Bringing Democracy to our K-12 Public Schools

If graded in terms of encouraging and developing a well-rounded and informed citizenry in a democratic country, the best most public schools I am familiar with would be a “D”.  Put simply and bluntly, our public primary and secondary schools, our community colleges and universities are bureaucratic institutions whose main social and intellectual aim and achievement is the indoctrination of students in the prevailing corporatist-consumerist-racist-sexist social norms and whose primary institutional interest is self-preservation.

Certainly some of the worst effects of this system have been leavened by imaginative and deeply dedicated teachers who have been fighting worthwhile and, too often, losing battles to offset them.  I speak from more than a little experience.  A sculptor and painter, I was also a teacher in a public high school for twenty five years and then taught in a community college for twenty years more and was very active in academic affairs and teachers’ unions at both institutions. I have seen myriad proposals for reform and a number of programs (some worthwhile, many not) come and go over the years while the quality of the institutions has continued to deteriorate. But so far I have searched in vain for a proposal which sees the undemocratic, pyramidal, unequal, costly, and ultimately irresponsible public educational structures as a fundamental component of school failure.  So what might a truly democratic structure for our public schools look like?  In this article I’m going to focus on what it might look like at the K-12 level.

What We Have Now

At the local level there are three groups that are primarily responsible for the operation of our K-12 school systems.

School Boards

Publicly elected (or in some cases mayor-selected) school boards are empowered with the operation of our public K – 12 school systems across the country.  They are usually a mirror reflection of the local power structure and its conventional, consumerist value systems. Most school board elections amount to little more than popularity contests that can provide an entrée for the ambitious to the local power elite but are more often aimed at affirming public approval of that élite. Though most candidates for board seats enthusiastically assert their support for public education in their communities, historically the boards’ main functions have been to keep local school taxes as low as possible, to assert in the name of the people the boards’ sovereignty over the schools (that is, the teachers and classified unions), and to create an ever-growing and well-paid administrative bureaucracy to enforce their decisions.

Under this system teachers are conceived of as employees in the classic capitalist sense while at the same time they are also supposed to embody the classic values of educators as enlightened exponents of humane values. These two conceptions of the teachers’ role are inherently contradictory, and this contradiction has been at the heart of many of the conflicts within school districts ever since. To be sure there are sometimes local rebellions against arbitrary and/or unpopular decisions of school boards, often spearheaded by unhappy teacher-led groups.  These can lead to the election of new board members, to the removal of administrators (frequently with expensive contract payouts), and to the hiring of new administrators. The effects of these changes are mostly superficial and usually short-lived.

Teachers’ Organizations

Teachers’ organizations grew out of the teachers’ inevitable resistance to autocratic school boards that treated teachers (mostly women, in the primary schools) as virtually indentured servants with poor salaries and benefits, no job security, and no say in their working conditions. The functioning of such systems proved so unworkable that even school administrators, who still identified themselves as teachers at the time, came to believe that teachers needed some form of job security and organization. And so administrators often led the way in creating the first such organizations to promote teacher tenure and to provide forums where teachers could discuss, within prescribed limits, matters relating to their teaching activities.  (The early California Teachers Association is a good example.)

But in the long run the administrators could not prevent the teachers, whose educational preparation and professionalization had been steadily developing, from taking the next inevitable steps toward creating independent associations or unions. In parallel the administrators created their own organizations to promote their separate interests. This was a decisive juncture in the development of the structure of today’s K-12 public schools.  At the time some clear-sighted teachers saw that this development would inevitably mean the adoption by school systems of the industrial, capitalist trade union model, with management (school boards and administrators) on one side and teachers (and later classified employees) on the other and that this would also and inevitably raise the question of the teachers’ real status.  Many teachers thought (and still think) of themselves primarily as professionals, basically as a higher class than workers, and thus not proper participants in the ordinary industrial collective bargaining process. Others (usually the minority) have been proud to claim the status of workers.   And so two types of teacher organizations developed reflecting this division. (NEA vs.AFT}  But whichever group teachers chose to identify themselves with, in the real world of school district governance that group had to engage in collective bargaining with school boards in fundamentally the same way industrial workers had to engage with their employers. This is the system we have today over most of the country.

Historically negotiations between teachers’ groups and school district administrations have come to focus mainly on salaries, benefits, and working conditions. (School boards themselves are rarely directly involved.) Negotiations do sometimes begin on an idealistic note; for example, the teachers ask for changes in curriculum, class size, students’ rights, greater transparency, etc., but the administrators typically assert that such items are the boards’ prerogatives and are not subject to negotiation.  When push comes to shove the teachers’ groups typically back down and end up fighting mainly for better salary, benefits, and working conditions, in many cases threatening strikes (and if necessary carrying them out) in order to get them.  But any significant proposals for the democratization of the schools are quite simply off the table, just as they have always been in trade-unionized industry.

School Administrators

In my experience school administrators are mostly ambitious teachers who figure out that there is much more money and prestige in getting out of teaching and going into the business of taking control of existing bureaucratic machineries and helping create new ones. Quite ironically, then, this is a system that rewards teachers by encouraging them to get out of teaching!

The most prestigious and well-paid job in this system is that of school superintendent.  A superintendent’s first job is to convince a majority of the school board’s members that the interests of the board and its administrators (especially the superintendent) are identical, and that (implicitly, though never openly) the teachers and classified are their adversaries and can best be kept in their place by the board’s administrators. For their efforts these administrators regularly receive generous salaries well-above what the average teacher can ever hope to earn.

