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NCLB and Its Wake: Bad News for Democracy

by David E. Meens & Kenneth R. Howe - 2015

Background: Local control has historically been a prominent principle in education policymaking and governance. Culminating with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), however, the politics of education have been nationalized to an unprecedented degree, and local control has all but disappeared as a principle framing education policymaking. During the same period, policies imposed upon locales by state and federal governments have shifted from an emphasis on equity to accountability.

Purpose: This paper examines what the eclipse of local control through NCLB and related policies means for democracy.

Research Design: Drawing upon contemporary normative democratic theory, we distinguish two dimensions of democracy that are at issue—democratic policymaking and democratic education—and conclude that the effect of NCLB has been to frustrate democracy along both of these dimensions.

Findings: In terms of democratic policymaking, we argue that NCLB oversteps the boundaries that may be legitimately imposed upon local participation in policymaking on the basis of democratic principles. In terms of democratic education, we show how NCLB undermines both the content and the context of schooling likely to inculcate the skills, knowledge, and dispositions required for meaningful participation in democratic politics.

Conclusions: Based upon this analysis, we offer a set of guidelines to aid in the assessment of future federal education policy vis a vis democracy. First, reform efforts should embrace a participatory model for engaging local communities. Second, curriculum standards adopted by states and locales should include a conscious and substantive focus on developing the deliberative skill and dispositions required of democratic citizenship. Third, efforts must be made to keep individuals and organizations that receive public funds accountable to the public through democratic procedures. Fourth, reform efforts must seek ways to more adequately and equitably finance schools. Fifth, the goal of better integrating schools across important categories of social difference should be revitalized in order to help ensure access to equal educational opportunities and the diverse context of learning that all students need for the inculcation of democratic character.


Jeffrey Henig (2007) observes that in the arena of education policy at the present time, the notion that “localism is obsolete” is taken for granted by Democrats and Republicans alike. This stance developed over a 50-year period that saw notable expansions of the federal role through the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA), the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and its 1994 reauthorization. ESEA was initially driven by equity concerns but subsequently evolved to emphasize accountability. This crystallized in the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the most recent reauthorization of ESEA, which represents the single largest expansion of the federal government’s role in education in U.S. history. As political scientist Patrick McGuinn (2006) notes, “Though the funding and day-to-day administrative control of U.S. public schools remain decentralized the politics of education has been nationalized to a degree unprecedented in the country’s history, and the federal government’s influence over education has never been greater” (p. 1). Local control has been further diminished by the increased role of the states in interpreting and implementing NCLB, Race to the Top, and, now, Common Core Standards (CCSS). Though the role of states has been steadily increasing for other reasons, most notably as a result of funding equalization litigation, federal accountability policy is now a major cause of the states’ increased reach.

What does the diminution of local control of public education driven by changed views of the proper role and the acceptable reach of the federal government mean for our democracy? In this article, we distinguish between two dimensions of democracy that are at issue: democratic policymaking and democratic education. We argue that the effects of NCLB have been to frustrate our democracy—along both of these dimensions. We then offer several principled guidelines for fostering more democratically defensible policymaking processes and results. We frame our analysis in terms of the normative theory of democracy, now ascendant, that has roots in the works of John Dewey and currently goes by the name deliberative democracy.1



Deliberative democracy “refers to the idea that legitimate lawmaking issues from the public deliberation of citizens” (Bohman & Rehg, 1997, p. ix). An early comprehensive account of the deliberative model that remains in our view the strongest can be found in the works of philosopher John Dewey. In Dewey’s picture of democratic politics, citizens come together in public forums under conditions of equality to participate in deliberation to discern inclusive solutions to public problems (1927/1954). Dewey had confidence in citizen wisdom, or the common person’s capacity to contribute to processes that shape human institutions and community life (1929; 1938).

This belief has deep roots in the Western political and philosophical tradition, dating back at least to the “first democracy” of ancient Athens (Woodruff, 2005). Democratic theorists have developed strong epistemic and ethical arguments for citizen wisdom as the proper basis for legitimate and effective policymaking. Critics of democracy across the centuries, from Plato in the fourth B.C.E. to Guicciardini in the sixteenth to Walter Lipmann in the twentieth, rely upon the staple image of the people as a rabble, an irrational and unruly mob. The problem facing the constitutional republic, on this view, is the elite management of the masses through political and legal mechanisms. Such critics advocate entrusting disproportionate policymaking power to a subclass of citizens—technical experts, professional politicians, or perhaps business professionals—rather than grounding policy decisions in the considered judgment of all those who constitute the public. Deliberative theorists do recognize that the effective exercise of citizen wisdom depends on appropriate social conditions and institutional forms, and so recognize that participation can easily go wrong, and that it often does. They also acknowledge, however, that a more basic problem democratic constitutions must address is the tendency of economic and political elites to usurp and manipulate political processes to achieve their own ends, excluding less well-positioned citizens from policymaking (McCormick, 2011, pp. 14–16).

Creating the conditions for the effective exercise of citizen wisdom and guarding against the tyranny of elites are, in the view of deliberative theorists, complementary and mutually supportive democratic goals. Perhaps more than any other intellectual in the United States, Dewey fleshed out these ancient ideals within the context of a modern, pluralistic, industrial society. While he firmly maintained the ancient commitment to the collective wisdom of the citizenry as the basis for legitimate policy, Dewey also lauded the application of scientific modes of inquiry and intellectual expertise to problems of social and political life, and he saw social meliorist potential in technological and social scientific developments of his day—if put to truly democratic use (1927/1954; 1916/1966, pp. 329–330). On this point, he was critical of the practice of science in his own day:  “At present,” he wrote, “the application of physical science is . . . made in the interests of its consequences for a possessing and acquisitive class” (1927/1954, p. 174). Such science serves predetermined aims chosen by elites who seek to manage and sometimes manipulate the masses. The application of science in which it is converted to “knowledge in its honorable and emphatic sense,” by contrast, would be “absorbed and distributed” (p. 174), and the methods of scientific inquiry, as well as their results, must be widespread and take the problems experienced by ordinary people as their starting point. Indeed, the methods of inquiry and communication—and also, importantly, of education—become mechanisms enabling ordinary people to participate meaningfully in deliberation to make determinations concerning their common life. In Dewey’s vision, scientific and technical expertise thus becomes “the instrumentality of that common understanding and thorough communication which is the precondition of the existence of a genuine and effective public” (p. 174).

Through his work as an academic philosopher and a public intellectual Dewey gained many adherents to his faith in deliberative democratic ideals (West, 1989; Westbrook, 1991). His influence was particularly strong in the field of educational theory and had substantial impact on many areas of education policy and practice (Fallace, 2011). Yet Dewey’s conception of the democratic aims of education never fully prevailed, as evidenced in the writings of a collection of education theorists now known as the administrative progressives. The administrative progressives were technocrats who saw in the scientific method potential for social engineering and control by an (ideally) enlightened elite class of specialists and technicians (Tyack, 1974). The administrative progressives were not advocates of a participatory form of democracy; for them, democracy of the sort that Dewey advocated put too much faith in the people, who needed to be managed rather than involved in social planning. By mid-century, the space Dewey and his allies had carved out for the deliberative theory in American intellectual and political life diminished. Instead, elements of the administrative progressives managerial approach increasingly fused with an expansive confidence in the mechanisms of unfettered markets to achieve social efficiency and maximize desirable economic and political outcomes.


The persistent centrality of the term democracy in American cultural and political life often obscures the fact that it is a term whose meaning is deeply contested. Deliberative theories of the sort described above may be contrasted with aggregative or “vote-centric” theories (Chambers, 2003). Aggregative theories focus on different methods whereby citizen preferences are expressed, registered, and then used to inform or to dictate policy. By focusing on voting as the primary or even essential mode of democratic participation, aggregative theories allow but severely limit the role of citizens in government. To the extent that aggregative theories defer to citizen preferences expressed through voting, they embrace a form of majoritarianism that defines democracy in terms of a market metaphor. Citizens are pictured as consumers of political outcomes produced by elites. Democratic politics are defined as a mode of private interest-based exchange, the competition. Democratic politics are defined as the competition amongst candidate-representatives for the people’s vote (Gutmann & Thompson, 2004, p. 14). The competition between citizens to elect their preferred representatives (typically, if not exclusively, drawn from the members of a distinct social class of political and economic elites) is in turn a struggle between individuals and factions to advance their own private interests, rather than a collective pursuit of the public good (Bohman & Rehg, 1997, p. xi).

Aggregative theorists sometimes refer to their preferred methods of aggregation as serving “the public interest” or “the public good” (Gutmann & Thompson, 2004, pp. 14-16). The aggregation of individual preferences, however, does not amount to a common good acceptable to all (Feinberg, 2012). This is because any aggregation of preference is a different process than deliberation about the values that undergird and justify these preferences. It is in such deliberation that a shared preference becomes public. Yet in aggregative theories, the possibility of such an outcome is explicitly precluded by foundational assumptions drawn from so-called rational-choice theories of human behavior (Bohman & Rehg, 1997, pp. vii–viii). Originating in the field of economics and influential in across the social sciences (see Becker, 1976), rational-choice theories more or less follow from “the first principle . . . that every agent is actuated only by self-interest” (Edgeworth, 1881, p. 16). When it comes to questions of “shared interests” (Feinberg, 2012), rational-choice assumptions imply that, at most, individuals are able to recognize that the satisfaction of the private interests of others may entail private benefits for themselves. Such effects are sometimes referred to as “neighborhood benefits” (Friedman, 1955) due to the fact that one benefits from another’s activity indirectly, merely by being “in the neighborhood.”  While such phenomena do entail mutual benefit, they do not amount to a public interest—i.e., an interest that my neighbor and I hold in common in virtue of our involvement as citizens in a common political project (see Feinberg, 2012, pp. 10–13, for examples).

