Public education and democracy are linchpins of our free society. How well they thrive and support each other depends largely on the civic intelligence of community members and their involvement in civic life—including their involvement in the local schools. Clearly, the public schools have a vital role to play in society. That role is enhanced when members of the community see the contribution that education makes to furthering democracy through the lens of their own firsthand experience of engagement.
The schools’ role in cultivating civic intelligence is enhanced when they consciously teach the lessons of democracy and expect students to engage in its practice. Community service, for example, can teach students to value the larger public interest. By preparing students for lifelong success, the public schools hold the future in trust. To fulfill that trust, they must pass on to the next generation the values of a free, egalitarian society.
Only by inviting the community to help answer the big questions about what counts can the public schools give their constituents the kind of education they want for their children. When school boards and other school leaders engage the power of the public, the schools and the schoolchildren are enriched by the community’s knowledge, resources, and energy. When they engage their community, the institutions of both public education and representative democracy are strengthened. At that point, school leaders are truly governing on a public scale.