While I have focused mostly in this book on the responsibilities of citizens, I would be remiss if I were to let elected officials off the hook. Policymakers and elected officials have unique role responsibilities relative to their positions not only as citizens, but also as those with great power to shape schools and as those entrusted to preserve democracy. As guardians of society, they have a responsibility to make wise and informed judgments. To achieve this, they must seek out research, professional expertise, and popular views about education, its practices, and its role. While professors and education researchers must produce and share knowledge about good teaching and effective schools, it’s up to policymakers to find and use that research. They must learn about current shifts in our schools and inquire about the potential impact of those shifts on the lives of children and the future of democracy.

Moreover, they must reach wise judgments that are directed toward the best interests of the public, which may be articulated by that public itself, requiring close observation and listening. In general, however, that means “placing priority on the collective aspects of public education—on policies that promote mutual respect and interaction among students from different backgrounds, provide for greater inclusion, and allocate resources more fairly in order to overcome disadvantage, and train students for democratic citizenship"42 That is not to say that individual interests should never be supported, but rather that they can be encouraged, especially when they align with the best interests of others as well. Policymakers can inquire about self-interests during deliberation, asking probing questions about who they benefit and who they harm in order to highlight the role of collective well-being. Elected officials can encourage and reward public spiritedness in citizens and in policies.

Additionally, as representatives in a constitutional democracy they should gather feedback from their constituents and seek to represent their perspectives when appropriate. This work might include actively seeking out and inviting feedback from constituents, using surveys, holding public hearings, or carefully attending to citizen letters. And while reelection may hinge on representing the majority’s views, it may be the case that elected officials need to champion minority or dissenting perspectives in order to ensure the well-being of the community. Those might include the perspectives of students whose voices may be easily overlooked in an educational terrain filled with loud and powerful voices from corporations, foundations, and others. And those perspectives might belong to teachers who are too often silenced or afraid to speak within the current climate of accountability and need to be reassured that their views are valued, welcomed, and safe when speaking to policymakers.43

Citizens and elected officials should be working together, utilizing their skills and power relative to their roles. Through deliberations and interactions with citizens, elected officials can help publics form, in part by leading the charge in articulating inchoate public values. Such a charge must be informed by listening to the needs and interests of the citizens. But conversation should also flow in the other direction as well, with the elected official keeping citizens informed by sharing data on measures of school performance, economic and social trends impacting schools, and the needs of the state. Then, using the skills of rhetoric and persuasion common among politicians, the elected official can help to formulate a clear expression of public will that convinces others to join the emerging public and heartens those already affiliated. Using social networks, the official can acquire or activate resources and cultural capital to further support and empower the strengthening public. Also, working with the schools, she or he can create new policies or otherwise guide schools in how best to attend to citizens’ needs and expectations. In this way, the elected official not only works as a liaison between citizens and schools, but also wields power and privilege in an ethical and democratic way.

Policymakers must not only set policies, but wisely revise them when conditions warrant. Because of this, they should be open to receiving ongoing feedback about the success and impact of their policies. In the recent accountability era, this means being responsible for ensuring valid social and political conditions under which teachers and schools work, and for ensuring that those conditions produce equitable and just classroom experiences. It requires attending to and using teachers’ and parents’ frustrations with accountability policies to revise and improve these policies. As a forward-looking approach, this responsibility means also using information to predict the impact of policies and practices and readjusting to account for those projections.

It was quite troubling last year when Representative Andrew Brenner, who now chairs the House Education Committee in my home state of Ohio, declared that “public education in America is socialism” and has been “since the founding of the country.”44 He failed to understand the importance of publicness as the foundation of schooling for democracy and focused instead on their state-run nature. As I showed in chapter four, this policymaker is not alone in his views, and the work to expose the shortcomings of this perspective is considerable. Nonetheless, as champions of democracy, elected officials should defend and preserve public schools as places where democracy is learned and practiced. They should affirm policies that support formally and functionally public schools as the best educational institutions for serving democracy, all the while seeking to improve them when they fall short of their potential. They should recognize that our next generation of public servants and leaders are being groomed in our public schools and should therefore emphasize the development of good citizenship there, including prioritizing the time and resources that are necessary to achieve it.

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