Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation

Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation

by Michael A. Rebell

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The 2016 presidential election campaign and its aftermath have underscored worrisome trends in the present state of our democracy: the extreme polarization of the electorate, the dismissal of people with opposing views, and the widespread acceptance and circulation of one-sided and factually erroneous information. Only a small proportion of those who are eligible actually vote, and a declining number of citizens actively participate in local community activities.

In Flunking Democracy, Michael A. Rebell makes the case that this is not a recent problem, but rather that for generations now, America’s schools have systematically failed to prepare students to be capable citizens. Rebell analyzes the causes of this failure, provides a detailed analysis of what we know about how to prepare students for productive citizenship, and considers examples of best practices. Rebell further argues that this civic decline is also a legal failure—a gross violation of both federal and state constitutions that can only be addressed by the courts. Flunking Democracy concludes with specific recommendations for how the courts can and should address this deficiency, and is essential reading for anyone interested in education, the law, and democratic society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226549958
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/18/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 678 KB

About the Author

Michael A. Rebell is the executive director of the Center for Educational Equity, professor of practice in law and educational policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School. He is the author of many books, including Courts and Kids: Pursuing Educational Equity through the State Courts, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


The Civic Participation Crisis — and the Civic Empowerment Gap

We live today in a polity ... that lacks the civic resources to sustain self-government. — Lorraine Smith Pangle and Thomas L. Pangle

The American Revolution was not only a war for independence from England; it was also the catalyst of an unprecedented experiment in democratic government and civic participation. The war gave new impetus to concepts of liberty, freedom, and democracy that had inspired the colonists; it involved many more people in thinking about those ideas, and it compelled citizens of the states to enter into weighty conversations about how to create effective local and national political structures to guide the new nation. The nation's founders also realized that to maintain and expand this fledgling democracy, they would need to create a new civic ethos, and schooling would need to play a central role in "the deliberate fashioning of a new republican character, rooted in the American soil ... and committed to the promise of an American culture."

Schools were already playing a larger role in the American colonies than they had in Europe. But the founding fathers understood that for the kind of active democratic culture they sought, all citizens would need to obtain the knowledge and skills needed to make intelligent decisions. As John Adams wrote: "A memorable change must be made in the system of education and knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher. The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many." Similarly, Thomas Jefferson said that each citizen would need "to know his rights, to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and with judgment."

The founding fathers' overall perspective on the purposes of education was clearly civic. While they valued the teaching of basic academic skills, they placed greater emphasis on developing citizens who would protect and nurture the new democracy. For example, reading was important, they thought, not as an abstract skill but mainly because it would "teach good political judgment, allow learning from prior generations' mistakes and successes, and inculcate honesty, integrity and compassion."

Benjamin Franklin and James Madison attempted to include some form of public funding for education in the U.S. Constitution, but their proposals fell victim to fears that the national government was already gaining too much power under the constitutional scheme. An emphatic commitment to public education was, however, clearly reflected in language that was written into the constitutions of most of the thirteen original states. Thus, the Massachusetts Constitution proclaims the critical importance of education to a democracy and commits the state to "cherish" education in perpetuity: "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the ... public schools and grammar schools in the towns." For the drafters of the state constitutions, "virtue," by which they meant the "capacity to transcend their diverse self-interests by favoring the common good of the political community," was "an urgent necessity, a matter literally affecting the survival of the new Republic." As Moses Mather put it in 1775, "The strength and spring of every free government is the virtue of the people; virtue grows on knowledge, and knowledge on education."

In the late eighteenth century, schools in rural areas (where 95 percent of the people lived) were typically organized by the locality and financed by a combination of property taxes, fuel contributions, tuition payments, and state aid. After the revolution, some states initially responded to the heightened interest in civic education, reflected in the state constitutions, by requiring local towns to found schools and sometimes by providing some financial support for them. For example, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 provided that "a school or schools shall be established in each county by the legislature," and a Massachusetts statute enacted in 1789 required each town to maintain a school and directed schoolmasters to instruct children in the "virtues which are the basis upon which the republican Constitution is structured." The Massachusetts law did not provide any state funding for education, but some other states did. For example, in 1795, the New York legislature appropriated $50,000 a year to be divided among local school committees that agreed to match at least half of their state allotment with local funds.