Aggregative theories conceive the preferences expressed through processes such as voting to be private not only in that they express the private interest but also in the sense that they are emotive, meaning that these do not require justifications that other citizens would find acceptable (Howe, 2003, pp. 52–53). The elitist view that discounts the value of citizen wisdom and the picture of politics based on a free market metaphor are both forms of emotive democracy.2 This is because they locate the formation of citizen preferences and interests outside the domain of democratic politics. Thus, as Howe (2003) writes, “democracy is characterized as a scramble on the part of various interests to get their way, employing whatever methods and strategies prove effective” (p. 131) that may go under the banner of fostering a “pluralism of values” (Shadish et al., 1995, p. 456). Because the political process is supposed to be neutral towards the diverse values held by citizens, emotive theories eschew public deliberation over the values that undergird citizen preferences altogether. In the absence of such deliberation, the politics of manipulation and competitive individualism are, at best, accepted as unfortunate necessities, and at worst, elevated to the level of democratic ideals.


After decades of aggregative theory hegemony in political science and philosophy, the 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence of deliberative theory (Deweyan and otherwise), to such an extent that it has been characterized as "pervasive" among democratic theorists (Dahlgren, 2009, p. 80). Contemporary deliberative theories explicitly reject both technocratic elitism and aggregative theories of democracy. Against technocratic elitism, deliberative democrats assert the primacy of citizen wisdom, and argue for meaningful inclusion and nonrepression of nondominant views and interests. Against aggregative democracy’s guiding metaphor of the market, they (re)substitute that of the public forum (Gutmann & Thompson, 2004). Against aggregative theory’s emotivism, deliberative theorists re-assert that the formation of citizen preferences and the discussion and judgment on questions of value are part and parcel of the political process, rather than outside it (Bohman, 1998). In what follows, we hope to demonstrate that deliberative theory holds unique promise for wedding practices of education and public policymaking, and for assessing the significance of both to the future of American democracy.

In her seminal book Democratic Education,3 Amy Gutmann (1999) begins from the premise that in the contemporary United States, educational theory must be embedded in a participatory political framework if it is to be meaningfully construed as democratic. The core requirement of deliberative democracy, as Gutmann puts it, is that citizens should not be relegated to the role of passive bystanders in “social reproduction” but should be capable of actively engaging in the kind of “conscious social reproduction” associated with democratic deliberation. The theoretical justification for public education is thus to prepare future citizens for this participatory role. The actual practice of democratic education may include forms of public deliberation, in which students actively participate in forms of conscious social reproduction within the classroom or the school. Even when it does not, however, as in instances in which direct instruction in specific skills or knowledge requires a less participatory pedagogical mode, it is nonetheless the enabling of such participation in the wider society that is the normative sine qua non of democratic educational practice.  

Gutmann adds to the foundational ideal of participatory democratic citizenship the premise that democratic participation may only be legitimately constrained in its own name. That is, any constraints placed on democratic deliberation must be justified on the grounds that they are needed to protect democracy’s continued existence and development. With this basic normative framework as her point of departure, Gutmann then formulates three specific principles that provide the necessary background conditions for the practice of deliberative democratic politics.

The first of Gutmann’s principles is nonrepression, which stipulates that citizens may not be excluded from deliberation on matters of public concern. The principle of nonrepression “prevents the state and any group within it from using education to restrict rational deliberation of competing conceptions of the good life and the good society” (p. 44). Certain forms of religious or political education, are, on Gutmann’s view, properly restricted or even prohibited for the sake of democracy. Some groups actively seek to insulate themselves and especially their children from the give and take of rational deliberation over plural conceptions of the good life. She offers, for example, the Old Order Amish as one group whose “ways of life” are at odds with the achievement of the democratic threshold. “Rational deliberation makes [such] ways of life difficult to pursue insofar as dedication to such lives depends upon resistance to rational deliberation” (pp. 44–45; emphasis added). In Gutmann’s framework, education that reduces the opportunities and, ultimately, the abilities of the young to rationally deliberate with fellow citizens amounts to repression. At this point it must be made clear that this is not because rational deliberation is associated with a form of life that stands apart as particularly valuable in some metaphysical or moral sense. Rather, it is because participation in rational deliberation is a pragmatic condition of possibility for sustaining and promoting democracy. Gutmann puts the point concisely: “Rational deliberation remains the form of freedom most suitable to a democratic society in which adults must be free to deliberate and disagree but constrained to secure the intellectual grounds for deliberation and disagreement among children” (p. 45).

Importantly, nonrepression is not only relevant to cases of provincial, group-specific practices of communities like the Old Order Amish example offered by Gutmann. The unequal provision of educational resources and forms of instruction that favor some students at the expense of others likewise violate the principle of nonrepression. The principle of nonrepression is expansive, in that it ensures not just freedom from interference, but also the positive support of the freedom to engage in deliberations associated with conscious social reproduction. Differences among citizens mean that what counts as repression will vary across contexts, depending upon the needs of specific groups or segments of the population.

Gutmann’s second principle of nondiscrimination follows from and complements the principle of nonrepression, stipulating that citizens may not be excluded from deliberation on the basis of group differences. Nondiscrimination prohibits the “selective repression” associated with “excluding entire groups of children from schooling or by denying them an education conducive to deliberation among competing conceptions of the good life and the good society” (p. 45). Discrimination is a more general and typically less overt, “passive” form of repression. It is the form that has been most prominent in schools with respect to girls and children of color. The passive form is distinct from overt discrimination. It is often subtle, the result of attitudes and beliefs that remain hidden within institutional contexts (Anderson, 2010). Such discrimination based on the subtle effects of racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, etc., leads to the exclusion of “educable children” from “an education adequate to participating in the political processes that structure choice among good lives” (Gutmann, 1999, p. 45), and so amounts to a form of group-specific repression.

Third and finally, the principle of the democratic threshold stipulates that all citizens must be enabled, through education and perhaps other means, to attain the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for effective participatory citizenship. The democratic threshold is an educational equality standard:4 It is “democratic” because it is defined in terms of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions people need to participate effectively in a deliberative context created and protected by nonrepression and nondiscrimination; it is a “threshold” because it is a standard of equality below which no child should fall but that, once reached, does not require further equalization efforts.5

For example, the current adult citizenry is not permitted to deny future generations an education that would instill in them the capacities associated with the democratic threshold, even if it did so within the bounds of the principles of nonrepression and nondiscrimination as applied to their own participation. Suppose that members of a school board, legislature, or voting public (e.g., through referendum) might choose to promote or prohibit the teaching of “creation science” or, conversely, of evolution. What is at stake here, as concerns the democratic threshold, is not strictly whether all citizens were allowed at the table, so to speak—the adult citizenry could be in substantial agreement regarding one policy or the other. The issue, rather, is what consequences such policies will likely be for ability of future citizens to engage in such deliberations themselves.  

The democratic threshold has implications for both the content and context of schooling in a democracy, although these implications will vary greatly depending upon factors such as the present state of information and communication technology, prevailing economic arrangements, and so on. The types of knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for participation in conscious social reproduction is ever changing, and are themselves a vital topic for public deliberation. Thus, the requirements of the democratic threshold highlight the tight link between public policymaking and democratic education: Determination of what, under present conditions, effective democratic participation requires (technical skills related to employment options, critical thinking skills, empathic imagination, a sense of civic responsibility, etc.) is perhaps the most critical political issue facing the existing public, precisely because this bears directly upon the democratic possibilities of future publics to come.     


Local control refers generally to the power of human communities—groupings of individuals bound together by factors such as a shared history, geography, or culture, or by common resources, interests, or problems—to collectively determine the policies that govern their lives. In the realm of schooling, local control typically refers to control by elected school boards and their constituents, at the district or municipal level. Since they have to do with the exercise of power, the meanings of the local and of community are deeply political and, like that of democracy, contested. At a theoretical level, democracy by its nature seems to presume the value of local control. Democracy trusts in the people to rule themselves, based on their collective judgment, freed from externally imposed dictates. Since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks, democratic practice has relied upon notions of “the Public” or “the People” as more than mere abstractions or theoretical inventions; the democratic community has been conceived primarily as an actual collective bound together by concrete, personal relations and interactions. Since deliberative engagement requires at least some form of proximity and relationship of identification, local control and robustly democratic procedures have been closely associated. Gutmann’s view is no exception on this point. Indeed, like all deliberative democratic theorists, she attributes greater value to local control than do aggregative views that place little emphasis on dialogical political participation (Chambers, 2003).

Nevertheless, while there is a presumption in favor of local control it must sometimes be overridden in democracy’s own name. This is a premise of constitutional democracies like our own and it is the justification for the kinds of principled constraints with which Gutmann limits democratic discretion. Use of local control to justify and perpetuate racial segregation, for instance, violates the principles of nondiscrimination and the democratic threshold, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, and thus cannot be defended on democratic grounds. The same reasoning can be extended to the spectrum of educational law and policy that followed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision regarding income, disability, gender, and language. It follows that the diminution of local control in education policymaking in the wake of NCLB is not undemocratic per se—whether it is depends on its rationale and results vis a vis the normative requirements of democratic education. In what follows, we highlight the rationale and results of NCLB relevant to American democracy in general and democratic education in particular by examining the law and its effects in historical context.



