To make my argument that citizens have a responsibility to support public schools as vital democratic institutions, I must first establish grounds for this case by laying out my understanding of public life and democracy as well as current obstacles to both. I begin in chapter two by delineating the shifting context of public schools and the citizens and democracy they serve. I first ground my discussion in a theory of participatory democracy influenced by the ideas of Progressive Era philosopher of education John Dewey and contemporary political theorist Benjamin Barber. I provide that theory as both a foil to analyze contemporary changes in democracy and a guide to how we might respond to and, at times, resist them.
I then trace the history of educational accountability to illuminate key aspects of the current accountability crisis related to historical changes and transformations to our understanding and practice of democracy. Next, I define the public and public goods, an important basis for my call to revitalize citizen support for public schools insofar as these concepts show us not only how schools serve as a shared benefit, but also are established and protected as such through our shared efforts. Along the way, I show how accountability, when positioned within participatory democracy and a rich sense of the public, could be significantly improved.
This discussion sets the stage for chapter three, where I define what public schools are, offering five key elements essential to their form and function.
While the definition of public schools may seem to be well established, my discussion of the shifting nature of democracy, schools, and citizenship reveals that it is worthwhile to refocus our attention on these elements of public schools now as some are being compromised or eclipsed within the latest forms of school practice and governance. By drawing attention to those criteria, we are able to consider schooling as a public good in and for democracy. This serves as one of my key justifications for the overarching thesis of this book: that public schools deserve our support in order to maintain and improve democracy.
I adopt the spirit of some of our most educationally influential American Founders and common school visionaries as I describe the great potential public schools have not only for enhancing democracy outside of their doors, but also for engaging democracy within them. While I confine my discussion of public schools in this chapter and throughout the book to the K-12 context, many of the ideas I put forward about them can be extended to the higher education context. And, while I limit my discussion of schools to the American context, several elements of my arguments can be extended to other liberal democracies elsewhere, especially as they also face pressures of neoliberalism and globalization.
Chapter three illustrates the essential role of public schools in a vibrant democracy. Importantly, while my background is in education and while this book envisions aspects of good education, I share Barber’s underlying focus
that education and democracy are inextricably linked and that in a free society the link is severed only at our peril. Education must be both public and democratic if we wish to preserve our democracy’s public spaces. Thus, my argument is less an argument for education than a cry for democracy; less a plea for the rehabilitation of the classroom than an appeal for the restoration of the community; less a defense of the present than a challenge for the future; less a call for reform from within our schools than a manifesto for a revolution in how we understand them.29
Healthy democracy is at the heart of my call in this book, and I contend that a new vision of publicness and public schools is fundamental to achieving it.
In chapter three, I detail the changing landscape of public schools in recent years by looking at particular recent transformations to the governance and practice of public education. These changes include aspects of schools choice, vouchers, for-profit education management, loss of local control, mayoral oversight of schools, recovery school districts, portfolio management models, and corporate influences. I also describe how citizens’ relationships with schools have changed and how citizens themselves have changed, especially under the influence of neoliberalism. I do not want to overstate the degree to which neoliberalism and related privatization threaten democracy via schooling, but I do want to emphasize their potential detrimental impact to convey the seriousness with which we should consider them before we get too far down that road. This is especially important given that neoliberalism has been adopted or accepted by many citizens with little questioning or exploration of potential harm they might bring to democracy or education.
In chapter four I offer a critique of these new developments, highlighting ways in which they change, challenge, or foreclose aspects of democratic living, good citizenship, or public school functions. I raise these critiques to suggest that we should be wary and critical of some of the schools now operating under the label of “public" for they may jeopardize some important elements of public living, including commitments to one’s fellow citizens, public goods, equality, and justice. These problems currently unfolding in our schools lend credence and urgency to my claim that citizens have a responsibility to act on behalf of public schools and the forms of democracy they enable and, at times, embody.
In chapter five, using the reconstructed conceptions of publics and the publicness of schools, I offer enhanced definitions of accountability and responsibility that help us better understand current educational struggles as well as potential pathways to alleviating them. In part, I respond to a conflicting notion of responsibility focused on economic life and providing for oneself that has arisen within neoliberalism, showing instead how the sort of responsibility arising from our social, political, and ethical positions as citizens is a better way to view and act on our obligations.
Most significantly, I distinguish accountability from responsibility. Accountability is a backward-looking justification of fulfilling public demands, while responsibility is a forward-moving commitment to democracy, motivated by care for other citizens and carried out through social and political action. I therefore shift the focus from the accountability requirements of schools to the responsibility obligations of citizens. This shift is noteworthy when situated in our current climate of rights, where we are quick to assert our rights as entitlements, including expectations of educational benefits for individuals. Looking instead at responsibilities as the reciprocal of rights required for democracy to thrive points toward new and justified expectations of “us"
I contend that as democratic citizens, we have a responsibility to ensure that practices, institutions, and ways of life that sustain democracy are preserved and nurtured. I claim that this is perhaps most achievable in public schools. Therefore, in order to preserve and improve democracy for future generations, citizens have a responsibility to protect and support public schools. I conclude that our current educational crisis of accountability is, in significant part, a failure of citizens and should be seen as a call to responsibility, action, and support for our public schools.
In chapter six, I articulate some of the specific ways people can fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, teachers, school leaders, educational reformers, policymakers, and students. I provide examples of people and groups who are fulfilling their responsibilities well and suggest pathways to improve other problematic efforts. I aim to restore some trust and positive feelings toward public life and public institutions and to help citizens see how participating in and supporting public institutions central to democracy can improve our collective and individual lives.
In chapter seven, I explore one of the significant consequences of fulfilling my call to support public schools: better establishing their political legitimacy. I define political legitimacy, describe its connection to healthy democracy, and reveal how recent changes in education and its climate may relate to a decline in the legitimacy of our schools. I show how political legitimacy results from citizens concluding that schools, as state institutions, are worthy of recognition and serve a justified role. Redirecting our attention from the accountability crisis, I demonstrate that our schools are facing a legitimacy crisis that is exacerbated by larger changes in societal values, citizen identities, and ideologies that I outlined in earlier chapters. Aiming to reground the legitimacy of schools, I describe how we might come together as publics to deliberate the purposes of schools and assess their performance at meeting those goals in order to affirm that they are just and serve our needs. This deliberation and affirmation then becomes a critical factor for ensuring that schools reflect the will of a public. To help achieve these ends, I turn to defining civil society as the primary space where publics form and act and, hence, where the legitimacy of schools can be affirmed and democracy upheld, noting the ways in which a revitalized civil society could help improve not only our schools but also our development of improved future citizens.
Issues with legitimacy, publicness, and responsibility collectively lead to a certain vision of citizen preparation that I lay out in chapter eight. This introduces a cycle to support and maintain democracy through creating citizens who learn about and try it out as kids, practice it well years later, and are committed to supporting the public schools that foster it as adults. Or, in the words of Patricia Hill Collins, “What the United States needs is another kind of public education—one that encourages us to become an involved, informed public. What this country needs is a recommitment to schools and other social institutions whose mandate lies in delivering the kind of public education that will equip us for this task"30
The alternative is to allow our current course to continue, a course that jeopardizes the strength of our democracy and erodes our capacity to participate in it. We have the opportunity to reorient that course not only to improve democracy and public schools now, but also to chart an improved course toward the growth and flourishing of democracy and public schools in the future. In my final chapter, I complete the cycle for sustaining democracy via education by describing improved citizenship education, including habits of democracy teachable within our schools, where we develop citizens through and for democracy and our public schools.