Bing tracking

Educating, Organizing, and Thinking Democracy (pt. 2)

Education Week
Bridging Differences
by Mike Miller


In the final piece of the rich “Educating, Organizing, and Thinking Democracy” Education Week blog exchange between Deborah Meier and Harry Boyte, Deborah says about her work in New York City, “…[I]n the early 1990s we invented a possible answer [to how to do democratic education] that, alas, we were never able to test out…If we hadn’t been stopped by a new chancellor and a new state superintendent we’d have learned a lot.”  Observing a similar experience in Boston, she writes of a similar democratic effort, “[T]hose in power seemed remarkably uninterested in this public solution, and preferred to put their money into charter chains or vouchers.”  She notes a similar experience in 39 NYC high schools, “Again with relatively little attention.  Amazing.”

She is, she says, “desperate” to broaden understanding of these efforts, presumably so they can be expanded upon in public schools systems.  She notes one consequence when they aren’t, “Some of the young admirers of these efforts feel stymied and turn to opening ‘mom and pop’ small charters with more autonomy…” and she asks, “How can we break through the silence by making these public alternatives more visible before they die off as their autonomies are chipped away?”

Is the lack of attention and the snuffing out of these public alternatives really “amazing?”  I think not.  These notes explain why.

Elsewhere, Harry observed that in Texas the Alliance Schools, born out of the organizing work there by the Industrial Areas Foundation, are examples of democratic education.  Yet he, like Deborah, doesn’t make what seems to me a necessary connection between democratic education within schools and independent people power organizations outside of them (though he is, no doubt, friendly to and appreciative of this organizing).  Which leads me back to Deborah’s amazement.

Despite their success, the schools in New York City and Boston didn’t become the modus operandi for their respective school districts because there was no people power organization with the clout to make them that.  Why is that power required?

Having a few such schools is necessary for the education of the relatively small proportion of student bodies that will occupy more “creative” jobs when they graduate from college.  Having the general student body graduate with these democratic attitudes, skills and experiences is dangerous to the status quo.  School districts function to segregate these two groups by what is known as “tracking,” and there are myriad ways in which tracking is accomplished:  charters, pilot projects, magnet schools and on-and-on.

What about the teachers?  These pilot project efforts also serve the function of channeling the energy and talents of some of the most creative teachers in school systems into relatively isolated experiences.  If they didn’t exist, some of the teachers would quit (as many now do in their absence) after trying to deal with the constraints imposed upon them by the systems within which they work.  But others might look for ways to exercise a subsidiary part of people power, namely teacher power.  And if they did the requisite power analysis to figure out the vehicle for that exercise, they would identify teacher unions as, really, the only path available to them because such unions are the only organizations owned lock, stock and barrel by their members—paid for by their dues, with leaders democratically elected by them.

To identify “schools” as vehicles for reform, as seems now to increasingly be the case for a number of community organizing networks, is to accept present school structures and power relationships and negotiate a place within them.  It seems to me a far more productive approach, both for short-term progress and long-term transformative gain, is to identify teacher unions as people power (and here I’m speaking of independent, broadly-based, member-funded community organizations) vehicles in a particular institutional setting and, therefore, the most important strategic partner for immediate victories and social transformation.

If something along these lines happens at all, it is typically something else. Teachers interested in transformative education organize voluntary education reform associations which operate on tracks parallel to their unions.  They may, at times, participate in union elections, and they may even take over leadership in those unions.  But they don’t make education reform the union’s agenda.

In those cases where there isn’t this kind of engagement, the union remains a vehicle to pursue important union issues:  wages, hours, benefits and narrowly-understood working conditions.  (Class size is an important example.)  But for the most part, the union isn’t a vehicle to pursue issues having to do with the quality, effectiveness, appropriateness and efficiency of the service their members deliver—the education of children.  Operating on the basis of this approach, a broadly-based community organization might FIRST want to negotiate with a teachers union before it approached a school site administrator or school district.  It might find an immediately willing partner (as in 1969 San Francisco’s Mission Coalition Organization did in AFT Local 61 when there was a struggle at the city’s Mission High School**), or it might find that the first conflict to be resolved is between it and the organization of teachers.  This is, however, precisely the kind of “horizontal” relationship that Harry Boyte discusses and for which he argues.