The vitality unleashed by the revolution led not only to renewed interest in educating students for citizenship but also to a blossoming of civic involvement by citizens in general. The country's federal structure and its continued expansion encouraged the proliferation of new civic associations and diverse forms of civic engagement: "The number of [voluntary] associations in Boston went from 14 before 1760 to 121 between 1760 and 1830 (a roughly 760 percent increase). However, the number in the rest of Massachusetts/Maine went from 24 before 1760 to 1,281 between 1760 and 1830 — an increase of more than 5,000 percent."

The American experience of civic participation that developed during the post-Revolutionary era was powerful, as the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville noted during his travels here in the early nineteenth century: "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. ... In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association." In short, involvement in the life of the community was a vital part of every citizen's daily life; preparing the next generation for such a civic life was the schools' primary mission.

The Establishment of Common Schools

By the 1830s, the combination of rapid industrialization, population growth, mobility, and immigration fueled a broad-based movement to implement a free public school system dedicated to moral education and good citizenship. The "common school" movement that began in New England spread rapidly to other states. The common school was an attempt to educate in one setting all the children living in a particular geographic area, whatever their class, religious, or ethnic background. Such a school "would be open to all and supported by tax funds. It would be for rich and poor alike, the equal of any private institution." The term "common" in this context had a dual meaning: the schools would provide an education to students from all strata in one common setting, and this would be accomplished by centralizing administration of the schools under the auspices of a single education department in each state.

These common schools would replace the prior patchwork of town schools partially supported by parental contributions, church schools, "pauper schools," and private schools with a new form of systematic, statewide democratic schooling. For Horace Mann, the founder of the common school movement: "Education must be universal. ... With us, the qualification of voters is as important as the qualification of governors, and even comes first, in the natural order. ... The theory of our government is — not that all men, however unfit, shall be voters — but that every man, by the power of reason and the sense of duty, shall become fit to be a voter. Education must bring the practice as nearly as possible to the theory. As the children now are, so will the sovereigns soon be."

The primacy of preparation for citizenship among the goals of schooling persisted throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. As one school superintendent put it in 1862, "The chief end is to make GOODCITIZENS. Not to make precocious scholars ... not to impart the secret of acquiring wealth ... not to qualify directly for professional success ... but simply to make good citizens." During the Progressive Era at the turn of the twentieth century, public education became compulsory as policy makers sought to assimilate and acculturate the waves of new immigrants who were populating America's cities. A new curriculum approach, known as social studies, was developed by Progressive educators in the 1930s to "reflect the emerging social sciences (economics, sociology, etc.) as it attempted to address the pressing social problems of a rapidly industrializing nation."

John Dewey, the leading progressive educator at the time, advocated an additional civic role for the schools. He saw them as miniature communities in which students should be active participants in democratic processes rather than passive recipients of abstract information. Dewey sought to shape both the educational environment and the formal curriculum to enhance students' ability to participate in the political life of the community, broadly defined. During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the schools' civic preparation role was infused with an extra dimension of patriotic ardor in order to meet the challenges of the Depression era and to support the national effort to save the world for democracy. As noted in an influential 1938 report: "If schools are to help in the defense of the democratic ideal, their purposes must be defined in terms of that ideal. ... Those who administer and teach in the schools must regard the study of democracy as their first responsibility."

Civic Participation Today

Beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, the schools' predominant civic focus began to erode. Today, education for citizenship no longer permeates the school curriculum, and "civic education" has come to be a discrete and diminishing component of the schooling experience. The U.S. Department of Education has itself acknowledged this reality. In a report issued in 2012, it stated: "Unfortunately, civic learning and democratic engagements are add-ons rather than essential parts of the core academic mission in too many schools and on too many college campuses today. Many elementary and secondary schools are pushing civics and service-learning to the sidelines, mistakenly treating education for citizenship as a distraction from preparing students for college-level mathematics, English and other core subjects."

As a result of this neglect, American students' knowledge of basic political facts is pitifully low. For example, on the civics exam administered in 2014 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — known as "the nation's report card" — only 23 percent of a national sample of eighth graders scored at or above a "proficient" level. The depth of ignorance that these scores reflect were further highlighted in a recent report on the schools' civic mission that recounted the following:

• Less than one-third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

• In 2006, in the midst of both midterm elections and the Iraq [W]ar, fewer than half of Americans could name the three branches of government, and only four in ten young people (aged 18 to 24) could find Iraq on the map.

• Only one in five Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 read a newspaper, and only one in ten regularly click on news web pages.

