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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Only democratic schools will save us - Salon

Only democratic schools will save us -

Only democratic schools will save us

“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
—James Baldwin, from “I Am Not Your Negro”
These days it is hard to be as optimistic about the future of public education generally, let alone the possibility of significantly scaling up democratic schooling, as I had at one time thought we might be ready to do. In the mid-1980s, for instance, a more heady time for progressive educators, my colleagues and I started the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) as an advocacy and support organization that would facilitate the expansion of our network of small, democratic schools across New York City. Later, in my proposal to scale up that work even further as part of the 1993 Annenberg Challenge, we wrote, “The goal . . . is to bring present city school reform efforts to scale, creating a critical mass of small, effective schools, committed to equity, that serve the full range of New York City’s children so that the principles on which such schools are based are no longer considered ‘alternative’ but rather ‘good practice’”
Today, while there are still schools that have held true to their early innovations, managing to dodge mandates that would undermine their ability to meet the actual needs of their constituents, we are far from making such schools the norm. Instead, many of the democratic school projects that I was involved in over the past half century are in various states of peril or have already faded from existence: with New York City’s District 4, once internationally recognized as a model of what was possible for a public school district to become, its garden of small, interesting schools has now all but dried up; two of the four Central Park East schools have closed and only one remains somewhat democratically governed; the original CPE 1—though it had a good thirty-year run—has been struggling for the past decade to hold on to its progressive practices and democratic spirit. What’s more, conservative analysts have panned the Annenberg Challenge as a failure for its diffuse funding plan; the Coalition of Essential Schools held its last conference and closed its offices in 2016; and the very institution of public education is under attack as never before.
Now, a grossly unqualified billionaire president has appointed equally inexperienced, self-interested “one-percent-ers” to essentially dissolve the very public institutions they are entrusted to lead. True to this mission, secretary of education Betsy DeVos’s 2018 education budget proposes to cut $10.6 billion from public education, eliminating twenty-two programs, including teacher training, after-school programming, and student-loan forgiveness programs (fittingly, she has appointed the CEO of a student loan company to head the student loan agency). In addition, the secretary’s budget would spend $1.4 billion to fund school choice, including a national voucher program. While the rhetoric claims this is intended to “empower” poor families, research on existing voucher programs shows that such claims are based on free market ideology rather than on honest interest in improving the odds for those of us outside of the top 1 percent.
Selling out our public schools in this manner effectively shreds the social contract upon which our democracy depends. As someone who has spent a lifetime struggling against the top-down and impersonal tendencies of our public bureaucracies, I am the first to acknowledge that there is much room for improvement! Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the guiding principles underlying our public institutions—imperfect though they may be—are based on the assumption that we all share interest in a common good. The guiding principles of the free market are profit and individual self-interest.
Some proponents of the charter and, now, voucher movements truly believe that Only democratic schools will save us -