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Prioritizing Children in Public and Private Schools

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

Dear Harry and friends,

One clarification, before responding. My last letter, "Teacher Judgment versus Family Authority," had a line about teachers mimicking parents. Actually I hope neither mimics anyone. But I do believe that teachers have a lot to learn about children's learning before they come to school and when they're not in school. And the relationships among family members are more conducive to trust, which is the hard-won imperative for a good learning placeespecially in the early years.

That flows naturally into your point about mobilizing vs. organizing. We mobilize in schools most of the time, to get kids to do what we want on our terms. Maybe if we want something more transformativechanging and enlarging how and what we think aboutteachers and organizers should be learning together more often.

Yes, good schools are sites of relationship-building, communities rather than institutions. Even the worst can't help but be such sites in fact. But we devote very little time to thinking about those relationships in most public institutions. We devote almost none in building relationships between schools and families, not much more between colleagues, and largely "relate" to children as a group for x minutes a day. The kids, in contrast, are thinking about relationships 99 percent of the time. 

The public vs. private question you pose is fascinating and I appreciate your distinction. However, private institutions also exist and they are not necessarily any less institutional in character than public ones. Private institutions are the vehicle for the expression of private endsoften money. It is in this latter sense that I worry about the privatization of schools and a lot of other organizations intended to further the common good. These do not as currently organized "belong" to the people who work in them, nor do they serve them or the community in which they are located. Their measure of success is not their accountability to their members/workers/community but to their ability to sustain themselvesmake sufficient money to pay their expenses and themselves.

Factories that build Army tanks are generally publicly funded, but we would hardly claim they are therefore public. Finding a way to define a public/democratic institution in terms of schools is interesting. We've generally used the word "private" when talking about schools that charge tuition, are free to select some students and reject others and are free of most public regulation. Some are frankly in the business of making a profit, some not. Some are also in the business of teaching democracy. But they do not fit into my definition of democratic institutions accountable to their public (or the Catholic definition of subsidiarity). But neither do all schools we call public! 

Charters (of the mom and pop sort vs. chains), some private schools, and traditional public schools could all, it seems to me, engage in direct democracy, be accountable to a broader public and qualify as "public schools" deserving of public funds, although each would have to modify certain entrenched assumptions and practices. Why not? I cannot think of a wiser decision in terms of the future of democracy in America, as well as all other educational aims. It would, however, require a thoughtful redefining of what constitutes a public school. It's doable if (a big if) we really cherish democracy. But thinking through what this would mean is not easy, and might be risky. I'd love some help on it.


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