In order to understand how federal education policy has come to be, in important respects, anti-democratic, it is important to understand the history and nature of the accountability regime (McGuinn, 2006) embodied in NCLB. With states acting to implement NCLB, schools and relatively localized school systems have become the loci of accountability for educational performance. This focus on accountability has occurred to the near exclusion of attention to social, cultural, and economic conditions influencing students’ academic performance. While local school systems are held accountable for student performance, however, performance itself is measured almost exclusively in terms of scores on standards-based tests that are both mandated and developed from afar (Baker, Hannaway, & Shepard, 2009). This development is probably no accident; for, as we discuss in greater detail below, the accountability regime has arisen in part as a result of the belief amongst technocratic, antidemocratic reformers that local control of schools is in principle a problem to be overcome.

Throughout the nineteenth century, local community control was not so much an organizational preference or political stand as it was a material necessity and unquestioned matter of fact. Alexis de Tocqueville (1835/1990) remarked in Democracy in America that one of the most frequent topics of local discussion and deliberation that he observed throughout his travels involved education (pp. 404–405; 314–318). Decisions concerning schooling were distinctive, in Tocqueville’s view, in that they brought together the community as a community for the purposes of deliberation over what was understood to be both a public and a private good—the education of all the community’s children. Thus, Tocqueville (1835/1990) suggested that local town or school board meetings concerning education were (along with jury service) “democracy’s schoolhouse,” where the adult citizenry learned and indeed, created the meaning of democratic citizenship (pp. 280–287; 317–318).   

Vital as local control of schools seems to have been for the democratic development of American culture and politics, critics of schooling never had to look far to find much that was lacking, from pedagogical and organizational perspectives. Historian of education David Tyack (1974) writes that, in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, “Teachers knew to whom they were accountable: the school trustees who hired them, the parents and other taxpayers, the children whose respect—and perhaps affection—they needed to win” (p. 18). Such high levels of citizen participation contributed to the diversity of schooling in America, as local idiosyncrasies and perceived needs dictated choices about curriculum and staffing. Tyack states that, “The ‘curriculum’ of the rural school was often whatever textbooks lay at hand,” and so “schooling” could mean fairly different things in different places (1974, p. 19). In the late nineteenth century, for a variety of reasons—accommodating the large influx of immigrants foremost among them—this diversity came to be seen as a problem to be solved, and a number of reformers who became known as the “administrative progressives” worked to standardize, professionalize, and centralize schooling in the United States, to transform it into what Tyack (1974) later christened “the one best system.”

While they met with a good deal of resistance from teachers, administrators, and communities at the local level, the decades-long efforts of reformers did change the face of public education in the United States to a remarkable extent. Then, as now, many viewed standardization as a necessary means to achieve the equalization of opportunity. The idea that creating equality of educational opportunity (or, at a minimum, creating the perception of such equality) is essential to the functioning of democracy was popularized by Horace Mann and other proponents of common schools. But the leading reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the mold of Ellwood Cubberley, Lewis Terman, and Edward Thorndike, were not committed to furthering educational equality as the foundation for democracy. Rather, they were technocrats who sought to apply science to public education, the goal of which they considered to be the preparation of students to fit into their predetermined social and vocational niches. As Cubberley, inaugural dean of the Stanford School of Education, remarked,

We should give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal and that our society is devoid of classes. The employee tends to remain an employee; the wage earner tends to remain a wage earner . . . One bright child may easily be worth more to the National Life than thousands of those of low mentality. (Mondale & Patton, 2001)

The goals of social efficiency and of more “rational” social policy, here pictured as at odds with democratic values, were to be achieved through an increasing centralization of decision-making power of technocratic elites. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the role of centralized authority had changed. It was now equity-minded reformers who adopted it as a tool of education reform, shifting the focus from curriculum and the adequacy of management in schools to the elimination of unequal access and resources in order to foster the conditions of a more democratic society. The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision was the watershed, inaugurating what McGuinn (2006) refers to as the equity regime. The new focus was particularly embodied in 1965’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), most recently reauthorized as NCLB.

Alongside the increased intervention of the federal government in education in the decades following the Brown decision, new advocacy for local community control emerged from two very different types of constituencies. Conservatives (including traditionalists, religious conservatives, and Right Libertarians) invoked local community control as they resisted racial desegregation in public schools, initially in the South and later in the North as well. School choice emerged at this time as a policy instrument that legitimated continuing segregation in the name of prima facie democratic principles of freedom of association and local community control. Thus, education scholar Diane Ravitch (2010) writes that, “During the 1950s and 1960s, the term ‘school choice’ was stigmatized as a dodge invented to permit white students to escape to all-white public schools or to [private] all-white segregation academies” (p. 114). For equity-minded reformers, school choice became associated with local obstructionism and racism.

Another source of support for local community control, by contrast, was explicitly equity-minded and at odds with the conservatives. This emerged in many predominantly Black and Latino/a communities, throughout California, the Southwest, and especially in the urban centers of the North. The civil rights movement had mobilized minority groups to resist inequity and injustice in American institutions. From the mid-1960s, the growing militancy of ethnic solidarity movements—captured for many in phrases such as “Black Power,” “Red Power,” and “Chicano Power”—advocated communal autonomy and self-sufficiency as paths to empowerment and equity for the historically marginalized and disadvantaged. Control of education and schooling were seen as key fronts in a struggle for both civil and human rights. The Black Panther Party (BPP), for example, established breakfast programs and developed new Afro-centric curricula. In the early 1970s, American Indian Movement (AIM) organizers and various Native American communities established “survival schools” (borrowing this terminology from the BPP) on and off reservations that sought to address longstanding iniquities in education, child welfare, and juvenile justice (Davis, 2013). Such community-based solidarity efforts in some cases reshaped official education policy, especially related to school governance. In cities like New York and Chicago, grassroots movements advocating local community control led to increased decentralization of school governance that, at least in some cases, supported increased public participation in determining and implementing education policy (Ravitch, 1974).

As the above discussion makes clear, local control has been mobilized by different actors and groups in order to further disparate, sometimes contradictory political aims. In the early 1980s, however, as the decades-long battles over desegregation and school choice continued, and as various minority constituencies experimented with developing local community control as an equity-oriented reform in its own right (Lipman, 2004), a decisive new trend emerged in national politics that would prove extremely important in undercutting local control across the board. Namely, the equity regime that had dominated federal policy, justifying instruments such as desegregation busing and affirmative action, began to be eclipsed. In May 1983 the U.S. Department of Education released A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). This report, which was followed by several more with similar messages, portrayed public education in the United States as contributing to “a rising tide of mediocrity” that threatened the country’s economic competitiveness. The report held that while education had long been considered primarily an issue to be addressed at the state and local levels, the crisis in education now made it an issue of national significance (McGuinn, 2006, p. 43). If this crisis was not addressed, the report warned, the U.S. role as a global economic and political superpower was in jeopardy.

During the Reagan years and beyond, rhetoric concerning the perceived crisis of achievement came to dominate discussions of education policy. By the mid-1990s a much-increased emphasis on holding local districts accountable to state and federal authorities provided the context in which Democrats and Republicans alike discussed education policy issues. This culminated in NCLB, which completed the shift from the equity regime to a new accountability regime. Equity was not eliminated as a concern in education policy—for example, attention would continue to be focused on the “achievement gap.” But the goal of educational equity was diminished in overall importance and subsumed under the principle of raising the performance of all students, rather than focusing special attention on those most marginalized and in need (McGuinn, 2006).

As indicated before, much more emphasis was placed on the accountability of local schools for educational performance, independent of the social, cultural, and economic conditions in which they operate. The role of the federal government in education became one of ensuring that schools were held accountable for teaching all students basic skills, especially those thought to enable them to participate productively in the workforce and keep the U.S. economy competitive in the global marketplace. Simultaneously, a growing faith in unfettered private markets as the solution to inefficiency and poor performance—the “free market fundamentalism” (West, 2004) central to emerging neoliberal ideology—positioned formal democratic accountability (now synonymous with “bureaucratic control”) as a primary obstacle to be overcome through reform, and gave new life to school choice and privatization initiatives. Thus, in the advent of the accountability regime we detect echoes of administrative progressivism, minus that earlier movement’s overt racism, in combination with an aggregative conception of democratic politics and schooling as the pursuit of private interests, best achieved through private markets.


Although NCLB has come to be viewed by many as a victory for a number of longstanding conservative agendas, the fact remains that the rise of the accountability regime occurred in the face of conservatives’ historical resistance to encroachments by the federal government on local control of education. This resistance took two general forms, which in turn produced two ways of accommodating a federal role.

The first form was advanced by conservative critics of federal welfare programs in the 1980s, who held the view that social problems arose not from a history of unequal economic and social opportunity structures, as equity-minded reformers claimed (Wilson, 1987), but from flaws in the character or culture of the communities and individuals that make up the American “underclass.” Influential voices claimed that, ironically, such flaws were exacerbated by the very social programs designed to benefit those in need (Murray, 1984). Applied to education, this perspective depicts the failure of schools to improve student achievement as a failure of effort or will on the part of individual students and, especially, their families and communities. Schools, in this view, cannot help children overcome the “culture of poverty” (Harrington, 1962; Moynihan, 1969; Murray, 1984) within a system led by bureaucratic school administrators with a vested interest in preserving the status quo and characterized by a corps of teachers shielded by union-protected privileges (Chubb & Moe, 1990). Accordingly, such critics believe that federal intervention in education can only do good if it addresses the cultural/moral problems that are responsible for poor school performance. They assert that what is needed is the enforcement of standards and sanctions to force students and education professionals (teachers and administrators) alike to do what they ought to do, and to hold them responsible for failure.