In cases where there is this kind of engagement, it is often done independently of organized parents and students because, for the most part, these two groups don’t have such organizations.  Instead, to the extent they are organized it is as adjuncts of schools (site councils and similar formations).  Leadership for them comes from imaginative principals who recognize the benefits of participation by key constituencies beyond teachers, counselors, non-professional staff, additional administrators and other school personnel.  But participation isn’t the same as power, though it is a necessary ingredient.

What, then, might a full people power configuration look like?  Since I’m not familiar with any, I’ll suggest my own version (it would be far better to examine those that exist if anyone can point us to them).

First, teacher unions, whether NEA or AFT affiliated, would either be members of broadly-based community organizations or, in those cases where the structure of the community organization doesn’t allow for organizational memberships, be in a continuing alliance with them. (The heirs to ACORN, for example, are individual membership organizations, not federations of existing and newly-formed groups.)

Second, this partnership would be the vehicle to seek negotiations with school districts (or individual schools) that would result in the kinds of educational reforms Deborah intimately knows.  And these partnerships would be the means to keep such reforms in place when school administrations or administrators change—i.e. they enforce a victory that has been won, and they push for its expansion.

Third, under the terms of the negotiated agreement, specific mechanisms would be put in place to organize independent parent and student organizations and/or strengthen those that exist so that they truly engage the constituency for whom they presume to speak.  As far as I know, student organizations of this type require for their sustenance some sponsorship by a continuing “adult”—either person or organization, and parent organizations of this type need staff support other than that which a school might provide.

Fourth, continuing mechanisms at school sites—like site councils, parent participation components or whatever—would engage in the daily implementation of programs whose efficacy would be evaluated by the independent partnership as well as by the site groups.  The site groups should not be confused with the independent partnership.  Let me elaborate.

The former—the continuing mechanisms at school sites—are collaborative organizational forms based on common interest, which may have emerged only after conflict, with the assumption that the parties have to immerse themselves in the details of an agreement to make its implementation work.  The latter—community organizations and unions—is an alliance of organizations whose purpose is to move an agenda of equality, justice, freedom, community, security and other core values against its adversaries whose interests lead them to fight for the preservation of the status quo, and, when opportunities arise, to roll-back past gains, and dismantle the institutions necessary for a common democratic life—as corporations in the U.S. did starting in the 1970s in relation to unions; as southern politicians now are doing in their efforts to disenfranchise black voters; as the War on Poverty was used by mayors to tame insurgent forces in their cities…and on-and-on.  Pay heed to Oliver Cromwell’s instruction to his troops:  “Trust in God, but keep your powder dry”, and its more recent rendering during World War 2—“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”

The Algebra Project (AP) offers an example of the kind of detailed involvement that is required for implementation of a reform project in schools.  An alignment has to take place in a school district that, ideally, goes from the board of education and superintendent down to the district curriculum department’s staff person(s) who are in charge of math education, down to the site principal and to the math teacher who is actually going to do AP in his/her classroom. Further, there has to be a site commitment to engage students so that they want to participate in AP and are willing to do the extra work it requires beyond normal school work assignments.  Finally, parents of those students have to be engaged in the process as well.

All the above are collaborative efforts, though, of course, there may be disagreements on how to proceed at any point in time.  They are different from the processes of conflict, negotiation, compromise and monitoring that community organizations and labor unions engage in with “power structure” entities with which they deal.

In this understanding, implementation requires different mechanisms.  Both are required.

I believe these ideas can be applied to all the public institutions that Harry Boyte talks about when he extends community organizing principles into the democratization of public institutions.  I also believe that without the kind of people power indicated by this approach, there will continue to be successes that are ignored, marginalized or stamped out by systems that are frightened by their potential for transformational change.


*The Boyte-Meier exchange, and related documents, can be found at: