Title:  The Public and Its Problems and the Public Character of Charter Schools


Submission as Discussion Paper



This paper considers the public character of charter schools, drawing upon John Dewey’s conception of democratic publics as developed in The Public and its Problems.  It seeks to illuminate these questions: (Q1) Are schools chartered by government and funded by public taxation, but operated by non-governmental organizations, ever appropriate instruments of a democratic public? (Q2) If so, what criteria might distinguish those which are from those which are not? (Q3). How might public education be re-institutionalized so as to include the charter schools which are?   The paper concludes that Dewey’s theory of democratic publics entails an affirmative answer to (Q1), and his conception of democracy generates suggestive answers to both (Q2) and (Q3).














    This paper considers the issue of the public character of charter schools, that is, schools funded by the public but operated by private organizations, by drawing upon John Dewey’s conception of a democratic public. It seeks to illuminate these questions:

 Q1. Are schools chartered and funded by government, but operated by non-governmental organizations, ever appropriate instruments of a democratic public?

Q2. If so, what criteria might distinguish those which are from those which are not? And,

Q3. How might public education be re-institutionalized so as to include the charter schools which are?

Charter Schools and Multiple Democratic Publics

Drawing on the work of Nancy Fraser, Kathleen Knight Abowitz, a feminist pragmatist, has recently addressed Q1 and concluded that charter schools have an important role in democratic society.[1] She advocates a ‘multiple publics’ conception of the democratic public as opposed to a ‘uniform’ conception; we should think of ‘the democratic public’ as inherently a composite of multiple and diverse and even conflicting publics, rather than as an imaginary synthetic unity, ‘the general public’. Her key idea is that ‘the public’ is never, in theory or practice, of one mind, and neither are any of its various ‘publics’.  

Like Fraser, she distinguishes between ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ publics. In ‘weak’ publics, participants express voices silenced in the hegemonic broader culture, and consider action programs that may subsequently gain political sponsorship and thus get taken up (through legislatures and executive agencies) in public (= state) action. ‘Strong’ publics, by contrast, go beyond participation in opinion formation and indirect action. They provide spaces for withdrawal, re-grouping, the formulation of new interpretations of identities and needs, and formation of social movements for public agitation. Over time these new interpretations can transform the older ones previously entrenched within the broader culture. Strong publics generate geographic or virtual meeting spaces (bookstores, meeting rooms, social network websites) where individuals identifying themselves as participants, and recognizing common interests, can come together to invent and circulate definitions of their common realities and identities, and shape action programs to serve their needs. The women’s movement, with its bookstores and cafes, its consciousness-raising groups, magazines, scholarly journals and academic programs, serves as an excellent example.

This distinction between weak and strong publics, however, does not in itself even raise the issue of charter schools or place Q1 on the table. Constitutional provisions grant all such ‘publics,’ weak and strong, the rights to assemble, to speak their minds in public, and to form informal and formal organizations including (private) schools.  The key distinction for our purposes is that between public and private agencies. Should the state merely protect, and provide guidelines for the formation of, such publics (weak or strong), or should it also actively promote, assist, and fund these multiple ‘publics’ in creating instruments of public action, making them not merely ‘strong publics’ in the above sense, but public agencies.[2]

Knight Abowitz’s affirmative answer to this question is based on the argument that such support institutionalizes the notion of multiple publics, and hence helps to realize the many democratic potentialities inherent within the ‘multiple publics’ concept, including these two  

(a) By legitimating different groups as ‘publics’ and their spaces as ‘public spaces,’ the multiple publics conception chips away at the normative expectation of a public consensus that creates a pressure for assimilation of definitions of identities and needs in terms favorable to dominant groups; 

(b)  The proliferation of many legitimate ‘publics’ is, in itself, a step toward greater democracy, as it opens up multiple novel avenues for public speech and action.

The recognition of ‘multiple publics’, and especially their authorization as public agents, implies the circulation of a variety of contested understandings of group identities in the broader culture and polity. This multiplicity undercuts at once both received hegemonic cultural definitions and alternative monolithic counter-definitions put forward by self-appointed identity group leaders. The broader public thus enjoys a ‘truer’ notion of its constituents, with a firmer basis in social reality.  

