For public schools to become the sites of liberation that they might be, we have to face their role in reproducing social inequalities, and understand their importance as centers of practical democratic engagement in the public sphere.
“The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.” (Paulo Freire)
What would it mean for our schools to model the values that they teach? How would they be transformed if we chose to take the idea of democracy seriously? This article argues for a radical idea: that democracy should mean more than periodic involvement in voting on the policy decisions of politicians; that it should be a lived experience of social participation that permeates social life.
At the heart of this argument is an immanent critique of life in modern America; an analysis that compares the purported values and promises of American society with the reality of lived experience in this country. Why, in a country that claims freedom and democracy as its central animating ideals, are the social relationships that define so much of our lives so anti-democratic and authoritarian? Why in the land of individual choice, are our lived choices so constrained; bounded by decisions made for rather than by, or with us. Why, in a purportedly democratic society, is decision-making so often so far removed from the lived experience of so many of us?
We need to ask ourselves a fundamental question about education and grapple with its implications together: do we support democratic control of the institutions that educate our children? If we do, we have to take seriously the question of democracy at every level of our education system, from the classroom to the board room.
Public schools are an ideal site on which to focus such a critique. They serve to inculcate a conception of America that takes simplistic conceptions of liberty and democracy as its central and most foundational assumptions. Teachers take civic pride and engagement seriously, and teach their students the importance of active participation in American democracy. Social studies teachers drive home endless messages about democracy, voting, separation of powers, and branches of government, and schools are required to offer voter registration information to students.
But in terms of modeling the values that they teach our young people to value, our schools are an abject failure. While teaching democratic values, they operate as rigid hierarchies, allowing very little (or no) access to shared decision-making for students, teachers, and parents. While teaching their students about freedom, schools have moved to reclassify behavior issues as crimes, and to embrace simplistic conceptions of school safety that fail to address the impact of state violence and mass incarceration on young people living in poverty and young people of color. While telling students that they should grow into engaged citizens, schools systematically exclude them from participation in decisions that define the most formative years of their lives.
“The best way to discover how a functioning democracy works is to practice it. Well, schools don’t do that very well. A good measure of functioning democracy in schools and in society is the extent to which the theory approximates reality, and we know that in both schools and society there is a large gulf between the two.” (Noam Chomsky)
We should call a structure that systematically and deliberately excludes the voices of most of its stakeholders what it is - authoritarian and anti-democratic - and have no qualms about describing it as such. As standard practice, our schools concentrate decision-making in the hands of principals, with teachers, parents, and students having little authentic agency in the spaces in which they spend so much of their lives. Unelected superintendents often wield near-absolute power through their unelected bureaucracies. Even elected school boards too often act as little more than rubber stamps for decisions that are made by superintendents and their teams.
Teachers have a means by which they can actively participate in conversations in their schools - an organized, democratic structure with a long history of success in advocating for their interests. But for parents and students, few examples exist of successful counterpoints to the power of established school structures. That’s why many teachers’ unions have adopted policies of bargaining for the common good - using their access to the architecture of power, and their strength as collective organizations to advocate for the communities they serve. We need more of that, but we also need to transcend its limitations, especially as organized labor comes under attack from the same corporate interests that seek to privatize public education and minimize active popular participation in social life.
“Democracy has now been reduced to a metaphor for the allegedly “free” market. It is not that a genuine democratic public space once existed in some ideal form and has now been corrupted by the values of the market, but that these democratic public spheres, even in limited forms, seem to no longer be animating concepts for making visible the contradiction and tension between the reality of existing democracy and the promise of a more fully realized, substantive democracy.” (Henry Giroux)
The most powerful force for democratizing our public schools would be parent and student organizations that sought to represent their collective interests, more powerful still if alliances could be formed between teachers’ unions and the newly-organized, democratic voice of the communities they serve. Because teachers, despite the simplistic caricatures that dominate mainstream commentary, share the same fundamental interests as the students and communities with whom they work. Every stakeholder in our schools stands to gain from an expansion of democratic community control of our public spaces, except for those who currently wield power over our communities, and who aim to dismantle social life for private profit.
So we need to ask ourselves whether we really support public schools, and what it means to do so at this moment of neoliberal domination and educational “reform” in America. We need to ask ourselves a fundamental question about education and grapple with its implications together: do we support democratic control of the institutions that educate our children? If we do, we have to take seriously the question of democracy at every level of our education system, from the classroom to the board room.
Each of our public schools should be a collective manifestation in the here-and-now of the future that we collectively want to see. For those of us who carry hope for a better world in our hearts - a democratic, egalitarian world built on solidarity and mutual aid - public schools provide a space in which we can experiment in a micropolitics of liberation that seeks to create living, breathing examples of the kinds of social structures we want to see reproduced and expanded. For those of us who think that democracy matters, the social relations produced and reified by our public schools should matter too.
And we must face the reality that, whatever the intentions of educators, our schools too often serve to reproduce the unequal, stratified class and racial social relations that define modern America. Our students are overpoliced, overtested, and overexposed to a simplistic conception of college-readiness that strips them of their capacity for critical thought even as they are pushed to succeed in the narrow terms defined by standardized tests, SAT scores, and marketable skills. Education is too often reduced to the creation of employable, potentially-productive young wage workers, the joy and wonder of education-as-discovery stripped away; education-as-liberation made all-but impossible.
Anti-democratic school structures strip teachers and parents of voice, agency, the free creative process that should be at the heart of their shared work, and the opportunity to shape the schools that they want to educate their children. In doing so they instrumentalize and alienate the very people they are meant to serve.
In the face of concentrated decision-making power at the district level, let’s push to expand the scope of democratic involvement in the public spaces at the heart of our communities. Let’s grapple with the complexities of school reform, equity, and public control of education, and let’s do it together, democratically, and in the open.
What would publicly-controlled schools look like, and how would they operate? What would it be like to attend, work at, or send our children to schools that were operated democratically in the service of their communities?
Let’s find out.