We Don’t Even Teach Democracy in Our Schools


The failure of teaching by example and how it has affected education

James Preston Allen, Publisher

The founding fathers of this country all knew the value of education. Fifty-six of them were graduates of the first public school founded in Boston in 1635.  Since then, especially after the American Revolution, the federal government has supported and passed laws to support free public education.  Literacy is, after all, the foundation upon which a free people can remain free of tyrants, dictators and imbeciles. Thomas Jefferson understood this when he help to establish the University of Virginia, saying that, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite to our survival as a free people.”

Democracy is not perfect nor is it immune from electing imbeciles to public office on all levels, but it is better than inheriting them from a line of inbred monarchs. History has proved this to be true. Yet, here we are, in the early decades of the 21st century arguing about funding of public education versus creating some hybrid public-private charter school model of education. In California, the downhill slide began with the conflict between escalating property taxes (think Proposition 13) and a California Supreme Court decision that disallowed the use of State Tidelands oil revenues being used to fund education.

With the election of Ronald Reagan as governor and the rise of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at our colleges and universities, there was reason and cause by conservatives to question whether providing free college education to the masses was such a good idea.  And the shift was on in every decade since to transfer the costs of public education onto college students and their parents by defunding public education, resulting in ever increasing tuitions and fees. As many of you may recall, Reagan had it in for those college demonstrators, particularly at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. At UC Santa Barbara, students torched a branch of Bank of America, an act  probably more appropriate for more  recent years with that bank’s participation in the sub-prime mortgage loan scandals.

We are told that our graduation rates are low, that we are behind in science and math and that our public schools are failing our children. Everyone from Bill Gates to Eli Broad to the mayors of Los Angeles are all wringing their hands about public education here in the City of Angels. Charter schools versus  public schools and how they are managed and run seems to be the debate of the day. And what are the value of test scores in their relationship to teaching students?

Without wading into the complete morass of all the arguments here on the pros and cons, there are two self evident perspectives to keep in mind. First, the only quantifiable benchmark that improves student education is reduction in class size. Change the ratio of students to teachers (regardless of what you think of teachers in general) and amazingly students learn more.  The other is the current misguided assumption that education is about economics and not democracy.  Thomas Jefferson might have a thing or two to say about placing the nation’s  GDP before liberty.

What I have noticed in my years volunteering at both public school councils and in the non-profit sector is that the adults in the room have such loose grasp on how to run anything democratically that it is fundamentally embarrassing. I recall an instant while serving on the School-Based Management council at San Pedro High School of having to explain how the open meeting laws of the State of California applied to those meetings because of the council’s control over public monies and the council’s power to set policy.  This means that agendas have to be posted in public places where parents or students can reasonably find them and that public comments are allowed at those meetings. You would have thought I killed someones cat when I made that clear to the members of the council .

I recall another time while I was a board member at the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce where I consistently provoked the ire of the chairman over the protocols for passing simple motions. It didn’t appear that the chairman, with his college degree in engineering and who now sits on the Board of Harbor Commissioners, had ever read Robert’s Rules of Order or the preamble of the California Brown Act.  Most public and nonprofit organizations would much rather not hold a contested board election for fear that someone’s feelings might be hurt or that their corporation will pull their funding.

Which brings me to my next complaint about who gets “elected” for charter school boards or other non-profits based upon how much money they donate.  Since the end of the Reagan (counter) revolution, the corporate model of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 “a thousand points of light,” charitable giving has taken over. Just about everywhere you look, political standing in the nonprofit sector has more to do with how many zeros come after the first digit on the check, than how intelligent or how good your ideas are. And it barely has anything to do with the democratic process.  Like the processes at Goldman Sachs or Bank of America, getting elected onto a board of trustees is about how much stock or money you control. This is not even the slightest resemblance to democratic procedure. Some ask why the citizenry are so disengaged from voting?  Look around and show me where democracy hides. Is it only your local neighborhood council?

Again I would direct you to think foundationally. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The cure for bad government [or bad schools] is not more laws, but more democracy.” I might also add that the fundamental challenge of our schools today is not how to teach students to pass a test, but to make them into critical thinkers that think about what it means to be citizens in a democracy and are literate enough to actually run one. Sadly, many adults who graduated from some of our better institutions and who are now in leadership positions don’t have a clue. They must have just been studying to pass the next test.



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