The expansion of democratic opportunities follows directly from such recognition. What Knight Abowitz calls ‘strong publics’ already exist as arenas for speaking and acting. They already have various organizations (bookstores, cafes, meeting-houses, newspapers) to facilitate their internal communications. Authorizing them as public agents grants an extra measure of public legitimacy and provides an additional instrument (e.g. the charter school) for public action, bringing forth additional speakers and actors: parents, sponsors, teachers, and students.

In short, the ‘multiple publics’ idea, as embodied in the charter school institution,  eases pressures for assimilation along lines favored by dominant groups, and opens up specific new avenues for democratic action by a greatly expanded group of agents.

We can think of Knight Abowitz’s argument as an ‘argument from accepted goals to available means’. The ‘multiple public’ conception serves valid democratic ends. We are thus obliged to find appropriate means for advancing it. Charter schooling is a direct and powerful means to the ends of the democratic public thus conceived. Thus it should be promoted.

Can Charter Schools be Public Agencies?

            Terri Wilson has developed a two pronged counter- argument against Fraser and Knight Abowitz.[3] First, she finds deeply troubling the abandonment of the ideal of the integrated school as a space where participants confront and build consensus across difference. Second, she is concerned whether the various identity and value communities conceived by Fraser and Knight Abowitz as ‘publics’ can appropriately serve as public agents serving public interest functions. Why, she asks, does their recognition as legitimate ‘publics’ not promote balkanization of such groups into “secluded places of otherness” that simply shut down opportunities for broad public exchange?

            The weakness of the first prong of Wilson’s case is that due to recent patterns of re-segregation, most of the large urban school districts as a whole are now effectively segregated. As a recent report states it, many urban educators “have abandoned the goal of desegregation, arguing that the cities have become too racially segregated to make school integration feasible.”[4] The upshot is that if we are to revision the ideal of school integration, it will have to be upon a different institutional plane than the entrenched school districts, a point I will return to below.  

Wilson is on firmer ground in her second concern, that the various identity communities are not, per se, appropriate public agents. Wilson argues that in order to accept differentiated communities as  ‘publics’ in the relevant sense, and thus consider them as potential public agents, one would have to assume them to have a ‘public orientation’ – that is, that they see themselves and their activities as serving a broader public interest and not just their own. But why, Wilson asks, should we expect them to serve this inclusive public interest, or aspire to a broader public exchange? The Fraser-Knight Abowitz model, says Wilson, is good on ‘withdraw and regroup’ but weak on ‘re-enter and exchange’. It provides no assurance that these groups, and their differentially educated children, are either motivated or equipped to enter a broader public conversation.

In order to determine whether a particular identity community can appropriately serve as a public agent, Wilson says, we need a normative conception of the democratic public to generate criteria by which charter school proposals might be evaluated, the criteria asked for in Q2. Wilson, then, does not answer Q2, but lays out the conditions for the adequacy of proposed answers. Her criteria would fall into three areas:

(1) Criteria for initial granting of charters: What kinds of groups are allowed to begin a charter school? What kinds of school missions are approved?  How do they change the composition of the schools in their districts, neighborhoods and communities?    

(2) Criteria of internal governance: How do they institutionalize shared governance? How is power shared across different members of the school community?  And

(3) Criteria of accountability and on-going charter renewal: To whom is the school accountable, and for what?  By what mechanism (processes of oversight), and criteria (standards for measuring accountability) is accountability assured?

With this clarification of Q2 in mind, it is now time to turn to Dewey’s theory of democratic publics.


The pro charter school position of Fraser-Knight Abowitz and the cautionary position of Wilson present us with a thesis and antithesis inviting a synthesis. To work towards one, I will seek further illumination from Dewey’s theory of the democratic public. In this section I outline the elements of this theory, and in Section III I work from it to develop tentative answers to each of the three questions (Q1-Q3). 

Individuals. For Dewey, social life begins and ends with individuals. Self-realization, wholeness, plentitude, freedom, richness and growth are “key normative terms for Dewey.” [5] The full and free development of the individual is the ultimate normative measure of all social arrangements. As Dewey puts it, 

. . . all social institutions have a meaning, a purpose. . .to set free and to develop the capacities of human individuals.[6]

Associations. This self-realization ethic is qualified, however, in two ways. First, the ideal of individual self-realization is “barbarous” unless it refers to a “generalized individual”, that is, to the good of every individual, not an arbitrarily selected individual considered in isolation.[7]  Second, individuals are not isolated atoms. Their actions all involve social associations or groups, and are channeled through social institutions. A salesman, for example, needs to associate with buyers, and can only sell something when background institutions establish the value of currencies, enforcement of contracts, etc.

