Friday, February 1, 2013

Democracy and Democracy Prep


Last month a think tank lauded a well-publicized “no-excuses” charter school network in Harlem for, curiously, its civics education. Under the charismatic leadership of superintendent Seth Andrew, the schools have posted high test scores and boasted a curriculum heavy on citizenship values. And in the last year of available statistics, the flagship Democracy Prep school lost 23% percent of its student base – its demos – to attrition. 

Democracy, as we all learned in grade school, means rule by the people. Democracy Prep is a charter school. It has wide latitude as compared to public schools with certain school regulations, such as the length of the school day and the ability of teachers to unionize. While it receives funds out of the commonweal, it may expel students back into the common schools.

With a rap as a no-nonsense achievement academy, parents compete to enroll their children. Superintendent Seth Andrew feels their plight: “The fact that a random applicant was less likely to get in to a free public [charter] school like Democracy Prep than Harvard University is a travesty” (emendation mine). Despite this outrage, the school still goes by “Democracy Prep.”

Earlier this month, the right-wing American Enterprise Institute released a study praising Democracy Prep for its “unique approach to teaching citizenship.” It cites the school’s interwoven civics instruction, “town hall” assemblies and experiential learning opportunities, including Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns and congressional “lobby visits,” as instrumental to its particular brand of civics.

It’s unnecessary to belabor how moony and uncritical the report is in its thrall with founder Seth Andrews and charter schools in general. This is no surprise. It’s message to policymakers: “The fact that Democracy Prep is a charter school is crucial to its civic mission.”

But how a school that cultivates a selective population, operates beyond public regulations, and executes punitive “no excuses” discipline can draw praise for its civics is worth exploring. As is how, despite losing a quarter of its students annually, the school still goes by “Democracy Prep.”

It begins with how you choose to define democracy. At Democracy Prep, “Our scholars come to understand the complex concept of ‘democracy’ as having ‘choice and voice in their community,’” founder Seth Andrews explains, accidentally providing a precise definition of free-market capitalism. 

Choice is a favorite byword of charter advocates who believe the rising tide of free market education will raise all ships. The faith in choice harkens back to corporate education reform’s Moses figure, neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, and the single commandment he brought down from on high: school choice. Friedman would eventually start a foundation “to increase the public’s understanding and awareness of the need for parental choice as a way to reform the system of education.

But democratic choice exists not in that we choose whether to live in this particular nation (otherwise the notion of choice would be extrinsic, and thus useless, to that governing system), but in that we choose our laws and leaders within that system. Accordingly, a school claiming to instill democratic principles would first emphasize choice in school governance, curriculum, or even the filler-and-frills stuff student governments usually deliberate over. Democracy Prep functions instead like a corporation. There is no elected school board with jurisdiction over Democracy Prep. The teachers aren’t unionized.

In fact, without any apparent self-awareness, Democracy Prep vocally supports the mayoral control of New York schools that ousted elected school boards in 2002. Reads one baldly loaded statement on a questionnaire Democracy Prep distributed to mayoral candidates: “Mayoral control of the school system should be preserved. Just like the fire, police, parks or sanitation departments, the mayor should be directly accountable for the public school system.”

Meanwhile within the polis, 63% of citizens think Mayor Bloomberg should relinquish some control of schools back over to a citizen-elected board. Were the issue of school governance decided on democratic grounds, there would be an elected school board. In spite of potential damage to their brand, Democracy Prep lobbies to the contrary.

Basic models of democracy exist in even weakly progressive classrooms and schools. Student governments are ubiquitous. By common practice, many teachers start the year by challenging students to create class constitutions that invariably stress safety, respect, fun, etc. These Dewey-101 measures are simple, time-honored, passably authentic, and entirely absent from the AEI report. 

Instead, students at Democracy Prep experience a regimented and largely joyless day. As the usually impartial Schoolbook reported last December,

[S]tudents are frequently instructed to “track” a speaker with steady eye contact and full attention…Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.


In its values, Democracy Prep mistakes civic for civil. Seth Andrew says the school’s notion of democracy, while “a bit fuzzy,” begins with their DREAM values. These principles – “discipline, respect, enthusiasm, accountability, and maturity” – are the same kind that’d do well plastered on the wall of a factory, or dotting the postindustrial expanses of a totalitarian dystopia. The acronym DREAM here is perfectly Orwellian; its appropriated definition lacks completely any notions associated with an expansive and curious mind: creativity imagination, individuality, these empowering words you can’t come within fifty feet of an ordinary public school without tripping over.

The AEI report quotes the conservative Frederick Hess (he also heads AEI’s education initiative) who describes this utilitarian notion of citizenship as “transactional civics,” that is, “the basket of skills and attitudes (how to shake hands, speak properly, and be punctual) that will help students attend prestigious colleges and obtain desirable jobs.” Education writer Paul Tough, as quoted in another remarkably tone-deaf AEI citizenship report, groups these values under “performance character,” composed of the sort that “make you think of Steve Jobs or Bill Clinton more than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.”

The real challenge for neoliberal education reformers, of course, is that civic values can’t be measured. That’s why Andrew has proposed using the US naturalization exam as graduation requirement, though he readily admits, “it’s not likely, it’s politically untenable.” 

Better still, he says, “you could start to capture and measure these metrics of values and citizenship and civics…and then we’ll hold schools accountable for that.” Though he’s ambitious enough to speculate that abstract moral values could be empirically measured, he’s pragmatic enough to concede, “but even then you’ve got a tough problem attempting to get the federal department of education to do that across the country…”

The reduction of civic or ethical values to mere tools of business should make us wince. Heidegger warns of this flattening as the “darkening of the world”: “Sprit, thus falsified as intelligence, is thereby reduced to the role of a tool in the service of something else, a tool whose handling can be taught and learned…” It’s the idea that we only teach civics, ethics, and morals because they can help under-resourced students get jobs. As Andrew puts it, “I don’t think you can be a great citizen without having a career.”