As Oakes, Rogers, and Lipton (2006) explain, “No Child Left Behind seeks to increase adult expectations, motivation, and effort—it assumes that inequality is the result of a lack of commitment by the people who live or work in low-income communities of color” (p. 160). This presumption that the cause of disparate achievement lies in deficiencies of individual and community motivation and commitment directly informs the policy interventions preferred in the accountability regime. Thus, “the key policy lever to promote educational equity is not better resources more fairly distributed, but rather behavioral prompts in the form of public exposure followed by incentives or (more likely) punishments” (Oakes, Rogers, & Lipton, 2006), mechanisms which we discuss in greater detail in the next section.  

The second form of conservative resistance to and eventual accommodation of federal intervention, neoliberalism, is of more recent vintage, dating from the 1990s. The influential thesis advanced by Chubb and Moe (1990) on school choice in their book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools is quite hostile to government intervention, including standards-based testing and accountability. Despite Chubb and Moe’s use of the concept of “scholarships” to characterize their plan, it is a voucher plan, and such plans have so far not been a serious policy option.6 Charter schools have become far and away the most prominent form of school choice in the U.S., with significant support from the federal government, including substantial financial allocations (Kober & Usher, 2012, pp. 12–14).

Though opposed to governmental intervention, Chubb and Moe (1990) are not advocates of local control, at least not democratic local control. Indeed, they are openly dismissive of it. Instead of democratic local control, they wish to see educational policy guided by market mechanisms, minimally overseen by government. Chubb and Moe’s fundamental principle is not give-and-take deliberation, but consumers voting with their feet. Insofar as charter schools deploy the same basic market rationale (Howe, 2008), they too are dismissive of local democratic control (if only implicitly). Though Chubb and Moe do not endorse government-sanctioned standards and testing, other supporters of market mechanisms in education assert that the information derived from testing is very useful to parents in the process of choosing schools.

Despite seemingly contradictory elements, the two different conservative accommodations of the growing federal intervention in education policy eventually became cornerstones of the new accountability regime, embraced by both major parties. It should be clear this mix of ideas that undergird the accountability regime shares a great deal with the assumptions of aggregative theories of democracy: questions of value and of the defensibility of citizen preferences are relegated outside the domain of political deliberation, and the political sphere, like the economic, is increasingly pictured in terms of the free market.

In the next section, we consider how the implementation of the accountability regime in the form of NCLB violates the requirements of deliberative theory by marginalizing members of the political community most affected by decisions under the banner of accountability. We also argue that the greater power and voice that these same citizens are said by proponents to gain under NCLB do not amount to the kind of power and voice required by a deliberative theory of democratic policymaking and education.


The NCLB accountability regime incorporates two preeminent policy instruments: standards-based testing and public school choice. Diane Ravitch (2010), an early and influential supporter of testing and choice policies, eventually came to see NCLB as “a measurement strategy that has no underlying educational vision at all” (p. 16). While Ravitch’s claim here is overstated, it does help to dramatize the extent to which measurement is the driving mechanism in NCLB. Testing is mandated for all schools in districts receiving Title I funds and functions as the basis for sanctions and rewards. For each year that a school or district fails to “make” the mandated improvement on testing measures (Annual Yearly Progress or AYP), NCLB specifies increasingly drastic sanctions. Supplemental Education Services, parental school choice, firing of teachers and administrators, and eventually school “reconstitutions” and even closures.

Testing measures have become almost uniformly unpopular with teachers, students, and parents. A 2008 poll by Education Next found that 69% of those polled wanted the testing provisions of NCLB substantially altered, and teachers were far more likely to disapprove of NCLB than the general public (Howell, West, & Peterson, 2008). The most recent attempt to establish a national set of education standards, the Common Core State Standards endorsed by the National Governor’s Association in 2009, has led to a backlash unlike that seen in the implementation of NCLB, galvanizing community-level resistance to testing and, to an extent, to standardization itself. Organized movements have captured headlines by encouraging parents to have their children “opt-out” of state standardized tests (Chen, 2014). Commitment to the Common Core has become a key election issue cutting across the two major parties, but posing a political dilemma for Republican governors in particular (Barrow, 2014). Advocacy groups associated with the Tea Party movement exploit the Common Core standards as an opportunity to focus their more general attack on federal government interventions, and “establishment” Republicans who staunchly continue to support the accountability regime at both the federal and state levels. Association with Common Core has been used to explain losses of Republican incumbents in recent primary elections in Indiana—this despite substantial financial backing of the incumbents from the Common Core-promoting U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and endorsements from the state’s Republican Governor Mike Pence (Malkin, 2014).

While it may seem obvious to many activists and observers that NCLB’s provisions (or the Common Core Standards) violate the democratic principle of nonrepression, within the framework of deliberative theory this conclusion cannot follow from the mere fact of their unpopularity. Backlash against the implementation of Common Core, occurring as it is in the context of a growing xenophobic and racist grassroots conservative movements, seems reminiscent of conservative resistance to desegregation and other civil rights legislation. Court ordered desegregation was explicitly justified in terms of promoting principles of nonrepression, nondiscrimination, and the democratic threshold; local resistance in this case was more a threat to democracy at the local level than its enactment. As we will demonstrate in the next section, the demonstrable impact of NCLB on the content and context of schooling suggest that federal initiatives, in this case, violate the principle of the democratic threshold for all students, even as they disproportionately impact students and communities that are historically disadvantaged.

That being said, there is evidence that NCLB’s design and implementation has violated the principles of nonrepression and nondiscrimination. Recall that nonrepression requires that those who are affected by a particular issue of public concern may not be prevented from participating meaningfully in deliberations that generate policy and guide its implementation and evaluation—barriers to participation may not be constructed. The principle also entails a more positive requirement that participation be fostered—this means that appropriate supports must be provided in some cases to make the opportunity to participate more than the mere absence of formal barriers (Howe, 1997). This requirement has important practical as well as moral limits, and the larger the scale of the democratic processes in question, the more challenging it becomes to meet this requirement. Indeed, this is one reason that local control has historically been so vital in determining education policy. High stakes testing is mandated for all locales under NCLB, with the content of tests is determined at the state level (Common Core attempts to substantially nationalize one overarching set of standards). As a matter of both design and implementation, the local deliberation that makes the meaningful and positive participation of those affected possible has been absent from the process.

The observations above could be repeated concerning a number of national policies. Improving the conditions for meaningful participation in deliberation within this system is itself a major front in democratic institutional reform. The principle of nondiscrimination prohibits “selective repression” on the basis of group differences (Gutmann, 1999, p. 45). NCLB does, to some extent, take decision-making concerning curriculum standards and school policies out of the hands of every local community. That is, after all, built into standardization by its very nature. However, not all communities and school districts have been affected in the same ways or to the same extent. From relatively early on in its implementation, researchers have found that urban districts were identified disproportionately as “in need of improvement” (Center on Education Policy, 2006). As a result, although only 27% of schools receiving federal funds through Title I were located in urban districts, urban schools constituted about 90% of those facing NCLB sanctions. One reason cited by researchers for this disproportionate focus on urban schools was the higher percentage of students of nondominant groups associated with their “race/ethnicity, income, language background, or disability status.” In her focused study of four schools in the Chicago area, Pauline Lipman (2004) observes that, “patterns of racial subjugation are clear” when one considers “the demographics of schools on probation” (p. 177).

The discrepancy Lipman documents can also be observed through inter-state comparisons. Nichols, Glass, and Berliner (2006) conducted an analysis of accountability in 25 large U.S. states. They found a statistically significant correlation between increased accountability demands and the growth of minority populations in individual states during the period of 1980 to 2000. The authors postulate that accountability systems are adopted in response to growing ethnic minority populations. States with growing minority populations adopt more intense and punitive accountability systems, and the schools and districts in those states where such students are concentrated are more likely to have experienced NCLB sanctions than are districts made up of students belonging to the majority population. Glass (2008) puts the point bluntly: “There appears to be a link between accountability and ethnicity. Where highly punitive education accountability systems are installed, there one finds the politically weak and vulnerable members of society” (p. 225).

It is not surprising that students in traditionally underserved districts and schools perform more poorly on standardized tests than their more advantaged majority-group peers. The relatively heavy burden of punitive interventions borne by disadvantaged students was predictable and has had consequences for them that are educationally far reaching. A consortium of six policy agencies found that increased accountability has contributed to an increase in dropouts, suspensions and expulsions nationwide, which feeds the phenomenon known as the “School-to-Prison-Pipeline” (Advancement Project, 2011; LaFree & Arum, 2006). Test-based accountability creates a perverse incentive for schools to allow or even encourage low-performing students to leave. Combined with “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, “effects have been particularly severe for students of color and students with disabilities” (Advancement Project, 2011).

Lipman (2004) draws a clear link between NCLB’s rationale and its selective and disproportionate effects. In pointed language, she characterizes the accountability regime as a “highly racialized discourse of deficits” (p. 178). Its top-down imposition of standards and sanctions “is a form of colonial education governed by powerful (primarily white) outsiders. It signals that communities affected have neither the knowledge nor the right to debate and act together with educators to improve their child’s education” (p. 178). Thus, Lipman finds that one of the most significant results of NCLB is that “Schools in low-income neighborhoods of color are the least in charge of their own destiny” (p. 177). This is the case because NCLB sanctions predictably target and then undermine the democratic participation of already disadvantaged communities. This targeted repression is further dramatized in the many prominent examples of school reconstitution have met with local opposition and, in some cases, community organizing and active resistance (Buffenbarger, 2012; Lipman, 2004, p. 58; Oakes, Rogers, & Lipton, 2006; Priority Schools Campaign, 2011). Such efforts have been, by and large, stymied.

