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Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy

By: David Mathews
Reviewed by: Jim Wrye
Kettering Foundation Press, 2006
$9.95, Paperback

 In poll after poll, Alabamians list education as the single most important issue facing the state. Yet ask citizens about Alabama’s public schools and attitudes change. Differences appear between parents with school-age children and those without. People will speak highly of their local schools, yet say Alabama schools overall are either poorly run, poorly funded, or both. Schools are often viewed as self-contained service providers, with rules made in far-off Montgomery and Washington.

These jumbled perceptions have one common theme: we want all Alabama’s children to be educated, but we have little personal power or responsibility to meet that goal.
This quandary has been at the forefront of David Mathews’ work. Mathews, past president of the University of Alabama and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Ford, has for many years been the head of the Kettering Foundation, working on strategies to strengthen democracy, with particular emphasis on public schools.

Mathews has written Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy to offer ways to reestablish a powerful relationship between schools and their communities and to improve them both. For anyone concerned with public schools and the quality of civic life, it will be a fascinating read.

Mathews’ book gives a historical overview of how public schools were established locally, and the long process of school centralization and professionalism that has reduced local control. “Americans don’t think they should be on the sidelines in matters of education,” Mathews writes, “yet the forces that put them there will be difficult for both citizens and educators to overcome.” Mathews further says our political and education systems have reduced the public to “an audience to be addressed or a market to be enticed.”

In order to reestablish ownership and responsibility, Mathews believes we must transform the public itself. “[T]hat is what this book is really about—how a democratic public forms and works to improve the education of all Americans,” he writes. It is a tall order to build a democratic public engaged in school improvement, yet Mathews provides steps and skills to do just that.

Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy is a clarion call and a how-to manual to reestablish public activism and public ownership of our schools. Mathews provides new ways of thinking and acting for those inside the schoolhouse and in the community.

Jim Wrye is the Director of Communications for the Alabama Education Association.

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