Every act brings the agent . . . into association with others . . . His act takes effect in an organized world of action; in social arrangement and institutions . . .  With respect to any one individual in his separate . . . capacity there is a genuine and important sense in which the institution comes first. [8]

In any modern society there is an almost infinite variety of associations:

. . . not only political subdivisions, but industrial, scientific, religious, associations. . . political parties with differing aims, social sets, cliques, gangs, corporations, partnerships, groups bound closely together by ties of blood, a great diversity of populations of varying languages, religions, moral codes, and traditions.[9]

As a result, what we call ‘society’ is in fact a “congeries of loosely associated societies rather than an inclusive or permeating community of action and thought.[10] Some of these associations contribute to the over-all quality of social life, but others detract from it.

Each individual participates in many associations, and identifies with each to a greater or lesser extent.

Men associate together in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of purposes. One man is concerned in a multitude of diverse groups, in which his associates may be quite different . . .[11]

In each of these associations different norms and values and ways of doing things prevail, and the individual members bring their experiences from each group back to their other associations. The new ideas introduced are necessary for associations to progress. [12]

Publics. When individuals act in groups, their acts have consequences for both group members and outsiders, and the consequences can be direct or indirect, generating a fourfold scheme of consequences: (a) in-group + direct, (b) out-group + direct, (c) in-group + indirect, and (d) out-group + indirect. For example, a brawl among a group of drinking companions may (a) cause injury to one of them, or (b) can damage the property of store-keepers, or (c) contribute to negative character traits of the members or (d) to the negative reputation of the town. Dewey’s conception of publics focuses specifically on consequences in category (d).

A public consists of all those affected by the indirect consequences of transactions with others to such an extent that they deem it necessary to have these consequences systematically cared for.[13] For example, an environmental public begins to form as some individuals become aware of the indirect environmental consequences of the actions of industrialists and farmers. Such publics remain “inchoate”, however, until they can “project agencies that can order the occurrences” of these indirect consequences.[14] 

Since publics -- those who are indirectly affected by the behaviors of those in other groups -- are by definition not members of those groups, and hence have no influence within them, it is necessary that publics select certain persons to represent them and see to it that their interests are protected within a public order.[15] This requires that they form closer associations with internal structure, leadership, forums for discussion, spokespersons, action plans, and networks of personal and organizational contacts.

Civil Society and the State. There are two spheres within which the rights of such publics and the duties of others are defined and public order is sustained: civil society and the state. Publics can seek to obviate negative consequences through means of social movement formation, media communication, philanthropic support, alliances with other organizations; these are instruments of civil society. Or they can seek to have official, formal means of action created through legislation that establishes or tasks state agencies with the protection of the public’s interest, through the appointment of officials, the provision of tax revenues, etc.[16]

The state can best be understood, Dewey argues, as a loosely structured organization that equips society and its publics with official representatives, resources (etc) to care for their interests in obviating the negative consequences of social behaviors.

The state is not some all-encompassing mystical force that unifies society. It is just an association of many associations: legislatures, courts, executive agencies, public schools, clinics, recreation agencies, fire and police and road departments, and others.[17] These in turn are often at odds with the executive administration, their publics, and one another. There is no such thing as unified society, nor would it be a worthwhile ideal to seek. Conflict is everywhere; without it there could be no engine of growth and society would fall into lethargy.[18] The elimination of conflict is a hopeless and self-contradictory ideal.[19] The proper goal is not the elimination of conflict but of tendencies that close possibilities of resolution and lead to violence. Indeed, conflict-resolution procedures can themselves be especially educative for individuals and groups.[20] 

The state may address public concerns in two ways: by regulating the activities of private associations including public-interest organizations in civil society, or by administering its own agencies. For example, the state regulates and extensively subsidizes public broadcasting though NPR, PRI and the public stations operate as private non-governmental organizations. On the other hand, until 1971 a government agency (the CIA) actually operated Radio Free Europe. The question of which of these forms is better is for Dewey always local and particular, and to be decided empirically.    