This flies in the face of NCLB supporters’ claim that the law serves to empower parents and communities, through sanctions thought to foster alternatives and choice. Among these sanctions is the requirement of schools to provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES), which is a precursor to the requirement to provide a choice of alternative schools. In particular, after two consecutive years of failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress, schools must use a portion of their Title I funds to allow students’ parents to purchase tutoring or other supplemental services from private providers (e.g., Sylvan Learning Center, Education Online, etc.). If a school fails to improve for a third consecutive year, the school must offer a choice of alternative schools. Paul Manna (2007) explains the logic undergirding choice and SES provisions in NCLB:

In theory, NCLB school choice and supplemental education services can empower parents and students, providing students who are attending struggling schools with opportunities to improve their academic fortunes. Simultaneously, both mechanisms offer a form of “exit,” through which parents’ choices can put pressure on struggling schools to change. Thus, these two remedies can serve not only the individual students who use them, but also those who remain in schools that respond to parents’ signals. (p. 21)

As discussed above, school choice and the introduction of private educational entrepreneurship are viewed by many as a way to improve schools by making them subject to market competition, and this view has increasingly won adherents amongst both Democrats and Republicans (Henig, 2007).

While NCLB’s combination of public school choice and SES does allow for a form of accountability from below and thus a form of local control, it is not a particularly democratic form of control. School choice has the potential to foster democracy by helping to ensure that disempowered communities have a real voice in policy deliberations concerning their schools, and no doubt some choice schools foster democracy in this way. However, school choice most often does nothing to foster democracy and sometimes frustrates it. First, it does not advance democracy in those cases in which the opportunity for parents to “exit” cannot be exercised because no better schools are available (Hess & Finn, 2007). Second, school choice frustrates democracy when it fails to ensure that groups that have historically been subjected to discrimination are protected from it and permits the potential of school choice to foster democracy to be “hijacked” (Witte, 2000)7 by parents with power who seek to further advantage their children (Chute, 2012; Glass, 2008, pp. 148–202). This further empowerment of the already advantaged at the expense of those worse off does not amount to an increase in democratic power and voice, understood in terms of the ability and means to participate on equal terms with fellow citizens in the activity of conscious social reproduction.

The accumulated evidence on school choice, with charter schools being the most heavily represented, indicates that school choice does little if anything to boost achievement overall and may actually increase the achievement gap. It also exacerbates the segregation of African American and Latino/a children, as well as children with disabilities (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2011; Lee & Lubienski, 2011; Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010), a result that we consider in greater detail in the discussion of democratic education below.

While decision-making power concerning policy is taken out of the hands of local communities and schools, NCLB helps to increase the power of other actors and organizations. If, in the years following the implementation of school choice and SES, schools fail to attain preset levels of mean test scores, NCLB mandates that they take “corrective action”: firing staff and administrators, adopting a new curriculum, even reconstituting schools as state or district charters, or placing them under private management. As the severity of sanctions escalates, decision-making power is taken out of the hands of the communities most affected and is increasingly concentrated in the hands of business interests (SES providers and Education Management Organizations [EMOs]) and wealthy philanthropic organizations (the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation, to name three of the most important players), despite their mixed track record of improving achievement (Miron, Urschel, Yat Aguilar, & Dailey, 2012; Ravitch, 2010; 2013).

Public school choice and SES sanctions thus provide a door through which private business interests and philanthropists enter public education reform. As in parallel transformations in other sectors, this “disaster capitalism” (Klein, 2007) uses the declaration of schools as “failing” and of the public education system as “broken” as the pretext for deregulated privatization (Saltman, 2007). As a consequence, NCLB has fostered the “deregulation and commodification of public schooling” and has served to “undermine democratic governance over this crucial public sphere” (Saltman, 2007, p. 10). As the dust settled and assessment measures and research studies revealed little or no advantage in terms of student achievement as a result of changes such as the proliferation of charter schools and other school choice policies, these reforms had become widespread and entrenched (for the case of charters, see Henig, 2008).

NCLB violates the principles of nonrepression and nondiscrimination because those citizens who have a profound stake in policy decisions are marginalized from processes of policy design, implementation, and evaluation, and because the communities most subject to NCLB sanctions are disproportionately low-income communities of color. By taking decision-making power away from members of the local community and, in many cases, vesting power instead in private corporations and philanthropic foundations, NCLB thereby diminishes the opportunities available to members of certain communities to participate in decision-making about education policy making. It does this in ways consistently associated with groups that are disadvantages in terms of income and race. In sum, NCLB exemplifies an undemocratic type of policymaking, and its impact vis a vis ongoing policymaking processes is demonstrably negative.

In the next section, we examine NCLB qua accountability regime in terms of its implications for democratic education. We focus in particular upon the requirements of the third principle of a democratic theory of education, the democratic threshold.


It has been a commonplace since the ancient Greeks that citizens are not born, but must be made. And while not everything that counts as citizenship education occurs in schools, surely schools have, or should have, a significant role to play. What sort of schooling, then, is required to develop democratic character?

The answer is provided in part by a determination of necessary curricular content. John Dewey (1938), the foremost champion of democratic education, observed, “(T)he field of experience is very wide and it varies in its contents from place to place and from time to time. A single course of study for all progressive schools is out of the question” (p. 78). Dewey’s observation is quite germane to our increased contemporary recognition of the multicultural, multiracial nature of our society. And it is a central in work such as the Save Our Schools initiative, which argues against the kind of standardization promoted by NCLB and explicitly calls for more local control of curriculum decisions:

Today’s curriculum, which is the result of the unintended consequences of NCLB, has diverted America’s schools from their mission of providing children with a good and meaningful education. In a country as diverse as our fifty states are it stands to reason that local communities can best decide the curriculum that their own students need. (Save Our Schools, 2012)

The claim that “local communities can best decide” is consonant with the argument above that decision-making concerning education policy is itself a vital site of democratic participation, and that the failure to include relevant stake-holders amounts to a violation of the complimentary principles of nonrepression and nondiscrimination. Yet as we have signaled throughout, within a robust deliberative democratic theory such a valorization of local control also presupposes important limiting constraints. Some standardization is appropriate, if grounded in the necessary conditions that make democratic life possible in the first place.

Curriculum expresses basic value commitments of the society as it reproduces itself, and so might be viewed in a sense as a litmus test for the public and elite’s commitment to democratic ideals. Researchers continue to document the myriad ways in which curriculum serves as a key cite of struggle over our cultural politics, and critical scholars point to sometimes subtle but nevertheless powerful ways that groups are systematically advantaged or disadvantaged. The content of curriculum, official as well as the “hidden,” is therefore a proper and, indeed, pressing topic for democratic deliberation within the domain of education policymaking. To be sure, literacy and numeracy are crucially important, as are many other parts of the standard official curriculum, including science and math beyond numeracy. But these aspects of the curriculum are not sufficient. The sine qua non of democratic character is skill in defining and jointly deliberating about the public’s common problems. Unlike an aristocracy governed by a properly educated ruling elite, such as that described in Plato’s Republic, democracy requires that all citizens be educated to participate in what Benjamin Barber (1994) describes as an “aristocracy of everyone” (in this vein see also Feinberg, 2012; Woodruff, 2005). Although NCLB does not explicitly rule out attention to the development of skill in democratic deliberation, it hardly encourages it.

Recall that the democratic threshold sets an educational equality standard that is defined in terms of “democratic character”: the skills, knowledge, and dispositions required for effective political participation (Gutmann, 1999). This requirement that students master the elements of democratic character, at least up to the democratic threshold, sets limits on what education policies may be adopted. The significance of NCLB for democratic education depends ultimately upon whether it increases or decreases the likelihood of all children in attaining the democratic threshold. This depends upon the policy’s impact on two distinct dimensions of schooling: first, the content of curriculum and second, the context in which instruction occurs. Both of these dimensions, we argue below, are essential to consider if we hope to understand the true impact of NCLB vis a vis democratic education.

It is difficult to find evidence that speaks directly to the question of the NCLB’s effects on democratic education, but there are a number of findings and arguments that are germane. Some of these effects may be, depending on one’s perspective, quite positive: a recent study found that NCLB led to an increase, on average, in per pupil spending of $600, as did teacher compensation and the share of teachers with advanced degrees (Dee, Jacob, & Schwartz, 2013). More significant for the question of democratic education, however, the study confirmed that NCLB spurred a reallocation of time from science and social studies instruction to the tested subject of reading. NCLB testing requirements exert pressure on educators to focus instruction on content that appears on the tests and on test-taking skills, excluding much of the content essential to democratic character. And indeed, the effects of curriculum standards and standardized testing mandated by NCLB have damaged the equal opportunity of students to learn (Tienken & Zhao, 2013).

There is also substantial evidence supporting the conclusion that school choice has increased segregation among schools (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2011; Lee & Lubienski, 2011; Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010) and this reduces opportunities for students to develop democratic character because of the deleterious effects on the context of education (Auge & Simpson, 2012).8 Segregation is both a cause and an effect of discrimination (Anderson, 2010; Satz, 2007), and it significantly compromises the ability of public schools to instill democratic character as called for by the democratic threshold.


