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School-Based Education Is Essential to Democracy

As a longtime resident and educator in Clarke County, I’ve been following the recent discussions over how much authority local school councils should have in relation to the authority of the superintendent, district office and school board. The Clarke County School District is one of the first designated charter school districts in Georgia and has a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate what our local schools can do when they truly belong to their local community of students, educators and parents. Charter district designation allows schools to gain waivers from state regulations in order to use better forms of student assessment and evaluation, curriculum, staff development, resource and staff allocations, teaching methods and creative partnerships with businesses and nonprofits.

Allowing decision-making at the school level is the one best way of reviving democracy. In an age where political incivility dominates the newsfeed, young people and adults across America are increasingly questioning the importance of democracy itself. Recently, The Atlantic magazine devoted its entire issue to the theme, “Is Democracy Dying?”

Our public schools have done little to support the health of our nation’s democracy, and school-based educators are not to be blamed. What we have experienced is the misguided prevailing belief that top-down mandates with rewards and punishments would improve academic achievement, reduce the achievement gap between groups of students and show progress on underlying social and economic issues in our country. However, after almost two decades of state, federal and district accountability measures and ratings, overall achievement in our nation is no better, and children are now living with the greatest economic disparity since the Great Depression. What we don’t need is more of the same.

School-based educators, students and parents want to see more relevant school work. They want students’ learning to connect to pressing issues in their communities and make their world a better place to live. Our local schools in Clarke County, with the exception of a few buildings  still to be renovated, have attractive and modern facilities, an abundance of talented and incredibly hard-working educators, caring and engaged parents and generous, forward-looking community leaders in our Classic City. What our schools lack is clearly delineated authority to act upon their local concerns and aspirations. CCSD being a designated a charter district can provide the means to give each school the latitude and resources to carry out their plans. This can only happen if district agents willingly shift authority to support and facilitate decision-making at the local school community level.

Our children need us to listen to their concerns. We need to commit to making their lives better.  We need to help them use their education to make important and lasting changes in their communities. And we need to help them learn that their leadership and civic engagement are at the very center of resuscitating a faltering democracy. 

Glickman is a professor emeritus of education at the University of Georgia, author of 11 books and advisor to two governors.