Can Public Schools be Democratic Schools?

“I have never allowed schooling to interfere with my education.”
– Mark Twain

Recently a new associate of mine, Dana Bemis, forwarded me an email from a listserve run by the International Democratic Education Conference, or IDEC. The email was basically a go-around between folks on whether or not there are actual democratic state-run schools in the United Kingdom. The basic conclusion is that no, there are none.

After all of my searching with SoundOut, all the work I’ve done with schools in the U.S., I am completely sure that there are absolutely no public schools that are democratic schools in the United States. Sure, there are several that come close – painfully, excitably close – but they are not the whole enchilada. I’ve written before about the NOVA Project in Seattle, which is closest to embodying a democratic ideal. Dana reminded me about a school I met in Colorado last year that is also an alternative public high school, like NOVA, and is extremely close to embodying democratic ideals. George Woods, the pioneering principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio, has strove to create a public democratic high school – and is credited by many as being there.

I don’t mean to steal his thunder, or the pioneering work done by any public school that is underway. But none of these schools are inherently democratic. They simply cannot be. Two years ago I had a long conversation with Jenny Sazama and Karen Young from Youth On Board about the inherently oppressive nature of schools, and basically it boiled down to one painful reality: All public schools are compulsory, therefore they can’t be democratic.

The existence of a simple dictum that mandates attendance undercuts the reality of liberal democracy, which depends on notions social justice and representative democracy; further alienating public schools from the possibility of being democratic are the ideals of direct democracy, which needs the willful participation of every citizen.

So the answer is no, Virginia, there is no such thing as a public democratic school.

Here are some schools that come close:

Here are some great projects that try so hard to embrace democratic idea

And you can always find more information at the SoundOut website, and I would also recommend the Alternative Education Resource Organization. Look with me, and please open my eyes and tell me it ain’t so. I’ll share more as I find it.

2 comments

  1. Compulsory education can not provide authentic democratic principles, because the major component is missing — attendance is obligated by the state, or face the judge kid. I appreciate the list of democratic schools, however in good fortune this list is much broader, and world wide.

    Best to you Adam!

  2. Paul, thanks for the note – its good to hear from you. Remember this list was focused on PUBLIC high schools in the US – and that I included a link to the AERO list. While its hopeful that there are other examples out there, I truly believe that educators in the US – even progressive, lefty ones – see themselves as different from their counterparts in every other country in the world.

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