Democratic Publics. The idea of a ‘democratic public’ may be taken in two senses: (a) one among many distinct publics whose inner workings and external exchanges are democratic, or (b) the association of all such publics, expressing public voice and achieving public influence in public affairs. In this sense, ‘the democratic public’ is the counterpart and partner of government in the democratic state. I will take up the meaning of ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’ in Dewey’s theory of the public shortly, when I consider the question of selection criteria for charter proposals. 


Would such a theory of the democratic public assign any place for charter schools? What criteria would it recommend for the granting of charters? How might it prescribe for the institutionalizing of charter schools within the over-all arrangements of contemporary public education? To these questions we may now turn.

Q1: Should Charter Schools Exist?

Dewey would be the last philosopher to prescribe specific forms of public action, stating that the line dividing areas of activity best left to private agencies in civil society, and those best taken up by the state, is always to be determined empirically. There is no clear division of public/private in theory. Thus we should not expect a definitive conclusion from Dewey’s philosophy entailing support for charter schools. Dewey does, however, support both private initiatives in education and their encouragement by the state. His critique of the main-stream system, moreover, is devastating, and he claims that educational change must come from private efforts. So there is reason to expect that a Deweyan approach to charter schools would have a large positive orientation.

Dewey observes that we can determine empirically the kinds of public concerns that typically gravitate to state agencies. These include areas where negative indirect consequences are:  (a) far- reaching in space and time; (b) capable of control through settled, uniform, and recurrent action, and (c) irreparable. Conditions are constantly changing, nonetheless, and the need for innovation is constant. But since official agencies and their action patterns tend towards the settled and uniform, innovation is rarely initiated by the state. Change may be in the air, but there is always a considerable lag between public recognition of the need for change and effective official response.[21]         

The problem is particularly acute in education. According to Dewey, progressive era reformers replaced the corruption of the ‘boss system’ with administrative autocracy. Schooling became settled and uniform. Administrators now impose narrow learning objectives and methods from the top. Teachers have been reduced to operatives without influence rather than cooperating partners. Rote learning activities prevail. Cooperative activities where learners, guided by their own intelligence, respond to problems they feel for themselves, have been denied any place. Instead of teachers and learners growing in the full and free use of their capacities, they are reduced to marionettes in a lifeless puppet show. [22]  Educational change since Dewey’s diagnosis has made it increasingly accurate.

 The state system, in education and other areas of public concern, cannot in Dewey’s analysis heal itself. [23] It needs publics acting in civil society to organize, in order to transform existing situations.[24] These publics, however, need to achieve sufficient recognition as to provide them with necessary weight to influence public action.[25] For this to occur the publics have to first identify themselves in the minds of their members and the general public, and  second, enter into mutually reinforcing alliances to forge powerful social movements.

Concerning the first, contemporary publics are lost and bewildered.[26]  They have a hard time perceiving the negative consequences affecting them, and hence discovering themselves and organizing as publics. Political coalitions of differing constituents obscure their conflicting interests.[27] Potential publics do not see their concerns reflected in political platforms or legislation, and withdraw into cynicism and apathy.[28] Popular amusements and advertising distract public attention.[29] The process of industrialization, for example, works on an impersonal manner; those indirectly affected feel but don’t perceive consequences and can’t direct themselves to obviating them. [30] Public problems are framed by bureaucrats in technical terms suggesting that only experts, not concerned publics have a legitimate contribution, ignoring that background issues of public concern that have to be “composed and resolved before technical and specialized action can come into play.”[31]  

Like Fraser and Knight Abowitz, Dewey argues that recognition of differences within and between social groups would revitalize rather than diffuse the public. Instead of being bound and manipulated from without, groups could come to their own internal sense of their concerns and plan their own responses.[32] All major public causes (e.g., women’s suffrage), he reminds us, have always been advanced from below. [33] The state can at best set encourage forces already at work in civil society by defining channels through which they can act.[34] 

Concerning the second, Dewey asserts that when we look around we discover that there are simply too many publics, too much concern about too many things for our existing civil and political institutions to handle. There are too many indirect consequences, each crossing the others and generating its own narrowly defined public interest group, composed of those most immediately affected, who issue their own narrow demands. There is no civil culture of symbols and values to link such publics together, so no broad public voice can be shaped and made effective.[35]

In sum: for Dewey the mainstream educational system is lifeless and anti-democratic. It cannot heal itself. Change must come from without. Social groups, in full recognition of their differences, are potential sources of new civil society initiatives. But there are too many of these, and their organizations are too narrowly focused and weakly affiliated. The state should foster and eventually set its official seal on the efforts of the best ones, those making positive, mutually reinforcing contributions to social life. Thus, Dewey answers Q1 in the affirmative.   