Other recent surveys have revealed that although the main political stake in the 2014 midterm election was control of the Senate and House of Representatives, only 38 percent of the public knew that the Democrats controlled the Senate before the election, and the same percentage knew the Republicans controlled the House. In one survey, only 20 percent knew that the poverty rate is closer to 15 percent than to 5 percent, 25 percent, or 35 percent, and only 17 percent knew that the percentage of the federal budget spent on foreign aid is less than 5 percent.

With this level of ignorance of civic matters, if most native-born Americans were required to take the citizenship test that is administered to those seeking to become naturalized American citizens, they would fail. There are also disturbing patterns in these surveys: "Men are more informed than women; whites are more informed than blacks; those with higher incomes are more informed than those with lower incomes, and older citizens are more informed than younger ones."

This lack of basic political knowledge and the widespread political apathy associated with it can have serious political consequences. As Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter point out, political knowledge promotes civic virtues like political tolerance, encourages active participation in politics, helps citizens construct stable and consistent opinions on a broad array of topics, aids them in identifying their true interests, and allows them to link their attitudes with their participation so that their participation serves their interests.

Given the level of political ignorance and apathy, though, it is not surprising that relatively few Americans actually bother to vote. In the 2016 presidential election only 56.8 percent of Americans eligible to vote chose to do so. This means that nearly one hundred million Americans failed to go to the polls. In the 2014 midterm elections, turnout was even worse: only 36.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots that year. These percentages are consistent with the general trend of voter turnout for presidential and midterm elections for the past seventy years.

America's youngest voters in particular have become less engaged over time. The voting rates for eighteen through twenty-four-year-olds dropped from 50.9 percent in 1964 to 38 percent in 2012. The norms "that a good citizen pays attention and votes have been weakening with each generation," said Rutgers political science professor Cliff Zukin. "So by now most people see it as a choice rather than a duty. Most feel there are few if any affirmative obligations of citizenship."

Those who bother to vote sometimes do not really know what they are voting for. Many Florida voters — perhaps enough to shift the outcome of the 2000 presidential election — failed to understand the voting instructions and so cast their votes for a candidate whom they did not mean to endorse. Similarly, on a recent Colorado anti–affirmative action referendum, many voted against affirmative action even though they meant to support it because of their confusion over the description of the intent of the ballot initiative. There are also increasing signs that citizens are shirking civic obligations that are essential to the maintenance of a democratic political order. For example, about 30 percent of those summoned for mandatory jury duty in 2014 in California's Los Angeles and San Diego Counties simply failed to show up.

Americans rank 139th in voter participation out of 172 world democracies. Among citizens who do not vote, there is also a tendency not to participate — in any sustaining way — in other political or community civic activities. There is a clear link between involvement in civic organizations and political participation; the one feeds on the other. Not surprisingly, therefore, with the dramatic decline in recent decades in involvement in civic associations, parent-teacher associations, and religious organizations, overall social bonds have atrophied.

Robert Putnam, in his classic volume Bowling Alone, documented that between 1973 and 1994, the number of people who served as an officer of a club or organization, worked for a political party, served on a committee, or attended a public meeting on town or school affairs declined by more than 42 percent. These trends were consistent in all parts of the country — urban, suburban, and rural — and affected all classes of the population. Putnam pinpointed the decline of traditional civic spirit as starting around the 1960s. He described a striking difference in civic involvement of the generation born in the 1920s and the generation born in the 1960s: "Controlling for educational disparities, members of the generation born in the 1920s belong to almost twice as many civic associations. ... They vote at nearly double the rate of the most recent cohorts (80–85 percent vs. 45–50 percent). The grandparents are ... twice as likely to work on a community project ... they are almost three times as likely to read a daily newspaper (75 percent vs. 25 percent)."


Excerpted from "Flunking Democracy"
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Copyright © 2018 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Civic Participation Crisis—and the Civic Empowerment Gap
Chapter 2. Civic Participation and the Federal Courts
Chapter 3. Civic Participation and the State Courts
Chapter 4. A Conceptual Framework for Preparing Students for Civic Participation
Chapter 5. Education for Civic Participation in the Twenty-First Century
Chapter 6. Advancing Civic Preparation through the State Courts
Chapter 7. Advancing Civic Preparation through the Federal Courts
Chapter 8. The Legitimacy of the Courts’ Role

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