Since NCLB took effect in 2002, a majority of districts have significantly increased the time spent on math and English instruction in both elementary and middle schools, at the expense of other subjects and activities (FairTest, 2012). In middle schools, the Center for Education Policy found an average increase in time spent on math and English of 42%. This increased focus on “the basics” means that other subjects have had to give. At the elementary level, 44% of districts reduced time in one or more subjects or activities including, most significantly for our purposes, social studies.  

Under NCLB, “The goal of testing [is] higher scores, without regard to whether students [acquire] any knowledge of history, science, literature, geography, the arts, or other subjects that [are] not important for accountability purposes” (Ravitch, 2010, p. 20). A meta-analysis of studies on the impact of high-stakes testing on curriculum not only found narrowing of the curriculum to the tested subjects but also a shift in pedagogical approach, “compelling teachers to use more lecture-based, teacher-centered pedagogies” (Au, 2007, p. 264). This contributes to the fragmentation of students’ knowledge by reducing content to bits of information learned for the sake of doing well on tests. In this environment, teachers also respond to high-stakes testing by avoiding more controversial subjects and issues that are the stuff of democratic deliberation amongst equal citizens (Journell, 2010). Regarding history, in particular, Ravitch remarks that a critical education in history is required to foster the skills of deliberation needed for political participation. Similarly, Richard Neumann (2008) counsels that, “Effective citizenship requires critical habits of mind and the ability and inclination to deliberate and debate conscientiously on matters of social importance” (p. 332).

Such habits and inclinations ought to be part-and-parcel of civics education, which is usually situated today within the broader field of social studies (Hanson & Howe, 2011). The narrowing effects of NCLB on social studies have been marked. Currently, only nine states require a civics test for graduation, and since 2001 the number of states in which social studies subjects are regularly assessed has declined from 39 to 21 (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2012). The content of civics and social studies assessments has also shifted during this period from a mix of essay and short answer responses and multiple-choice questions to an almost exclusive use of the latter. While certainly important in their own right, disputes over the appropriate content of social studies—for example whether it ought to involve a traditional discipline-focused approach or a more problem-centered, activist progressive approach—need not be resolved in order for us to see that NCLB diminishes the place of civics education in any curriculum.

Predictably, this impact on curriculum and pedagogy has been greatest on districts and schools identified as requiring improvement under NCLB (Center on Education Policy, 2005; McMurrer, 2007). Thus, such policies likely exacerbate what Meira Levinson (2012) has referred to as “the civic empowerment gap” between wealthier, white, middle class students and their minority, lower-income peers. On the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, for instance, White students who were poor scored as well as Black and Hispanic students who were not poor. This gap is apparent as early as fourth grade and persistent through high school, and is reflected in knowledge about and attitudes towards civic participation on a variety of measures from voting behavior to civic trust to volunteerism. These disparities between groups continue into adulthood, and indicate an alarming inequality in the distribution of preparation for participatory citizenship. Attention to the civic engagement gap is thus warranted, while we are also rightly concerned by low absolute levels of participation across all categories (Levinson, 2012, p. 37).

Finally, even as young people across demographic categories are increasingly courted by the two major political parties and seen as a decisive factor in many electoral outcomes, the civic knowledge that these young citizens possess is alarmingly narrow and fraught with falsehoods and misunderstandings. A poll conducted in the summer of 2012, during the lead up to a national election (a time when, it should be noted, many people are significantly more attentive to politics than at other times) found that “68% of young people were either unable [or unwilling] to answer or incorrect about whether their state required a photo ID to vote,” and that “80% of the young voters were either unable to answer or incorrect about their state’s early registration rules” (CIRCLE, 2012, p. 1).

Lack of awareness of current events and issues such as voter ID laws and procedures such as voter registration have obvious practical implications for effective participation in even the most basic democratic procedures. More fundamental issues having to do with the recent history of democratic life in America may be even more significance. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a recent study of the state of civil rights education in the United States (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2011). Only two percent of 2010 high school seniors had the most general and rudimentary knowledge of the Brown decision: that it had to do with segregation in the schools. This is “no surprise,” according to the study, for, “across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history” (p. 6). The findings indicated that most states do not view the civil rights movement as an essential subject for all American citizens to be conversant with; rather, it is viewed as a topic primarily of interest to African American students.

Without knowledge of recent struggle for justice and the conditions necessary for real democratic participation, it is unlikely that students will have the resources to understand and assess the historic significance of, for example, the Supreme Court’s decision in June of 2013 declaring Section 4 (“the heart”) of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional (Shelby County vs. Holder, 570 US; see Liptak, 2013). This is, of course, an example of judicial review, and so is relatively aloof from participatory politics. The political ramifications of this decision and the responses of, say, the Obama administration or the Congress, will likely have great significance for the conditions under which democratic politics will occur in the future. Democratic education should prepare students to at least understand and take informed positions on such critical issues.9 The SPLC findings, however, in combination with evidence of less and much narrower testing of social studies subjects including civics, provide a dramatic indicator of a profound lack of understanding of and commitment to democratic citizenship education in U.S. education policy today.   


In a complex and diverse society such as ours, deliberation necessarily involves negotiating disagreement while tolerating difference (Gutmann, 1999). In contemporary pluralistic democracies, goals of inculcating critical thinking skills in individual students intersect with those of fostering possibilities for public deliberation. Dewey (1938) proposed a vision of education in which students were encouraged and enabled to reflect on and revise their own beliefs and values, and he argued that this process was aided by a diverse context of learning:

The intermingling in the school of youth of different races, different religions, and unlike customs creates for all a new and broader environment. Common subject matter accustoms all to a unity of outlook upon a broader horizon than is visible to the members of any group while it is isolated. (p. 21)

Indeed, truly democratic deliberation requires that all recognize the legitimate claims of fellow-citizens across cultural, social, political, and other differences (see Howe, 1997)10—in what Robert Kunzman (2011) calls “civic multilingualism.”

Instruction in practices of “taking multiple perspectives” and “codeswitching” certainly supports such civic multilingualism (Levinson, 2012, pp. 87–92; see also Collins, 2009). However, the dispositions and attitudes necessary for entering into deliberation and for keeping it productive are considerably more difficult to directly teach than are customary academic knowledge and skills (Davis, 2003, p. 32; The Institute of Education Sciences, 2010). Much depends on how the context is set up so as to introduce, hone, and reinforce constructive interaction, including, and especially, dialogue across differences. When it comes to ways in which individuals are disposed towards those different from themselves, nothing is so formative as personal contact with others, at least if it occurs under certain conditions (Hewstone & Brown, 1986; Kenworthy, Turner, & Hewstone, 2005). Gordon Allport (1954) famously hypothesized that when intergroup interaction occurs under conditions of institutional support, role equality, and frequent cooperative contact with acquaintance potential, such contact reduces the prevalence of prejudice, stigmatization, discrimination, and anxiety in intergroup relations. Recent meta-analysis has shown strong support for this contact hypothesis, as applied to numerous categories of difference (Anderson, 2010, p. 125; Pettigrew, Thomas, & Tropp, 2006).

Many efforts at desegregation in the post-Brown era did not meet all of Allport’s (1954) criteria—role equality was not always available to Black students enrolling in previously all-white schools (Cohen & Lotan, 1995)—and within-school tracking often reduced opportunities for cooperative contact with acquaintance potential (Eyler, Cook, & Ward, 1983). Even so, adult graduates report that they valued the experience of attending integrated high schools and that it prepared them for coping with life in a diverse society (Anderson, 2010; Holme, Wells, & Revilla, 2005). The outcomes of previous efforts at racial integration suggest that integration helps to sustain a democratic society, since citizens with experience working in diverse settings are “more responsive to the rights, needs, and concerns of diverse citizens rather than catering to the interests or perspectives of one or a very few sections of society” (Anderson, 2010, p. 128). The likelihood that citizens of all backgrounds will come to possess genuine democratic character traits is increased within a diverse context of learning. Thus, segregated learning environments and the policies that support these amount to “a loss suffered by the American public at large because they limit the ability of citizens from all origins [to] exchange ideas and cooperate on terms of equality—which is the indispensable social condition of democracy itself” (Anderson, 2002, 1270–1271).

In keeping with Anderson’s (2010) argument that racial integration is an imperative of justice and democratic politics, recent analysis shows that racial integration of schooling was in fact the most effective reform effort for closing the achievement gap (Schofield, 2005; Whortman & Bryant, 1985). Black students made gains as a result of desegregation efforts, while white students’ test scores held steady. As David L. Kirp summarizes these findings, “Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank—not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better” (Kirp, 2012). Rucker C. Johnson (2011) has demonstrated that these gains also persisted into the next generation: The children of students who attended integrated schools in the 1960s and 1970s do better academically than do the children of their counterparts who remained in segregated schools.

In the years since NCLB was enacted, schools in the United States have become increasingly stratified by race, socioeconomic status (SES), ability status, and even by religious and political affiliation (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2011; Lee & Lubienski, 2011; Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010). Gary Orfield (2009) observed in 2009 that, “Fifty-five years after the Brown decision, blacks and Latinos in American schools are more segregated than they have been in more than four decades.” In a report released in September 2012, Orfield and his associates have documented that segregation has since grown worse (Orfield, Kucsera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012). While increasing school segregation began before NCLB, it is clear that the law has failed to address, much less reverse, this trend. On the contrary, NCLB’s encouragement of unconstrained choice policies have contributed to increased stratification between as well as within schools (Glass, 2008).

