Public School Legitimacy Crisis

While earlier in this book I expressed caution in reiterating the much-used notion of “crisis” when it comes to education because it too often casts all schools as failures and sets up a panic mode that prompts hasty education reform, it is worthwhile to consider various types of crises that our schools may be facing. I direct us here to a form that is rarely discussed and yet is at the heart of the role of schooling in democracy: a crisis of legitimacy. Distinguished political sociologist Seymour Lipset explains: “A crisis of legitimacy is a crisis of change, and therefore its roots, as a factor affecting the stability of democratic systems, must be sought in the character of change in modern society"14 In situations of such change, legitimacy must be reestablished, for if it is not, or if key institutions of democracy are found to be neither legitimate nor effective in the midst of the reflection and critique that is often prompted by change, then democracy will falter.

Significant changes are impacting education, and without conscious citizen recognition of those changes, understanding of their implications for democracy, and willing legitimation of new school formations, we risk the stability of democracy, for the public institution of schools may fall out of line with citizen understandings and expectations. New forms of schooling may thereby generate a cycle of crises. As Lipset explains, “After a new social structure is established, if the new system is unable to sustain the expectations of the major groups (on the grounds of ‘effectiveness’) for a long enough period to develop legitimacy upon the new basis, a new crisis may develop"15 Hence, if the new forms of public schools popping up across our country do not succeed in achieving legitimacy, then another crisis may follow.

In the midst of significant education reform and accompanying citizens’ appraisal it has prompted, schools may be coming up short on some criteria for establishing legitimacy. For example, equal opportunity, as one common political norm of liberal democracy, is quite limited given the disparities that exist in school resources and performance across geographical areas, incomes, and races. Citizens may find it hard to support schools that do not meet this important goal. In a second example, we see that another common value of liberal democracy, pluralism, is also limited in public voucher-funded religious schools that uphold one narrow view of the good life. As the number of students in such schools continues to grow, citizens must determine whether public schooling and its new practices, such as vouchers, are really legitimate given the potential restrictions they pose on pluralism.

Moreover, the current problem with legitimacy may be in part, according to Strike, that citizens are holding schools to subjective criteria for legitimacy that vary too widely or differ too much from the primary criterion of fulfilling purposes that serve our well-being and uphold liberal democracy. Those subjective criteria may not be sufficiently based in the public good or the norms of liberal democracy, but rather may be more tied to the desires of individuals and their personal goals related to schools, or to the goals of other institutions like industry, which mainly see schools as producers of their future workforce. Indeed, some of these individualistic and economically driven criteria were chronicled in chapter two, where I described some middle- and upper- class parents whose primary goal of schooling for their children is pursuit of advanced certifications and prestige, earning admission to renowned universities, and, ultimately, high-paying jobs. At the same time, some lower- and middle-class parents uphold individualistic goals of attaining credentials for better-paying jobs, not for prestige, but for survival in the face of structural limitations.16 And across the economic spectrum, children who fall into the average range of academic performance may lose out on time and attention from teachers who are compelled to provide extra assistance to some of the populations most in need, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities—which may perhaps be a misattribution of resources at times. As a result, even though their parents may recognize the need for schools to be focused on the larger population, thereby precluding extended personalized attention, they may feel that schools aren’t sufficiently meeting the needs of their individual children in particular moments and choose to withdraw them from public schools.17 While it is understandable that parents would want the best for their child, their rationale for doing so, then, does not result from the Kenneth Strike’s criteria I outlined earlier. Their decision to withdraw their children from public school does not tell us that the public schools are out of line with democratic expectations of them, but rather that they haven’t lived up to the personal goals of some of their parents and children.

One of these forms of subjective legitimacy has been conflating efficiency and achievement with the political legitimacy of schools. Or, in Strike’s words,

Recent public discussion and assessments of public education including its governance, have tended to emphasize considerations of efficiency to the exclusion of considerations of legitimacy. Such discussions assume efficiency (typically in raising achievement scores) to be central to legitimacy. While efficiency counts, it is not sufficient, and the preoccupation with it can be unfortunate.18

Our schools are then faced with unduly weighted criteria for accountability, and the conversation needs to move toward recognizing this misattribution. Moreover, schools are in need of publics to call into question these criteria and their weight, regrounding them in the more defensible criteria arising from our nature as a representative liberal democracy, and from the expressed needs and identities of the publics that make it up.

Habermas recognizes that legitimacy can be put at risk by changes in identity. We are more likely to conclude that the laws, institutions, and practices that guide us are legitimate when they are aligned with our identity. That identity arises from shared experiences and values. When the foundations of our identity change or when our identity no longer accurately reflects us, we may conclude that the laws and practices aligned with that identity are no longer legitimate. Surely, in a contemporary democracy as large and diverse as ours, it is hard to achieve shared values and sources of identity across varied publics. As of late, influenced by neoliberalism, American identity is changing in specific ways. As documented earlier, we see growing distrust of all things “public,” and a turn toward self-interest, particularism, and privatization. We see shifts toward individual rights and away from collective responsibilities. These changes are jeopardizing the political legitimacy of schools insofar as the criteria we use to assess them may no longer be in accord with the public good or norms of liberal democracy. Additionally, those changes in identity, increasingly concerned with independence and self-interest, are altering our experience of schools as places that bring us together in a sense of “we”—a fundamental element of experiencing democracy as shared social living.