Q2: Selection Criteria for Granting Charters

This brings us to the question of the selection from among charter school proposals. Which ones are the best? Assuming that educational publics have formed and organized, and working together have achieved sufficient influence to move the legislature to consider charter school legislation, what criteria should be established for granting charters?

Dewey’s notion of democracy provides a useful starting point. The associations applying for the charters, and the schools they propose, must be organized along democratic lines. In order to generate more specific criteria we first have to clarify Dewey’s somewhat obscure notions of ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’.

Democracy as the Criterion for the Value of Associations

For Dewey, ‘democracy’ is an ultimate normative term, the equivalent of ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’. He had from his earliest works been developing an ethical theory in which ‘moral’, ‘ethical’ and ‘democratic’ were co-terminus, in which democracy was a synonym for the ethical ideal: the full and free development of the individuals in society, secured by their mutual awareness and their free choice to cooperate.[36] Because moral action requires mutual awareness and consideration, a key criterion of moral quality is sharing or share-ability.[37] If one’s needs and projects are not open to peers and vice versa, no mutual awareness can ground mutual consideration or cooperation. 

Upon this basis, Dewey notes that some associations are good, others bad.[38] There is no sanctity in something’s merely being an association, whether it is an industrial firm, a church, or even a public interest organization.[39] Undesirable features of bad associations need to be identified, criticized and improved.[40] This distinction of good and bad implies a criterion of value for associations, and that criterion is democracy. In Democracy and Education Dewey puts the matter this way:

. . . In any social group whatever . . . we find some interest held in common, and we find a certain amount of interaction and cooperative intercourse with other groups. From these two traits we derive our standard. How numerous and varied are the interests which are consciously shared? How full and free is the interplay with other forms of association? [41]

As this crucial passage is somewhat obscure, let us take the two ‘traits’ one at a time, and tie them back to our ultimate reference point: the full and free development of  individuals. First, if a group’s interests are defined narrowly, the ideas and values derived by each member from his or her experiences in other associations become irrelevant to knowledge or experience obtained elsewhere has any bearing on the group’s actions.  There is then “no free play back and forth among the members of the group.” There is little to share. Everything not directly tied to the immediate task at hand must be suppressed, requiring more or less despotic group leadership. This suppression of novelty reduces intellectual challenge. New considerations do not continually enter as relevant, and ways of doing things rigidify. The association thus can not conduce to the free and full growth of its members.

Second, the isolation or exclusiveness of an association, its unwillingness to enter into exchanges with other associations, its narrow protection of interests “of its own,” marks it as anti-social. It can neither learn from, nor contribute to, other groups. Its isolation from other associations again makes it rigid and static. Upon these two criteria Dewey builds his notion of democracy. 

The two elements in our criterion both point to democracy. The first signifies not only more numerous and more varied points of shared common interest, but greater reliance upon the recognition of mutual interests as a factor in social control.[42]

That is, the group is open to and controlled by its members. Decisions are reached from the inside-out, by members in their mutual recognition. The group itself is thus democratic in its internal organization.

The second means not only freer inter-action between social groups . . . but continuous readjustment (of each group) through meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse.[43]

Dewey expresses this notion more clearly in The Public and its Problems:

. . . the democratic idea in its generic social sense . . . from the standpoint of the individual . . . consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands
liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common. Since every individual is a member of many groups, this specification cannot be fulfilled except when different groups interact flexibly and fully in connection with other groups.[44]

Democracy as a Criterion for the Value of Charter Schools

In judging the charter school proposals in their educational dimension, democracy would again provide the criterion. For Dewey the schools have two inter-dependent primary functions: (a) to train individual intelligence for participation in the various branches of associated living such as the economy, culture and politics, and (b) to serve as model of embryonic democratic society: that is, as democratic associations of  democratic associations. The two are interdependent because intelligence functions in entirely different ways when put to work in democratic associations; it has to take its direction from the mutual interactions of group members, and has to take account of the various interests and values that they bring to the task at hand. This introduces novelty and makes intellectual tasks more challenging. It is impossible to learn to handle such tasks in non-democratic top-down learning situations, because such tasks simply cannot arise in such settings.

