Education as a Civic Question

Image courtesy of the Concord Monitor (JENNIFER MELI / Monitor Staff)

A column in Education Week underscored the importance of citizenship in society and in our schools, and the importance of our local public schools as the common ground of our communities:

Education wars feed division and diminish the warriors. But an alternative to the wars is to pose education as a civic question, not a question of either government provision or market choice. This framework recognizes that the energy, talents, wisdom, and hard work of “we the people,” young as well as old, need to be at the center of creating the 21st-century education system we need. Government and businesses are civic partners, not the center of the action.

Today, citizenship is largely absent in the school debate, or when it is present, it is a sentimental afterthought. In 2007, Deborah Meier started her Bridging Differences blog conversation with Diane Ravitch on by pointing out, “The notion that we can leave it to the whims of individual parent choice in marketplace fashion is problematic. Good parents are inclined to put their own children’s immediate interests first.”

Voucher champions like Betsy DeVos turn parents and children into customers, not citizens, since “What do I want for my children?” omits the idea of schools as a civic meeting ground. Further, conservatives in the mold of Donald Trump who seek to go back to “the good old days” forget that they were not all that “good” for many. Racial, ethnic, religious, political and other exclusions were the norm…

It’s important to remember that citizens were once at the heart both of democracy and of schools, with citizens as co-creators of communities, not mainly voters and volunteers. We need to retrieve this idea while conveying a more inclusive idea of whom the citizenry includes…

In his 1902 speech “The School as Social Center,” John Dewey translated this citizen-centered school tradition and lessons from the Hull House settlement for new immigrants in Chicago into an inclusive vision for a changing America. Schools as civic centers should be places for diverse people to interact, teaching respect in a society which eroded it. They should be adult education centers for people of all ages. They could be mechanisms for people to shape a changing world of work.

The authors went on to describe how parents, teachers, and community members came together to reframe a debate over school choice in Georgia:

Last year, an education fight in Georgia suggested how the idea of schools as centers of civic life might birth a new educational politics. The governor, Nathan Deal, put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow the governor to take charge of “chronically failing” schools. Under his plan, called the Opportunity School District, failed schools would either be run by a state agency or be converted to charter schools under management contracts open to profit-making businesses. Supporters claimed that the amendment would save kids trapped in cycles of poverty. With support from large corporations and charter school groups, Deal’s amendment was expected to pass easily…

The coalition included the teachers’ union, black clergy and inner-city leaders, the Georgia Parent Teacher Association, rural school boards, and key Republican strongholds. Amendment One lost with over 60 percent voting in opposition…The key to the coalition’s success was shifting to an approach that encouraged local creativity, engagement with local cultures, local leadership and power. It reframes the vision of schools by the people in inclusive ways.

“We argued that schools are much more than places to teach kids,” he said. “They are rallying centers in rural communities and inner cities. They are economic engines. They are community assets where people should have ownership.”

If reframing the school debate as a civic question can happen in Georgia, it can happen anywhere. It is up to “we the people.”

Source: Education as a Civic Question: A Final Note From Bridging Differences | Education Week