Habermas adds, “A social system has lost its identity as soon as later generations no longer recognize themselves within the once-constitutive tradition”19 As fewer American households have children in schools or are directly tied to them in other ways, and as fewer people feel that they own or have influence over schools through local control, increasing numbers of citizens may no longer see themselves as part of the public that schools once helped to constitute. They may no longer see their values reflected in the schools and they have fewer and fewer opportunities to employ democratic governance to shape or oversee the schools, thereby calling the schools’ legitimacy into question.

The identities of our publics and their reflections in our schools are changing, and the ability to secure legitimacy may be at risk unless we make a concerted effort to debate, clarify, and affirm reasonable and justified criteria for legitimacy and related expectations of schools. This is not to say that we need to return to a former identity, for surely our identity as Americans and the values we uphold will and should change over time. But this is to say that openly deliberating about and shaping that identity in light of the principles of democracy will keep us better on track in maintaining and improving our way of life together. And, in the context of schooling, doing so will help us be better informed about proposed changes to public schools and to assess their potential impact on democracy.

Knight Abowitz notes that too often, school leaders have reduced legitimacy to just a marketing or branding issue: “This view holds that the reputation of public schools can, if correctly packaged and sold, be improved, and with that improvement, the consent of the citizenry follows.”20 One example she showcases is quite telling of this approach. In response to the castigation of the label “public,” a school’s leaders sought to remove the word from their school name, believing parents would be more likely to send their children to the newly labeled school. This uncritical response to changing citizen views suggests that the school leaders don’t take legitimacy seriously as a condition of good democracy, nor do they have a sophisticated understanding of how such legitimacy is earned, seeing it instead as merely won through superficial or cosmetic variations. Achieving and sustaining political legitimacy require effort and should be considerably more thoroughgoing.

Reflecting on changes that have been occurring in schools for a few decades now, political theorist Stephen Macedo reminds us:

There is nothing necessarily wrong with calls for school choice, privatization, or the decentralization of educational authority. What is inherently misguided is the failure to think about these or other reforms politically. The question can never be simply how to give particular communities greater freedom to educate children and pass along their own ways; we must always consider, as well, how particularism is to be made to cohere with our shared political project.21

In the face of these changes to schools, we should not be so quick simply to celebrate personal goods like parental choice, but rather must focus our attention on exploring their political impact on democratic living, and whether they can be reconciled with our identity as Americans and the future of democracy. Also, insofar as our words and actions express our consent to an institution, we must stop to consider what parents, corporate leaders, and education reformers are saying politically when they express dissatisfaction with public schools and chose instead to enroll in or support private schools, for-profit schooling, or other alternatives. As the number of these people and their words and actions grow, the crisis of legitimacy among public schools increases.

We must stop to engage, interpret, question, and challenge dissenting actions that convey that public schools are no longer seen as legitimate by many citizens and leaders. We should probe the criteria citizens use to reach these conclusions and determine how they relate to schools coming up short of our common goals, the norms of liberal democracy, or of justice. Many parents may leave public schools after trying many of the very approaches to supporting and improving education outlined in this book because they simply aren’t seeing enough response within the time frame needed to serve their children. Recognizing the challenges posed by making what may be a difficult decision for many, we should try to understand their rationale and deliberate about the worthiness of the criteria they employed to make their decisions. And we should discuss how their actions can be interpreted as expressing a lack of political legitimacy, rather than merely personal dissatisfaction.

Finally, we should talk about the ways in which deciding to enroll in some of the alternative approaches to traditional public education that I laid out in chapter three may entail pursuing individual interests to the potential harm of others and supporting schools that fail to uphold basic goals and practices of democracy, thereby putting the future of the citizenry and our democratic way of life at stake. Such difficult conversations help us make more of parents’ decisions to disenroll from public schools. They lead us to deliberate about common values and public goods, thereby embodying important aspects of the process of democracy that may actually help boost disgruntled parents’ faith in democratic public schools and help realign our practices of legitimation.

Taking a more practical look at the criterion of justice in particular may help us understand why some of us have grown frustrated with and withdrawn our support from public schools. Many of us do not possess the sophisticated accounts of justice employed by Rawls and other scholars. Rather, we operate with a sense of what is right and wrong, often with a recognition that the world may never be entirely fair to us. Instead, we seek “enough” or “sufficient” justice within an institution to find it legitimate. We want to see that an institution is fair or just enough, that it meets our benchmarks of acceptability on the continuum between what is right and what is wrong. We tend to weigh this assessment alongside judgments about the quality of the “deal” we are getting through the social contract. If it feels that what we give in exchange for public schools (tax money, time, words of praise, etc.) is a satisfactory exchange, then we are more likely to find the school sufficiently just and politically legitimate. But if the social contract feels inequitable (such as discriminatory or poorly performing schools failing to meet the needs of children in our communities), then we are more likely to express dissatisfaction, deny legitimacy, and sometimes even speak out in protest.22

At the heart of our shared political project is the notion of political legitimacy as something that justifies and validates our institutions, including public schools, thereby enabling democracy to function smoothly. Establishing political legitimacy for our changing schools and for changing responses of citizens to those schools is essential to ensuring that those changes reflect our collective will and the norms of liberal democracy.

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