Warnings about the deleterious effects of stratification have often been dismissed on the grounds that these are an inevitable product of the democratic principle of freedom of association (Merry, 2012; see Scott, 2005). Certainly, freedom of association is an important democratic principle, and there is no reason to believe that some forms of school choice can’t complement the creation and maintenance of diverse contexts for learning. As Linn and Welner (2007) point out, “The key for realizing the potential of these policies to achieve racial diversity to any significant degree is the inclusion of enrollment constraints, such as race-conscious policies, as part of the school choice policy.”

Desegregation of schools on its own does not ensure greater academic achievement, nor is it sufficient for the inculcation of democratic character.11 It is, however, an aid to the former and a necessary condition for the latter. Dewey’s (1938) insight that the public purposes of schooling and the ideal of critically reflective individuals converge is perhaps more salient today than ever before (see Robertson, 1992). Without exposure to others unlike themselves, and practice in reflecting on their own beliefs and values in light of those held by fellow citizens, it is unlikely that children will develop the dispositions that enable productive dialogue and deliberation across such differences as adults. Thus, serious attention to the role of the context of learning in inculcating democratic character in order to enable students to reach the democratic threshold suggests that choice policies that increase stratification by socially significant categories of difference can, and indeed ought to, be constrained in democracy’s own name.

Ironically, in this perspective it appears that those who are usually considered to enjoy the most adequate education today in elite private and semiprivate schools may suffer a profound deficit in terms of education for citizenship. This is because they often receive instruction in segregated (predominantly White upper and upper-middle class) contexts unlikely to inculcate dispositions of critical reflexivity and competence for effectively engaging across difference that form part of the core of the democratic threshold. As Senator Charles Sumner argued on the behalf of plaintiff in the case of Roberts v. City of Boston, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Court judged the constitutionality of segregated schools, White children in such schools are implicitly and even at times explicitly “nursed in the sentiments of Caste, their characters are debased, and they become less fit for the duties of citizenship” (cited in Anderson, 2010, p. 174). Such students are denied the opportunity to develop affinities on equal terms with other young citizens, and to develop the sense of common purpose that is the basis of public interests and values (pp. 175–176).

An “elite” education provided in a segregated environment is likely to develop politically powerful but “democratically incompetent” leaders who lack the “knowledge of how to effectively communicate and cooperate on terms of equality across group lines, in a relaxed and comfortable way” (Anderson, 2010, p. 278).12 Democratic education thus has significant implications for how we assess the adequacy of the education that relatively privileged students receive. Educational researchers have largely neglected issues related to the education of “elites” (see Howard & Gaztambide-Fernández, 2010), and one important consequence of a democratic theory of education is that it draws attention to this as an issue which warrants further examination.

Recall that the third principle of democratic education, the democratic threshold, is an educational equality standard. It stipulates that all children must be educated such that they can participate meaningfully in the conscious reproduction of democratic society—that is, of a society of free and equal citizens. NCLB clearly undermines the ability of public schools to educate students up to the threshold, and it does this partly by imposing choice policies that have increased stratification and segregation in and between schools. The requirement that all students be educated up to the democratic threshold makes an integrated and diverse context of learning an imperative, and shifts attention from only those schools deemed a failure under NCLB to the failure of public education from “top” to “bottom” to attend to its democratic purposes.



In this paper, we have focused narrowly on NCLB as the paradigm example of the accountability regime. However, NCLB is now in a period of significant transition, due in no small part to the failure of the states to achieve requisite benchmarks by the stipulated deadline of 2014. Skeptics of the accountability regime have argued that the failure of NCLB to achieve its goals was, from the outset, predictable (Minthrop & Sunderman, 2009). As time has passed the number of Title I schools failing to achieve the requisite improvement has rapidly grown,13 policymakers and government officials had to publicly acknowledge that NCLB will not succeed in achieving its stated aims. In February 2012 the Obama administration granted Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee waivers exempting them from some of the provisions of NCLB (Elliott, 2013). At the time of our writing, a total of 43 states and the District of Columbia had all received waivers from the key AYP provisions of NCLB (New America Foundation, 2014).

To what extent might such waivers be interpreted as recognition of the failure not only of NCLB but also of the accountability regime it exemplifies? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained the move to grant waivers using the language of increased local and state participation in reform: “Rather than dictating educational decisions from Washington, we want state and local educators to decide how to best meet the individual needs of students” (Muskal, 2012). Yet while states that receive these waivers are exempted from the requirements to calculate AYP and implement sanctions according to the NCLB timetable, the commitment to the accountability regime remains firmly in place. In practice, the conditions attached to the waivers harden the basic tenets of the accountability regime and ensure that states will not discard testing and choice remedies, and many states have recently tied teacher accountability to student test performance. For example, Colorado, praised by Duncan (Associated Press, 2012) and historically at the forefront of implementing the accountability regime, stipulated in its waiver application that SES and school choice will be implemented simultaneously, after a school is designated for “turnaround” or “priority improvement” by the state accountability system in any given year (Colorado Department of Education, n.d.). The accountability regime has been reinforced—indeed, expanded—through the Race to the Top competition, a $5 billion provision of the 2009 economic stimulus bill which sought to induce states to expand testing and choice measures through financial incentives. Race to the Top awards points to states for expanding their charter sector or including student test scores as a substantial portion of teacher evaluation (Riddle, 2012; Rothstein, 2011).

Despite Obama and Duncan’s rhetorical support for greater local control of schools, the reform instruments that their policies are based on are clearly antithetical to it. They do not grow out of and do not foster democratic deliberation at the local level. While the broader accountability regime is still dominant, prospects for deeper change may emerge alongside the growing recognition that current arrangements cannot be sustained.14 In order to chart a better course that is more likely to strengthen democracy, however, policymakers and the public must learn the critical lessons of NCLB’s dramatic remaking of U.S public schooling.

The contribution of deliberative democratic theory to this discussion is that it allows us a principled way to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate constraints on federal activism in the service of reform. A widespread anti-testing movement has gained new prominence with the backlash against implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which represents a rare convergence normally opposed political forces. Criticisms of the Common Core range from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers and Tea Party groups to far left elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement (Williams, 2014). When conservatives use the rhetoric of local community control in such contexts, what they in fact advocate is a market-driven, individualistic form of school choice that lacks grounding in any truly robust or defensible theory of democratic politics (Burke, 2011). Therefore, while conservatives sometimes oppose the accountability regime and NCLB on the grounds that these involve federal overreach, they do not acknowledge the ways that school choice can also undermine local community control and democratic education. Thus they offer little that is helpful in constructively addressing the central issue that policymakers must address: Local community control of schools matters a great deal for public education and democracy, and yet NCLB-style sanctions are not designed to mobilize the marginalized to become more engaged in school reform efforts, nor are they likely to have such an effect.

In recent years, scholars and researchers have joined activists in calling for greater attention to the role of schools in cultivating engaged citizenship and in highlighting the need for a revitalization of local participation in reform (Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 2012; Lipman, 2004; Oakes, Rogers, & Lipton, 2006). The evidence surveyed in this paper suggests that contemporary reforms run afoul of democratic principles in several critical ways. Democratic reform should involve local stakeholders, especially marginalized members of society (Fine, 1993; Priority Schools Campaign, 2011), because inclusion is a democratic value that not only increases the likelihood that policies will be just, but also that the implementation of reforms will succeed (Ravitch, 2010, pp. 57–58). Such inclusion helps create the conditions in which all students can attain the democratic threshold. In the final section, we offer several guidelines for policymaking aimed at making these goals a reality.


If the future reauthorization of ESEA is to safeguard and strengthen democracy, it should focus on education for democracy as a fundamental aim of public education. Federal legislation should recognize the primacy of local participation and community control while reasserting the legitimate and, at times (see Howe, 2010),15 historic role of the federal government in promoting principles of nonrepression, nondiscrimination, and the democratic threshold in public education. The following requirements are intended to provide constraints and guidance for policymakers, scholars and researchers, activists and ordinary citizens who are committed to aligning education reform with democratic principles.

First, the prevailing punitive approach must be replaced by a more participatory model for engaging local communities in reform efforts. Rather than threatening to withhold funding from struggling schools, additional support and incentives might be provided for staff, parents, and other community members to get involved in deliberating about educational problems and their solutions. This would require identifying or creating venues where voices of all these community members can be heard and, crucially, have actual influence on policy outcomes. Furthermore, considerations such as childcare, the timing of meetings, etc., must be taken into account to make participation possible for low-income parents, and release time or additional compensation could be used to encourage meaningful participation for teachers, administrators, and other staff.16 Such participation will increase the likelihood that policies will be just and democratic, as well as more likely to succeed due to greater constituent buy-in. Finding the right balance of responsibility and power, accountability and influence for enabling meaningful participation from all relevant citizens will take creativity and experimentation.

Second, states and locales ought to adopt curriculum standards that include a substantive focus on (as opposed to mere lip service to) the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for effective participation in a democratic society. Determining the proper content of such standards calls for extensive public deliberation, within a deliberative context structured by principles of nonrepression and nondiscrimination. Our view is that, granting a wide range of legitimate variation in how locales determine the content that the democratic threshold requires, moving in this direction will necessarily involve de-emphasizing high-stakes testing of “the basics” as the exclusive focus of accountability measures. This is because the combination of high stakes testing and standards focused on “the basics” inevitably restricts the instructional and curricular space required for cultivating the complex knowledge, skills, and (perhaps above all) dispositions widely regarded as essential to the democratic threshold.

