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Educating Students on Their Rights

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

Dear Harry and friends,

Yes, we do at times differ. I keep wanting to know the institutional rules of governance that could make it more or less likely that democratic norms will flourish. What gives us the best shot at being treated fairly, having a voice in our own lives, having a shot at getting my way when it seems important, being able to organize my fellow citizens, and other such daily whims and woes? What is in place that prevents someone from cheating on the rules, and how likely are they to be ignored? When all is said and done, in moments of stress (and when it really counts) are there ways to stop the more powerful from ignoring the rights of the less powerful? Is the disparity in power so great that the rules probably don't matter much and no one even takes them seriously because "they" always get what they want in the end? How easy is it for the most insignificant member of society to defend his or her own rights?

These are some of the questions I asked kids to explore in their service jobs in high school. And right now these are the questions I ask as I counsel my friends and colleagues facing decisions that are destructive to their own schools, families, and students in the here and now—and that led me to go to NYC to "strategize" about how to save a school we all love.

So I think about how we can organize schooling so that students can play with these questions close to home. Why did we leave the kitchen staff or the teacher aides out when we decided x? Who decides who to include and who gets left out? How much power do we want to leave in the hands of the experts—the professionals? Downtown. The State. Who is an expert on the particular students themselves? And who decides that? What effect do these choices have on the particular business at hand—teaching the kids how to multiply and divide? And what is more important—teaching them the "academics" or teaching them what their own rights are, how to expect to be treated, and what to do when they aren't?

So I start with thinking about what powers must stay in the hands of families, communities, and local authorities vs. the state and then federal level. I worry about what would happen if...local bodies representing the critical constituents are biased in some seriously unfair way? Who would intervene and by what moral and legal right?

These are questions I want schools to be talking about and "enacting"—by trial and error—I want kids to seeand, where possible, participate inmaking these decisions as well as being able to protest when they think decisions are unfair or "just" demeaning.

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity—which I recently discovered—says it well. Those most affected by decisions should be involved in making them.

So, given your ideas, what might be just a few proposals you would make to the next president about education policy on the federal level?


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