As Dewey saw the situation in the early twentieth century American city, schools bring children from different groups together, with distinct, deeply habituated, pervasive, unconscious perspectives. [45]  As schools brings learners from multiple ethnic and cultural and social class groups together in a broader environment for shared activities, they can escape from limitations their groups of origin as they take in the perspectives of those from other groups. [46]  As he puts it,

The intermingling in the school of youth of different races, differing religions, and unlike customs creates for all a broader environment . . . the school has the function of coordinating within the disposition of each individual the diverse influences of the various social environments . . .[47]

In dealing with common subject matters in cooperative activities, the very diversity of habits and outlooks put into play by different groups of students introduces novelty and conflict. Hence, cooperative school activities under conditions of diversity are inherently intellectually challenging, just because communication by any speaker to any other logically requires openness to and grasp of the listener’s perspective. [48] This process compels each learner to escape from the limitations of the narrow group into which he was born. The formation of shared interests by engagement in shared problem-solving activities thus by itself leads to a fusion of horizons,[49]  It is this diversity, more than any other factor, which compels us to provide a “homogeneous” educational environment for all American youth.[50]     

To summarize his point: the collection of learners from diverse national and cultural and political and economic groups constitutes the necessary educational context. The very differences between learners -- as displayed by their divergent outlooks as they approach common tasks -- are primary subject matters. The fusion of the learners’ horizons -- their formation of capacities to shape common interests, project common ends, and converge upon common means despite their differences in perspective, by taking something of the perspectives of their fellow learners into themselves -- is a primary educational goal

            The problem with Dewey’s proposal from the twenty-first century point of view is that as already noted, in the wake of suburbanization and re-segregation, entire school districts no longer can provide the requisite diversity. Moreover, merely bringing learners from different poor and powerless groups together under one roof is likely to be counter-productive. What are we then to do?

Dewey, like Terri Wilson, would be deeply troubled by abandonment of integrated schooling, but he would grant that under prevailing circumstances we may be faced with a choice between various less-than-ideal non-integrated arrangements, including charter schools appealing to distinct groups and mainstream schools lacking sufficient and representative social diversity.  

He is likely to conclude that schools open to all, but shaped to appeal to learners of a particular group, and capable of engaging the full commitment of parents from that group, are not likely to be worse than mainstream schools appealing to no one, but only if the sponsors of such schools are organized along democratic lines and open to democratic processes in education.

Q3. The Re-institutionalization of Public Education

This solution to Q2 merely sets the problem of charter schools for democratic education back one level. If diverse learning environments cannot be organized at the local level, can they be organized regionally? That question generated the inter-district busing scheme struck down by the Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley.[51] Nonetheless, voluntary inter-district cooperation for broad educational purposes including diversity remains acceptable even after the recent Seattle decision. Most states have regional educational authorities. In Pennsylvania, for example, there are 29 regional intermediate school districts, supported by the state department of education and the local districts, established to provide training and consultation for local school districts.

These intermediate agencies could also serve as hubs for regional educational efforts, and significantly, some of these have already been initiated. In one creative effort, the intermediate district in the Harrisburg region, in partnership with a non-governmental educational organization, and in conjunction with a consortium of local districts, has recently created Capitol Area High School for the Arts. This school makes available to suburban and rural students in the region Harrisburg’s arts facilities and infra-structure, while also bringing middle class white students and poor minority students together under a single roof. [52] This provides a regional school model.

I have recently proposed a quite different network model for regional education inspired by Dewey’s democratic vision.[53] On this model a regional agency such as an intermediate district, in cooperation with non-governmental organizations, local districts, charter schools, private schools, and home-schooling associations, could establish regional learning centers throughout the region.. Unlike the regional school model, the network of regional learning centers would serve all the learners of the region as meeting areas for inter-group cooperative learning. Local schools and districts would be preserved, but would be transformed as requisite diversity is established through a combination of face-to-face inter-group learning at the regional centers and coordinated on-line inter-group learning activities at local school sites involving on-line distance learning along with e-mail, listservs, web pages, blogs, social networks, etc. 

The regional network then consists of (a) local or ‘front line’ educational facilities and providers, whether in mainstream or charter or private schools, and (b) ‘back-line’ regional facilities and providers, where networked educators (c) draw upon personnel and facilities in the network to support (i) in-person inter-group learning at back-line regional learning facilities, as well as (ii) local networked learning supporting and augmenting it.