This does not mean, however, that accountability and standards for instruction adequate to effective citizenship is impossible or undesirable. Public education’s central purpose of creating competent citizens should be pursued through the regular and meaningful assessment of social studies subjects across grades, at least in middle and high school, and, possibly, as a requirement for graduation. And while the content of such standards may vary widely based upon locale, knowledge relevant to the basic tenets of democratic politics (such as, e.g., nonrepression and nondiscrimination) should be included. The history of the civil rights movement, for instance, as well as that of other struggles of marginalized groups for greater democratic inclusion is relevant to understanding what these principles mean in the contemporary U.S. context.

Third, bolstering democratic education requires working to curtail the privatization of public resources through Supplemental Education Services (SES) and school choice. The ongoing possibility of genuinely democratic policymaking demands that we keep the individuals and organizations receiving public funds accountable to the public through democratic procedures. Nonrepression and nondiscrimination set the parameters for the inclusivity and accountability required for an organization or agency to participate legitimately in public education for democratic purposes, and the adequacy of educational provision must be judged, in part, in terms of what local communities judge the democratic threshold to require. Some organizations currently involved in reform efforts surely meet these criteria, and others may be created for the purpose, in which case the receipt of public funds is warranted. Such determinations are best made and reviewed at the local level, within the constraints of appropriate state and federal oversight; while appropriate structures for deliberative participation and democratic accountability are underdeveloped, elected school boards are likely the entities best positioned at present to exercise proper discretion in allocating education school funding and overseeing educational practice—as always, the crucial caveat: within firm national guidelines based on democratic education’s three limiting principles.

Our fourth and fifth requirements arise from the argument that provision of an adequately democratic education requires attention to the context as well as the content of schooling. While we have not devoted much attention in this paper to the radically unequal funding of schools across the United States that of course predates NCLB, we would be remiss if we did not indicate its importance as a guiding constraint for future policy. Reliance on local property tax in school funding formulae produces gross and well-documented inequalities of educational opportunity; hence, specific proposals for creating greater material equity across should receive greater attention and support. From the perspective of democratic education, equalization of funding is justified in terms of developing an adequate context for instruction of all students up to the democratic threshold. The absence of appropriate instructional materials and physical spaces, and the inability of relatively poor districts to attract and retain highly qualified and well-compensated educational professionals undermine such contexts. As a result, the current approach to school finance in almost all states amounts to a form of repression (through a failure to enable) and of discrimination.

Finally, the normative ideal of democratic citizenship that remains the bedrock of our system of compulsory and free public schooling requires that we seek new ways to promote integrated schools17 in order to ensure access to equal educational opportunities and the diverse context of learning that all students need for the inculcation of democratic character and skills. Theoretical and empirical evidence drawn from our national experience suggests that key elements of democratic character are unlikely to be achieved in any other way. Progress in this direction may seem a distant possibility, but realistically could be made, for instance, by including enrollment constraints based on socially significant categories such as race as part of school choice policy. As one of the few venues in the contemporary United States serving truly public purposes and accessible to a vast majority of the population, increased integration in school settings is a necessary step along the path toward greater social justice (Anderson, 2010).

Reform efforts within our five guidelines would reorient education policy toward recovering the democratic purposes of public education worthy of the name. It would equip future generations of Americans with the understanding and will required to take up the unfinished task of democracy, which in a rapidly changing world remains one of our proudest inheritances and worthiest aspirations.


1. Deliberative democracy is particularly useful for our purpose here because it is an instance of nonideal political theory, the primary aim of which is to wed political theorizing to public policymaking. Nonideal theory is distinguished from ideal theory by its explicit attention to historical and empirical realities in the framing of problems to be addressed in theoretical work (Levinson, 2012). In this sense, it is grounded theory, rooted in what Dewey termed the “felt difficulties” experienced by individuals (Dewey, 1910) and communities (Dewey, 1927/1954).

Apart from taking empirical realities and problems experienced by situated people as its starting point, nonideal theory is also distinguished by the way that it constructs and makes use of normative ideals. “In non-ideal theory,” political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson (2010) writes, “ideals embody imagined solutions to identified problems in a society” (pp. 24–25). Such theory regards its normative and idealized constructs as hypotheses to be tested in experience, through implementation in actual practice. Such theories are valid to the extent that, when implemented, they “solve the problems for which they were devised, settle people’s reasonable complaints, and offer a way of life people find superior to what they had before” (p. 25).

As a form of nonideal theorizing, deliberative democracy defines democratic activity in terms of a process of collective inquiry aimed at ameliorating pressing public problems (Anderson, 2010, ch. 5). Democracy thus conceived is a comprehensive or “programmatic” (Unger, 2001, pp. 48–52) response, an overarching strategic approach to solving a wide range of practical problems, some of which will be suggested in the following section.

2. “Emotive democracy” is a term inspired by MacIntyre, 1981.

3. Gutmann is a self-described follower of Dewey, who held that democratic arrangements are justified on the grounds that they provide the best kind of life for humans. Other views, J. S. Mill’s, for example, hold that democracy is grounded in a more overarching utilitarian moral theory.

4. Although we frame our analysis in terms of Gutmann’s “democratic threshold,” this concept could be brought more fully into line with the goals routinely adopted for public education, including inculcation of the skills, knowledge and dispositions required for gainful employment. Nothing in Gutmann’s view would exclude this. Indeed, material well-being is a legitimate educational goal for Gutmann if for no other reason than that it is a prerequisite for effective political participation.

5. For an in-depth discussion of adequacy as opposed to equity standards, see Howe, 2013.

6. One apparent exception that may have national implications is the recently implemented state-wide program in Indiana. The bill was passed by a party-line vote in an extremely contentious political climate. In 2013, the law was upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court (see Moxley, 2013).

7. “Hijacking” is the charge Polly Williams made against Gov. Tommy Thompson and others who proposed expanding the Milwaukee voucher program from low-income to all children in the Milwaukee system.

8. Increased stratification is only one of the consequences of accountability sanctions that have transformed the context of learning in U.S. public schools. Others include the growing prevalence of top-down management approaches, and many instances of cheating and outright fraud (see Auge & Simpson, 2012).

9. The decision was made by a 5-to-4 vote, in which “The court divided along ideological lines, and the two sides drew sharply different lessons from the history of the civil rights movement and the nation’s progress in rooting out racial discrimination in voting” (Liptak, 2013). Informed citizens ought to be able to assess for themselves the merits of the arguments from the two sides, which in this case clearly involves a good grasp of the history whose interpretation is at stake.

10. Thus, Gutmann offers as a primary democratic virtue tolerance.

11. The claim that the Black–White achievement gap is primarily a result of failing schools is false; therefore it is implausible that any reform focused solely on what happens in schools can overcome the gap. Indeed, school factors matter a great deal, and public schools are already doing much to offset inequalities in the larger society. If we hope to close racial achievement gaps, however, Rothstein (2004) argues that we must expand our focus to include the time and activities engaged in outside of school time and engage in broader efforts to address prevailing social and economic inequalities.

12. This is the basis of one argument for the importance of affirmative action in college admissions, especially in elite institutions. See Anderson, 2010, ch. 7.

13. As early as 2005, researchers projected that by 2013, nearly all public schools in the Great Lakes region would be declared “failing” under NCLB. See Wiley, Mathis, & Garcia, 2005; see also Saltman, 2007, p. 7.

14. See, for example, the Education Opportunity Network’s (2013) “Education Declaration to Rebuild America,” which condemns “top-down education mandates” centered on high stakes testing, and affirms meaningful and engaging education as a public good and something that must be available to all. In just one day, the declaration garnered over 10,000 signatures (Bryant, 2013). See also the Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act (FairTest, 2004), which has been signed by over 156 national civil rights, civic, labor, disability advocacy, and religious groups.

15. While the Brown decision is the best-known example of the federal government fulfilling this role, President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs were also a conspicuous example of an explicit commitment to aims of nondiscrimination and nonrepression (see Howe, 2010).

16. In ancient Athens, the “First Democracy” of the European tradition (Woodruff, 2005), participation in the deliberative forum was eventually compensated with the equivalent of a half-days wages (pp. 55­56). This reform made the participation of working class citizens in democratic governance a reality. We would be wise to pay much more attention to the material constraints that limit citizen participation in deliberative governance today.

17. For a collection of essays dealing with the practical implications in both legal and policy terms of racial integration as a legitimate educational goal, see Frankenberg and Debray (2011).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 6, 2015, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17878, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:15:49 AM

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About the Author
  • David Meens
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    DAVID E. MEENS is a Ph.D. candidate and instructor with the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education and INVST Community Studies program. His research focuses on the intersection of current U.S. public school reform initiatives, education research methodology, and democratic theory. Recent publications include papers in Philosophy of Education 2013 and 2012 and a book, co-authored with Gene Glass, David Berliner, and associates, 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education.
  • Kenneth Howe
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    KENNETH R. HOWE is a professor in the School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder. He specializes in professional ethics, philosophy and educational research, and evaluation and policy research. Professor Howe has conducted research and published more than 70 articles and chapters on a variety of topics, ranging from the quantitative/qualitative debate to a philosophical examination of constructivism to a defense of multicultural education. His recent research has focused on educational equality and justice, exemplified by The Dominant Conception of Educational Equality: Ideal and Ideology (2014 Philosophy of Education Society presidential address) and the nature of scientific research in education, exemplified by Philosophy of Education and Other Educational Sciences (2014 Theory and Research in Education).
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