This month, I’ve witnessed widespread outcry as Betsy DeVos was challenged to visit a typical public school in my home state of Ohio after touring charter and private schools elsewhere.
Although public schools are a central institution of our democracy, DeVos seeks to spread alternative forms of private and for-profit education.
I’ve discovered just how much possibility there is right now for citizens to claim responsibility for their schools and the type of democracy they foster.
Cynicism regarding politics and our schools, constant busyness, and focus on our own individual problems has exacerbated citizens’ disengagement with public schools. Some of us are left simply trusting folks like DeVos to take care of education. Rather than actively taking a stake in policies that impact shared living, citizens have become increasingly content playing the role of consumer who demands accountability.
Related: What can Betsy DeVos really do?
These are citizens who tend to emphasize their own private interests, such as the future financial prowess of their children, over the public mission of schools. When the schools fall short of meeting the goals of individual parents, they are described as failures, largely in terms of failing the particular children, rather than in terms of their contributions to common goods like justice, democracy, and community.
Calls for accountability have largely been divorced from genuine discussions about educational goals and public needs, a prerequisite for determining whether or not schools have sufficiently upheld our expectations of them. Instead, accountability has come to be overwhelmingly determined by test score performance, which molds the curriculum toward tests and forecloses citizen and educator discussions about how the goals of education could be different. While seemingly straightforward, the language of school finance, test scores, and related teacher performance evaluations is much more complex. This makes it even harder for the public to have the drive or ability to weigh in on educational issues.
Citizens, then, have become watchdogs of public institutions largely from the perspective of consumers, without seeing ourselves as citizens who compose the public of public institutions. Accountability becomes more about finding failure and placing blame, rather than about taking responsibility as citizens for shaping our expectations of schools, determining the criteria we use to measure their success, or supporting schools in achieving those goals. Yet, in these early months of DeVos, we’ve seen renewed citizen interest in protecting our schools and ensuring their success.
Related: Protecting Or policing?
Public schools are a public good that we have forged together through public conversations, elected school boards, and democratic policymaking. Within schools, we should deliberate, craft, and institute the aims we seek. Moreover, public schools are special because they impart the skills and knowledge necessary for future generations to continue to deliberate the public goods they will uphold. Public schools are places where children learn how to exchange and respond to the ideas of others as they balance their own individual needs with needs in their communities. They are places where children learn to be a public.
With new voucher bills popping up across the country this spring, DeVos signaled a turn to parental choice reflective of increasing focus on individual self-interests. This leaves us struggling to think or speak in terms of shared needs or well-being. We need to recognize the ways in which public goods can be constructed alongside other citizens. This helps us to better balance and ensure just living over pursuit of self-interest by individuals indifferent to how their personal quest may impact others. In the face of the temptations of privatization embodied in DeVos’s vision for schooling, we should highlight the ways in which public goods better provide individual and group well-being, and do so in ways that are more just because they are guided by democratic practices and aims. Certainly, DeVos’s worrisome confirmation hearing statements about the Individuals with Disabilities Act sparked new discussions about the protections and opportunities that are denied to some students with disabilities who leave the public school system on vouchers.
Systems of accountability should not only be understandable to us, they should originate from us, using our language, our values, our experiences, and our goals. That understanding can be strengthened and directed by professionals with specialized knowledge, including teachers. Clearly, much of the initial outcry over DeVos’s nomination highlighted that she lacked such knowledge and experience. If accountability were to work this way, certain responsibilities would arise for citizens, including engaging in conversations that shape and determine public goods like schooling. Accountability requires public participation and responsibility.
One of the responsibilities of a citizen is maintaining and supporting a minimum threshold of education for democracy within public schools. This responsibility arises from the necessity of passing on democracy as a way of life and as a governmental structure that best ensures liberty for future generations. Schools cultivate our skills of political agency and community influence. They help us to become viable citizens who can pursue our individual and overlapping interests and engage our freedoms.
Citizen responsibility to support public schools, including paying one’s taxes, supporting reasonable school levies, and selecting public schools for one’s children to attend, are important. But those are not sufficient for maintaining the democracy that bestows the benefits and duties of citizenship. The support must be robust enough to sustain schools as the key institution for preparing citizens for democracy and preserving it.
Ideally, the supports should take forms that embody democracy in action, perhaps through establishing publics that champion school causes or participating in school-based decision making that unites citizens in solving a shared problem. Many citizens who flooded Senators’ phone lines and gathered together at public school rallies across the country in January demonstrated elements of such responsibility in response to the DeVos appointment.
Several of the forms of schools that DeVos backs may fall short of the democratic goals of public schools. Some are not equally accessible by all students, confine their fulfillment of public needs largely to economic rather than citizen preparation, and lack elected school boards that enable the public to directly shape the schools.
We need good public schools now more than ever to help us solve our problems, especially in light of our politically divided country. Let’s build on the momentum we witnessed in response to DeVos to improve not only our schools, but also to strengthen our current enactment of and future prospects for democracy.
Sarah Stitzlein is associate professor of education and affiliate faculty in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati and the author of Teaching for Dissent:Citizenship Education and Political Activism (Routledge, 2014) and American Public Education and the Responsibility of its Citizens: Supporting Democracy in an Age of Accountability (Oxford University Press, 2017), from which this piece was adapted.