This inauguration day has me thinking about democracy and independent schools. Independent schools have largely taken up the call to public purpose. For many, this includes service learning programs and mission statements that address democratic citizenship. As many clear thinkers understand, living an experience trumps learning about one. For this reason, and many others, many independent schools have sought to democratize.
Because the universe of independent schools is vast, these efforts may have met with greater success in some places than in others, but good faith efforts and much success abound. Schools have sought out ways of decentralizing decision-making authority and of seeking out student, parent and alumni/ae voices. Transparency, due process and discussions rooted in evidence—all hallmarks of democracy– are easy to find in independent schools.
For all the progress towards democracy that independent schools have made, I wonder if there are limitations. Kenneth Strike, who writes extensively on the topic, notes that public schools have a special relationship to a democratic society because principals and superintendents are all answerable to boards of education who are elected in democratic processes. Thus school board decisions, policies and directions carry the force of their democratic origin. In being responsive to school boards, schools are responsive to the legitimate expression and authority of the voting public.
Heads of independent schools, on the other hand, are answerable to boards of trustees. Boards, while duly elected or appointed, are not democratic entities (although they may function democratically). As such, independent schools may be more akin to oligarchies than democracies. This is an observation, not a critique. This observation, however, makes me wonder if there are limitations imposed on the democratic functioning of independent schools. I ask in hopes of generating a greater degree of self-awareness. Such reflection can only lead to greater clarity about what we do and what we can accomplish. Understanding the brackets within which independent schools operate will allow each school to more fully understand how it can enact democracy, what students can glean from the lived experience, and how we can continue to fulfill our public purpose of creating citizens prepared to engage in our democratic society.