Participatory Democracy

Participatory Democracy:
Building the Foundation for Interactions Between
Parents, Community Members and Public School Educators

By Stephanie Leigh Robinson​

“We are Americans, not only by birth and by citizenship but by our political ideals. . . .
And the greatest of those ideals is that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.”
                                                                                                            W.E.B. DuBois 

July 2017

In the age of Trump, there is a profound need for  committed  parents and community stakeholders (caregivers, advocates, etc.) to support equity and excellence in states, districts and schools or in our public education system To many, however, parent and community stakeholder voice, agency ​​
and influence remain the missing links in most U.S. school reform efforts based on democratic principles and ideals.   (This course and/or series of workshops will explore these goals.)
Fortunately, the need for engaged parent and community stakeholders in schools has been underscored by many educators and politicians across the nation such as Governor Cuomo, (both former) Secretary of Education Duncan and President Obama who all state that everyone from teachers to superintendents has a political lobbyist who acts on his/her behalf --- but children. Nothing demonstrates and proves this fact more than the achievement gap between black and white children in which the political and educational interests of poor children of color remain underserved. For instance, under the Clinton Administration only two states addressed the achievement gap. While Clinton’s intention was to provide equal standards for all U.S. public school children his campaign promise remained unfulfilled (and remains unfulfilled based on past and current administrations). In fact, by the time Clinton left office only 22 states had high-quality standards in place for all children.

That this concern(s), across the nation, is still a priority issue or that parents and community stakeholders are still waiting for school officials to promote policies and practices based on fair, egalitarian interests is one of the main reasons participation in schools is evolving beyond the one-size fits all model of the past. Today’s parents want to join the discussions that not only focus on home-based concerns but school-based concerns in which best practices and their effective implementation serve as key contributing factors tied to positive student outcomes. From this frame of reference, present-day parents and community stakeholders are, on any given day, far more assertive in asking educators the questions and seeking the solutions at the systemic level of analysis. This is a profound paradigm shift for many school representatives who, in the past, only expected parents and community stakeholders to support the annual school bake sale (A. Henderson) or, at the least,  were  simply needed to help public school students with their homework.

With the passage of ESEA/ESSA 2015, the role of parents and community stakeholders is still just as critical --- at the systemic level. The historical significance of this key role originating from Senator Robert Kennedy’s testimony on ESEA 1965 shows that he trusted parents and the public to “demand change and improvement in schools” a goal premised on the idea that parents had the right to know how decisions were made and funds were spent. He knew that for African American parents --- “most of whom had seen very little change in the quality of their children’s education,” mere access to public schools overall did not mean their children were receiving a quality education. As it was then and in times past (or now . . . African American students were underserved (Note: i.e., NAEP scores for black 12th graders, across the nation, show that only 7% are proficient in math while 13% are proficient in reading), Kennedy’s response to this reality was to: “fight for further protections for poor children,” and, in doing so, he conditioned his support of ESEA 1965 on a reporting requirement. Its purpose was to provide parents with the “facts and figures” beyond the local promotional or anecdotal reports turned in by state leaders to the USOE --- (if, they turned in reports at all). In other words, Kennedy’s major concern was that educators did not have the “wherewithal to be responsive to their constituencies and/or to make educational achievement the touchstone of success in judging ESEA…”

For Kennedy, parents and community stakeholders were the missing part of the equation when it came to serving children of color, in particular. They were the ones who had the right to “hold educators responsible for a quality education for all children” through federal transparency and accountability mandates. Still, far too many schools officials kept acknowledging this new role in theory for parents and community stakeholders but not in reality. In fact, the PTAs, of that time period, were mainly run by school leaders who used them as a channel to promote their own agendas . Equally important, in spite of the federal mandates, ESEA’s reporting provisions were ignored and the USOE did not address the widespread abuse of power in U.S. states, districts and schools. That is to say ESEA 1965 depended on the role of the USOE to support oversight but was silent about instances when the federal imprint was or is weakened, in times such as then (i.e., the USOE lacked staff  and Frank Keppel was fired for doing his job --- which entailed providing oversight --- or, for some, falsely claiming that Chicago failed to meet the compliance goals of the law --- when, in fact, it had not, etc.) and now.

Today, transparency and accountability in school governance still requires (as it did with the passage of ESEA, 1965) the timely flow of information or increased predictability based on predetermined responsiveness and answerability as well as mutual respect/trust, etc. built from interactions between parents and educators. It depends on the creation of inclusive opportunity spaces and channels for discourse and decision-making supportive of parent and community stakeholder voice, agency and influence in schools. Most importantly, it depends on parents and community stakeholders joining together with school officials, principals, teachers, etc. to ensure that these goals are met.

Given these facts, participatory democracy, is a useful frame for understanding how shared, collaborative goals have been addressed in the ESEA parent involvement provisions over the years and what key themes or elements, if any, have been incorporated into current state, district or school programming at the systemic level. (Note --- At last count, 70% of U.S. states were not in compliance with the ESEA/NCLB parent involvement mandates.)

Why participatory democracy? Participatory Democracy is in general “group decision making characterized by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of collective decision making.” Its emphasis (according to participatory democratic theorist, Carole Pateman) is based on “full participation, which only occurs when individuals in a decision-making body have equal power to determine the outcome of decisions.” Drawing on John Dewey’s view as well “genuine democracy involves far more than periodic voting for politicians—it requires intelligent, active participation… and that all those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them." In this five part workshop, parents and community stakeholders will examine how schools --- through participatory democracy ---- reinforce this need.

In this light, they will explore democracy and the evolving nature of participatory democracy and its rights-based origins. They will analyze the theoretical and conceptual constructions of participatory 
democracy by reviewing or comparing and contrasting the participatory discourses of Aristotle, John Stuart Mills, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Barber, Peter Bachrach and Carole Pateman. They will learn how to identify power imbalances between parents/community stakeholders and school representatives, including how acquiescence or apathy can be perpetuated through school practices and policies. This analysis will be achieved by reviewing the works of John Gaventa, Andrea Cornwall, Michel Foucault, Stephen Lukes, etc. Furthermore, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and its reauthorizations pertaining to both past and present parent involvement mandates will be explored in relationship to participatory democracy, along with parent and community stakeholder voice, agency, and influence in schools.

By the end of the workshop, the participants will possess a much wider perspective and understanding of lessons learned and best practices tied to home and school interactions. Most importantly, they will be able to infer how public schools ---- as public spaces --- deepen participatory democracy --- and, in the process, gain a greater awareness of the often overlooked inclusionary, if not, educative role of participatory democracy in “bringing people together to talk about the things important to them." And, finally, as educators and concerned citizens, they will recognize the ways that it builds the foundation for community and/or the interactions between parents/community members and educators ---- as a well-informed citizenry who has obtained (by virtue of participating) the know-how to support the genuine buy-in and legitimacy of the very purpose of the U.S. public school system.