Changing Schools, Changing Citizens, Changing Priorities
“If schools are the neglected forges of our future, they are also the abandoned workshops of our democracy. In attacking not just education, but public education, critics are attacking the very foundation of our democratic civic culture. Public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity. Forges of our citizenship, they are the bedrock of our democracy. Yet we seem as a nation to want to disown them.”
— BENJAMIN BARBER, A PAssWN FoR Democracy1
American public schools have faced a barrage of attacks in recent years. In part, these attacks are due to heightened expectations from some citizens, business leaders, and policymakers regarding public school performance. They increasingly want to know how American children from different racial and economic backgrounds stack up against one another and against children abroad. They want to know that those children will be prepared to contribute to the workforce and to compete in the global marketplace. As taxpayers, we expect to see our money efficiently spent, and recently some of us have begun to demand returns on our investments reflected in highly performing teachers. Perceiving schools to have fallen short of our expectations, increasing numbers of citizens have relinquished support for traditional public schools. Many have turned instead to supporting private schools or public charter school alternatives, often run by private or for-profit education management organizations.2 At the state level, discouraged political leaders and constituent groups have called for significantly reduced financial support for public schools.3 Across the nation, our will for public schools has substantially decreased, with 27% of citizens giving the nation’s public schools an overall quality rating of D or F.4 All of this leaves the future of our public schools and, as I will argue here, our democracy, in jeopardy.
In this book I address a key issue related to many of the frustrations with public schools and deteriorating support for them: accountability. I argue that at heart, the current educational crisis, rather than being about the poor performance of students and teachers or the inefficiency of schools, as we most often hear in media outlets and in education reform speeches, is one about citizen responsibility and political legitimacy. I want to be careful here, for I do not buy into the idea that schools are in a crisis in the way that many critics describe them—as being utter failures, unsalvageable, and the like. Instead, I am honing in here on one particular aspect of crisis that arises from the unique political position of schools at the present moment. I aim to redirect our attention from established conversations about accountability and especially from discourses of school failure, focusing instead on our role as citizens in responding to the struggles of our public schools.
I claim that the recent accountability movement has shifted the onus of curing nearly all societal problems almost exclusively onto schools, but contend that these burdens should not be unidirectional. I make the argument that there is a corresponding responsibility on the part of citizens toward public schools. This includes all citizens, not just those closely tied to schools through our children or employment. And it entails a robust commitment that extends beyond merely supporting public schools through paying taxes, voting for levies, and choosing to send our children to them—important but insufficient efforts already practiced by many citizens individually. The responsibility of citizens includes social and public work, motivated by care for current and future citizens. It entails upholding a commitment to schools as a central institution of democracy—something that not only sustains democracy but also, in its best forms, is democracy in action.