Apart from the school superintendents, (many of whom now also call themselves CEO’s), who have to spend the lion’s share of their time cultivating school board members and the local citizenry, other administrators spend most of their time attending meetings with fellow administrators as well as presiding over (and frequently creating) committees of teachers and others to endlessly discuss problems that too often remain unresolved  Coincidentally, most of these administrators, in my experience, have very little to do with actual students, though some (superintendents especially) can regularly be seen on TV or in the newspapers handing out awards to “successful” students before appreciative audiences. These administrators inevitably label themselves as “educators”.

Whatever else this failing system might be called, “democratic” would not be the descriptive adjective that comes to mind.

A Proposal to Bring Democracy to our K-12 Public Schools

School Automony: A Scenario

(This scenario necessarily involves a public that at present doesn’t exist; namely, a significant number of citizens who are committed to creating a democratic school system to take the place of the present undemocratic one, a school system that aims to empower all our children in every area of creative human endeavor.  What follows is what might happen if such a public were to come into existence.)

The state legislature authorizes the governor to convene a state-wide education commission, fairly representing all elements of the public, charged with creating a new autonomous K – 12 public school system and with writing a new, simplified education code embodying a clear and straightforward statement of  broad and generous educational aims for K – 12 public schools in a democratic society, guaranteeing basic democratic rights for students, teachers and public.  The commission would be charged with making the following basic proposals along with any others it deemed appropriate:

  1.  Abolition of all school districts, county and regional education offices, their local tax base, and the existing state departments of education.
  2. Replacement of all local educational tax bases with a single state-wide system of school financing providing equal funding for all students and including funding for the creation of a reformed state department of education in line with its new responsibilities as laid out by the commission.
  3. Declaration of autonomy for every existing K – 12 public school within the state and authorization for each of them to be governed by a school council made up of equal numbers of representatives of teachers and of residents who live within the school’s boundaries, each group to be democratically elected and subject to democratic recall. These councils would be charged with the responsibility of providing for all their students all the programs and services required by the educational code with the freedom for each school to decide how best to accomplish this goal.
  4. Authorization of a single, state-wide, democratically elected bargaining unit for teachers to negotiate state-wide salaries, benefits, and working conditions and of another democratically elected unit to negotiate these for classified employees.
  5. Creation of a reformed state department of education with the following responsibilities:
  6. Development of a framework for democratic K – 12 school elections, authorization and holding of these elections, and certification of their legitimacy.
  7. Negotiation of a single state-wide agreement on salaries and working conditions with the elected representatives of the teachers and classified employees, subject to the approval of the governor and legislature.
  8. Authorization of the creation and funding of the construction of new autonomous schools, approval of requested school boundary changes, and provision for physical maintenance of existing schools.
  9. Development, in partnership with the autonomous schools, of systems of evaluation of school success in carrying out state’s educational goals as laid out in the school code.
  10. Development of frameworks fostering cooperation on all matters of common interest between autonomous schools of the same level as well as between grade school and high school levels and between high school and college levels.

Why We Need Autonomous Public Schools

Our students attend schools, not school districts.  No school district has ever educated a student or ever will, yet at the present time teachers and parents and residents within an individual school’s boundaries have little or nothing to say about their school’s governance or how its resources are allocated.  In a democratic society these are the very groups that should have the authority and responsibility for all the important decisions their schools must make. But to make and carry out these decisions they must have control of the required economic resources.

This is precisely where the necessity for a single, state-wide school tax that funds all students equally, along with a state teachers’ and classified salary, benefits and working conditions agreement, come in. These settle at once two seemingly intractable problems of the present systems: unequal student funding and unequal teacher and classified salaries, benefits and working conditions.  They completely remove from the schools the need to deal with these matters which, under the school district systems, take up large amounts of time and energy that should be dedicated to students, and frequently create an atmosphere of hostility and ill-will between the parties involved.

School autonomy means quite simply democratic control of our K – 12 schools from the bottom up. It also, and very importantly, means a big increase in funds available to the schools through the elimination of the present very expensive district administrative bureaucracies. In short, it means bringing not only democracy but significantly greater economic resources to our schools.

Imagining the Democratic “Free for All” as the People Take Over Their Schools

The vision I have offered here of autonomous, democratically operated schools can only come about as a result of a powerful popular movement.  This, of course, implies teachers and parents/public already well-informed about what would be expected from the election of school council members.  So before the school elections there would certainly have been much discussion and debate by both groups about how their individual school councils should function.

It’s important to remember that the salaries, benefits, and working conditions of teachers and classified employees, plus school maintenance, will be paid directly by the state so that the monies the school receives from the state will not involve any of these and will not be a matter of contention by the school councils.

Once elections are held and certified, every individual school is now to be governed by its own school council.  First discussion:  What will its school organizational chart look like? What kinds of leadership will it have? (There are no professional administrators provided for under the law.)  How will its monies be allocated? The answer: Each school council must decide for itself.  For the first time in the history of our public schools there will be democratic discussion and decisions about school structure and allocation of resources..

Apropos of what I believe will happen as the schools organize themselves cooperatively, it would be worthwhile to look at what has happened in successful worker- owned cooperatives. At first there is often a lot of heated discussion without full agreement on major issues, but quickly the workers come to realize that their future survival depends upon their ability to develop skills and mechanisms for continually making cooperative decisions and evaluating their success.  Having discovered they have this ability, the workers who have persevered universally say they would never go back to the old way of doing things. I suggest that the same imperative will quickly come to the fore in the autonomous schools.  The teachers and public, who want and have the full responsibility for the success of their students, will also quickly learn that this can only happen if they develop effective cooperative skills and mechanisms for  making good decisions and continually evaluating the results.  And it will be their confidence in their success in organizing and operating their own schools that will provide the open sesame for dealing with all their other responsibilities.

Roberto Armstrong is a sculptor and painter. He was also a teacher in a public high school for twenty-five years and then taught in a community college for twenty years more and was very active in academic affairs and teachers’ unions at both institutions. Read other articles by Roberto.