. By retaining local educational agencies, including charter schools, the network draws on their specific strengths (e.g. as centers of community activity and focal points of neighborhood identity and pride) even while undermining their role as instruments of racial and ethnic isolation. The regional network participants, despite their local school attachments and group-based identities, also form a larger metropolitan identity, just as major league sports fans now do. Thus the network bridges racial, ethnic and class divides in concrete ways.


Dewey’s theory of democratic publics suggests a synthesis for our initial thesis and antithesis. It shares with Fraser and Knight Abowitz the support for groups withdrawing and re-grouping to form non-manipulated group identities and to attain group recognition on their own terms, so long as they are organized along democratic lines. It further acknowledges that school improvement is likely to come from the efforts of such groups. It also shares Wilson’s insistence that chartering bodies distinguish between charter school sponsors with a public orientation, those committed to re-entering the public arena and engaging with other groups, from those that are simply protecting and advancing their own interests. Finally, Dewey’s theory of democratic publics is a useful heuristic for generating new ideas for squaring the democratic benefits of charter schools for the various sub-communities of our society with the democratic requirement of broad public discourse and inter-group education. 


[1] Knight Abowitz, K. (2001) Charter Schools and Social Justice, Educational Theory, v51 n2 p151-170; Fraser, N. (1997). Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the "Post-socialist" Condition. NY: Routledge.

[2]Knight Abowitz proposes granting to these publics not merely legitimacy, but “the legal authority to institutionalize their political wishes.” This formulation also stops short of the charter school question. The civil rights movement, for example, was an institution, and its legal authority stemmed from rights to assemble, speak freely, vote, etc. as granted in the constitution and its civil war amendments. The question is the right of these ‘publics’ not merely to institutionalize but to claim public money in pursuit of their institutional aims, to design and govern public agencies serving recognized public interest functions.

[3] Wilson, T.  Civic Fragmentation or Voluntary Association? Habermas, Fraser and Charter School Segregation, paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Assn, 2006.

[4] The Changing Face of Racial Isolation and Desegregation in Urban Schools. ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 91.

[5] Westbrook, R. (1991) John Dewey and American Democracy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press 161.

[6] MW 12: 186

[7] MW 5: 422

[8] MW5:  404; 386.

[9] MW 9: 87

[10] MW9:87-88

[11]  ibid

[12] MW5: 387

[13] LW2: 245-6

[14] LW2: 317

[15] ibid

[16] MW5: 404

[17] LW2: 259-60

[18] LW13: 124-5

[19] EW4:210

[20] See the excellent discussion of this point in Caspary, W. (2000). Dewey on Democracy.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 10, 23f.

[21] LW2: 336

[22] MW3 229-235

[23] LW2: 315

[24] LW2: 314

[25] LW2: 283

[26] LW308

[27] LW2: 310

[28] LW2: 308

[29] LW2: 322; 336

[30] LW2: 313

[31] ibid

[32] LW2:309.

[33] LW2: 310

[34] LW2: 287

[35] LW2: 320

[36] EW1: 228-42; Westbrook, 38-42

[37] MW5:383

[38] MW9: 88

[39] LW2: 281

[40] MW9: 89

[41] MW9: 89

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[43] MW9: 92

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[45]  MW9:87-88

[46] MW9:24

[47] MW9:25-6

[48] MW9:89-90

[49] MW9:24-26The term ‘fusion of horizons’, which captures Dewey’s meaning precisely, derives from Gadamer and has entered the discussion of multicultural education through Taylor C.  (1994). Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  Taylor explains: to approach an object or event of one culture with the value presuppositions and habits of another is to miss the point. We have to “learn to move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formally taken for granted as the background to evaluation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different background of the formerly unfamiliar culture. The ‘fusion of horizons’ operates through our developing new vocabularies of comparison, by means of which we can articulate these contrasts” (p. 67). 

[50] MW9:24

[51] Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974)


[52] The Capitol Area School for the Arts was founded in 2001 by the Capitol Area Intermediate School District in partnership with Open Stage, a non-profit organization for arts education. It provides intensive study of theatre, music, the visual arts, dance and film for students from 24 participating school districts.

[53] (Author) The concept of the networked common school, E-learning 1,1, 2004, and reprinted in M. Peters and John Freeman-Moir, eds., Edutopias: New Utopian Thinking in Education , Sense, 2006.