimes also in ways to encourage or discourage communities from representing diverse interests, ethnicities, etc. Here we probably still disagree.

Instead of arguing about charters vs. "regular" public schools it might be more useful to explore from scratch what kind of dictates should apply to any school that rests on public funding. Dictates that leave also wide room for experimentation as well as just plain differences of opinion

Such as these seven. We agree that:

  1. All those who are part of the school's constituency should have a central decision making voice, particularly families and staff, with additional representatives of broader tax-paying public as well, where appropriate, the students.
  2. The school's leadership should above all be chosen by the local constituents referred to above, with preference given to the views of staff and families.
  3. On matters of finances, hiring/firing of staff, curriculum, and assessment, there be freedom and transparency.
  4. Teachers should have an unhampered right to join a Union of their choice and have a system of due process rights.
  5. Each school community should develop a system for external review.
  6. Each school community should be able to adopt or develop its own forms of assessment.
  7. Sufficient time should be allotted to school staff of at least x hours month for professional concerns, x full hours a year for meeting with families; and that families should by law have x paid days off to visit and meet with school personnel.

Just seven examples of what we might agree on!

What do you think?

It's been such fun, Joe. We may disagree on how dangerous the agenda of the hedge-funders et al is, and the role of geographically open choice but I think we are extremely close when it comes to what we must fight for. 

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