Why Democracy is the Source of Our Educational Inequality

When he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin was asked by an anxious citizen, "Sir, what kind of government have you given us?" His reply is not what you might think - it did not include any mention of democracy. Instead, he simply remarked, "A republic, if you can keep it.”  The authors of the Constitution feared democracy, primarily because they knew it usually failed. Of democracy, John Adams said, "It never lasts long - it soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself."  Ben Franklin was even more graphic in his description, saying that democracy is akin to "two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner."

Needless to say, the framers of the Constitution did everything they could to keep us from destroying ourselves through democracy. Instead, they sought to design a government wherein the rule of law prevailed, rather than the will of the mob. To some, this sounds anti-American. Did our founding fathers really desire for the influence of the people to be absent from political decision-making processes? On some level, that is exactly right. Allow me to explain.

In a democracy, the majority rules (even if the minority is almost numerically equal to the majority). Therefore, the voice of the minority is silenced and subjugated to the voice of the majority. While this may not initially seem important, let me ask a simple question: Have you ever been a part of the minority (because of race, economic status, or some other socio-political characteristic)? If so, you know that when you are in the minority, you "lose” - what you and the others in the minority want is not going to become reality, at least in the present moment.

The good news is that humans are fickle; our opinions can change quickly based on new information, trends and fads, or even something as simple as waking up on the wrong side of the bed. The minority can become the majority, and then the minority again, all in a very short span of time.  Yet those at the Constitutional Convention wanted something better for us; they wanted more for us than being subject to the fickleness of our human nature. They sought consistency, and the system created in the Constitution provided just that. As a gift, we were given a republic, wherein the rule of law prevails, and not the ever changing will of the majority. In this sense, the purpose of the republic is to save us from ourselves.

Yet many people, even politicians, continue to run away from this model and into the outstretched arms of self-destructive democratic processes. Insofar as the education system in America is no different, I would argue that democracy itself is the source of educational inequality in America.

When the democratic model of decision-making is applied to education, Benjamin Franklin's aforementioned quote becomes all the more graphic. When the democratic method is being employed, the minority becomes the lamb led to slaughter. It should, therefore, be no surprise that the needs of the minority are silenced, for that is the very nature of democracy.

Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman argues that the accident of ones birth is the primary source of inequality in America. I agree. If you are born into a racial or socio-economic minority, research shows that your educational fate is likely sealed.  For example, statistics on reading trends from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) - which measures reading achievement in public schools - show that between 1994 and 2007, significant gaps between white and non-white students were consistently demonstrated, despite a whole host of government driven interventions at that time. A gap in math ability also exists, and has been widening in recent years.

The amount of money spent on education in America further demonstrates the correlative relationship between democracy and inequality. Those in the minority, regardless of where they reside in this country, have less tax dollars spent on their education than the majority.  Authors such as Jonathan Kozol and Linda Darling-Hammond have made note of this, citing that in certain circumstances, the spending on students at predominantly white schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by minority students.  Truly, the opportunity gap precedes the achievement gap.

Recent court cases support this conclusion. In Skeen vs. State of Minnesota (1993), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that while there is a “fundamental right to a basic level of funding,” for schools, that right does not require equality of spending among districts.  Otherwise stated, those in the majority - who therefore have the loudest voice (and often the greater resources) - are openly welcome to advocate for, and contribute dollars to, educational inequality. This is certainly democratic. It is also sounds a lot like justification for inequality.

Some will argue that this is simply the American way. I can hear the naysayers now. They will say, "This is democracy. It's the way things are.  If people don't like it, they should just leave." To those people, I simply say this: You may be right, but at least I've got John Adams and Ben Franklin on my side. And I believe, as they did, that it wasn't supposed to be this way. Instead, the freedom and equality that are written into our US Constitution should extend into the classroom.

Freedom and democracy are not necessarily synonyms.  To the authors of the Constitution, the notion of a republic was a far better approximation in the sense that within a republic, all people are to be treated equally under the law and the freedoms of all people are to be protected, rather than simply those who have the privilege of residing in the majority.  One could, therefore, argue that democratic behavior and processes have the power to isolate the freedom and privileges of the minority. For example, we hail referendum voting as the ultimate in democratic inclusion instead of seeing it for what it also is - the opportunity for the majority to subjugate the rights and privileges of others to their own.  The question of equity and equitable spending in education should not be one that is subject to democratic processes.

As evidence, consider the most recent international assessments in math and science conducted by the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA), on which the US Ranked 25th (math) and 21st (science) out of 30, respectively. Many of the countries that have surpassed the United States in the areas of math and science are fully subsidizing the education of their students. This commitment to equality is built into their law, and also honored in practice; questions regarding the equal funding of education are not subject to a democratic debate, discussion or vote. Those in the majority are not welcome to sabotage the fight for equality for personal gain, let alone for preference or because of prejudice.

These countries are not allowing democratic processes to determine the variety of education their citizenry receives. Like the framers of the Constitution, these countries also want to save the people from themselves; they want to protect the minority from the majority. Perhaps this is anti-American. If that is the case, then this America is not what our founding fathers desired for us.  Perhaps this is why Ben Franklin remarked that we have been given a republic, "If [we] can keep it".