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What Defines a Public School?

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

I can't locate your Tuesday letter! So for a moment let me revert to an earlier issue: What does it mean to be a "public" school?

Since most authority for schooling rests with states, this obviously will vary by state. But what would you propose for either the state or the federal government with regard to defining a tax-funded public school versus "other" kinds of schooling?

I think the Constitution says that they shouldn't advocate a particular religious view. That's a start. What else? I'd add that they should be governed by a public body that does not stand to have any conflicting material stake in the schools operations. That's common practice with most not-for-profit boards. But maybe we'd like to argue that such governing bodies must demonstrate that they represent the community being served in some form or other. Maybe a certain percentage of its seats should be filled by its constituents: parents and teachers. What about the larger public, whose future partially rests on the education of future citizens and/or whose taxes pay for the school?

I'd like to find a definition that strongly nudges schools to be able to defend their governing structure in terms of democratic principles: of, for, and by the people. But which people? Answer: at least those most directly affected, plus ...

No institution plays a greater role in sustaining the democratic idea than the ones that educate our children for 12 or more years of their lives. Where else might they witness democracy in practice? Can they learn it through the best of textbooks? Or does it need something more?

Democracy is both too important and too "messy" to learn about without constant and self-conscious reflection-in-practice. So much of what it means rests on context, past history, equality of power in a particular circumstance, and a balancing of individual interests and the "common good." It makes it hard to define, much less teach abstractly. In comparative government courses we learn about different forms of government, but do we discuss which is "better"—and why? Young people, and their teachers and families and neighbors, have the opportunity, however, to explore this together as they govern their schools together. Our children are apprentices in such schools, gradually joining in the act of self-governance. But what they learn about governance in most of our private, charter, and public schools can hardly be called an apprenticeship in democratic skills and habits.

Yet, surely, there needs to be some restrictions on the local powers that be, restrictions that rest on our understanding of the Constitution and its implications, as well as common sense. What should those be? And who should set them?

As we contemplate the elections of fall 2016, maybe this should be on the table. Maybe the "political revolution" that Sanders argues for is in part a rethinking of what it means to raise the next generation of citizens together.


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