That’s not to say Democracy Prep doesn’t try to instill civic values in practice. In addition to well-received Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns, the school takes its students on “lobby visits” to advocate for charter school issues in Albany. According to the report, students “frequently attend state Department of Education hearings on charter school facilities, school locations, and the expansion of the Democracy Prep network.” There, they “make the case that charter schools deserve equal funding in return for these efforts.”

Besides the fact that once other costs are factored in, New York City charter schools receive greater funding per pupil than traditional public schools, it’s unsavory to see students at an already-privileged school participating in the great American tradition of lobbying for special treatment. Students at public schools cannot (by Democracy Prep’s own admission) lobby for legislative favors in their schools. This distinction makes for a fine lesson in civics.

In a demonstrative example of student lobbying, Democracy Prep sent youngsters to support Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign to extend mayoral term limits in 2008, which opponents decried as antidemocratic. Education reform advocates wanted the mayor who brought over a hundred charters to the city to stay another term. One Democracy Prep student wrote, “Term limits prevent my family from having a choice, both in schools and in mayors and what we need are more choices, not fewer.” Another:

“The difference between my local school and Democracy Prep is that my local school was very dangerous and I wasn’t getting the education I know that I deserve. One of our DREAM values At Democracy Prep Charter School is accountability and I believe that the schools and the city need to continue this Accountability like we have at DPCS… . Term Limits could take away both accountability and the choice that our parents should have.” 

If we can get past the jingoism, it’s important to dig into these statements critically. In backing the billionaire’s extralegal third term, these young charter advocates made the rhetorical leap from choice in schools to choice in government, and in doing so underscored the false notion of choice in each case. A democratic choice is only valid when the stakes are even for all choices. When one choice happens to be a billionaire media mogul who’s already served two terms, or a charter school given special latitude in expulsions and private funding, choice becomes a mask for stacked odds.

AEI writes that “this tactic of using their academic success and tendentious political position to mobilize students and parents around school reform debates … has the added benefit of making civic engagement feel real and meaningful.” But it’s hard not to see this student lobbying more as a shrewd publicity stunt than a form of student empowerment or even serious lobbying. Surely the students involved get a kick out of it, but this kind of advocacy is hardly authentic — to say nothing of the troubling implications of using students as political pawns.

If it’s at all efficacious in instilling values it’s in teaching kids to use their political capital to receive special treatment for a subset of their peers, rather than stand in solidarity with them all. It’s not that Democracy Prep isn’t teaching civic values; far worse, it’s teaching privilege and self-interest, competition among peers who should be their compatriots in fighting larger injustices.

Sadly, Democracy Prep students differ from their Harlem peers in ways other than their civic values. A comparison of one Democracy Prep school and its co-located school shows the charter had half the students with special needs, fewer students who qualify for free lunch, and about half the proportion of English Language Learners. Even among an already distressed, high-poverty population, charter students are segregated from their more troubled peers. The whole process builds structural inequalities into the greater racial and socioeconomic inequalities of the US, and a tiered, privatized model of society that turns civic values into business values. 

The student who rightfully abhorred his previous school’s violence isn’t motivated to participate in a civic solution: he’s encouraged to escape it. “The oppressed,” as Paolo Freire writes, “having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.”

The notion that Democracy Prep’s civics techniques could be exported to the common schools is laughable. “Its status as a charter school is key to Democracy Prep’s approach to civic education,” a Democracy Prep administrator explains. He continues,

So much of what Democracy Prep does on citizenship is action-oriented and overtly political, such as the lobbying days when the school takes a firm stance on an issue and encourages students to lobby for it. The fact that parents opt in to a charter school gives Democracy Prep more latitude to experiment with different modes of teaching. It is unlikely that a traditional public school could operate with the same freedom as Democracy Prep.

While charters like Democracy Prep obligingly trot out the saw that charters serve as models for what public schools can be, in reality the school benefits from its advantaged position. In spite of this contradiction, the school still goes by “Democracy Prep.”

With its unsavory student-lobbying, regulatory exceptions and undisclosed private funding, Democracy Prep reflects the force currently eroding our democracy most, corporate lobbying. Just as political players gain favors from access and access from favors, Democracy Prep uses its political capital to push for policy that will allow it to expand in size, in autonomy, and in lobbying muscle. Within our corrupted American democracy, the school’s name actually suits its bearer well.

A rectification of names is in order. While the word democracy generally atrophies and turnout to presidential elections hovers around 50%, it’s chilling to imagine generations of students reared in schools where democracy implies militaristic “no excuses” discipline, silent hallways, enforced uniformity. Where democracy means lobbying for privilege and mindless get-out-the-vote campaigns, but doesn’t deign to allow participants to affect the institutions that govern them.

The most ideologically insidious aspect of the neoliberal education reform movement is its doublespeak. Charters advertise themselves as public institutions while being segregated, lottery-driven and powered by private investment. Banks refer to “putting children first” in order to mean “opening up investment opportunities.” DREAM values boil down to obedience, civics becomes civility, choice becomes a byword for private gain. And a school unaccountable to any elected board, unattainable for most public school students, and excepted from public school regulations calls itself Democracy Prep.

Ignorance is strength. Slavery is freedom. Etc.

“What’s the point of being Democracy Prep,” Seth Andrew says at one point in the report, “if we can’t articulate what democracy is?”


  1. commonal posted this