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The case of participatory democracy during the education crisis

Education policy has taken center stage in mainstream news for all the wrong reasons. Disagreements over COVID-19 precautions and the alleged use of a curriculum featuring critical race theory have led to literal physical battles at school board meetings. In this context, one wonders how districts can find ways to foster a healthy public discourse on local education issues.

Can school districts turn to civic engagement at a time when the loudest voices seem to lack civility? Indeed, they can. A stream of recent democratic innovation initiatives, including a recent research effort led by our team – the PAVED research group at Brown University – offers a potential blueprint.

Participatory budgeting in Central Falls, Rhode Island

In May 2021, school districts across the country were deciding what to do with their share of the American Rescue Plan Act’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. Most districts were spending money on technology and other supports to address learning loss and the socio-emotional challenges of the pandemic. The Central Falls Public School District (CFPS) in Rhode Island did too, but they also set aside funds for work that most districts were do not Make. They invested $100,000 in a participatory budgeting (PB) initiative. PB is a process that directly engages the public in brainstorming ideas, developing proposals, and voting on how to use public resources. CFPS hoped to start a public discussion about how to allocate funds to meet local needs. With one of the highest poverty rates and highest proportion of multilingual/English learner students in Rhode Island, CFPS had many needs to address.

For the PB initiative, Central Falls recruited a group of 33 delegates (17 parents and 16 students) to develop potential fundraising plans. Delegates circulated surveys in the community, collecting 240 ideas in response. The CFPS then held a series of 16 meetings – two a week for eight weeks – for delegates to draft a set of proposals that would be voted on by the community as a whole. On the hottest day of the year, 146 parents and students showed up to vote on official ballots prepared by the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office. Voters chose to invest in after-school programs. It turns out that the lack of high-quality extracurricular options has been a problem hiding in plain sight.

We have documented and analyzed the functioning of the PB at the CFSB. Our findings appear in a recently released report and we believe contain information relevant to districts far beyond Central Falls.

Part of our analysis focuses on the delegates themselves. We interviewed delegates before and after the initiative, which allowed us to see how their views changed and how they viewed the process. We have seen an increase in delegate desires for public engagement. After the process, they expressed more intention to contact schools when they had a problem, participate in group discussions, and work to reach agreement within the groups. They were also more likely to say they would engage in civic activities such as joining an organization to support local schools or becoming active on a local committee.

We also surveyed voters. Those voters, nearly half of whom answered the poll in Spanish or Portuguese, overwhelmingly felt satisfied with the options on the ballot. Additionally, they expressed high levels of effectiveness, with almost 90% of voters indicating that they felt they could influence school district policy.

Participatory democracy across the country

Central Falls isn’t the only district that has turned to democratic innovation to identify and solve big problems. In Houston, student leaders who sit on their student congress, or “StuCon, have taken the lead in developing and administering surveys of school reopenings during the pandemic. After noticing that all of the district’s efforts had been targeted at parents, teachers, and staff, StuCon circulated its survey to peers to amplify student voices. Through their efforts, the district adopted a plan that prioritized one of the top student issues – a quality virtual learning option for the first six weeks of the fall 2020 semester.

Before Central Falls and Houston, there was Albuquerque. In 2010, an organization called Everyday Democracy (ED) organized the Strong Start for Children (SSFC) citizen deliberation to identify policies and practices that could be used to strengthen the quality of early childhood education. ED partnered with local community organizations, which recruited 290 community members from across Albuquerque to participate in small-group deliberations called “dialogue circles.” Through these deliberations, they shared ideas with representatives who then raised the ideas at the 2011 SSFC Policy Forum in Santa Fe. The policy forum itself featured small group deliberations with community members and policy makers . As a result of SSFC, the Family Development Program at the University of New Mexico created a directory of early childhood development and education resources. There were even healthy fallouts, as the New Mexico state legislature passed a tribal language preservation bill.

They’re all different models, but the unifying theme is that they all demonstrate the potential of what can be achieved when governments empower communities to solve big problems together. In the short term, democratic engagement has led to new after-school programs, a smarter response to reopening schools, and better access to high-quality early childhood education centers. But the long-term benefits could be even greater. These efforts show us that a solutions-oriented civil discourse is possible and can be constructive, especially at a time when public dialogue often seems threatening.