The 5-page review written by Stacie Molnar-Main of Democracy, Deliberation and Education (2017), by Robert Asen was published in the Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 13: Iss. 1. In the book, Asen compiled and analyzes case studies of three school boards’ deliberations over a two-year period and how they addressed concerns of accountability and policy change. Read an excerpt of the review below and find the PDF available for download on the Journal of Public Deliberation site here.
From the review…
Democracy, Deliberation and Education is comprised of case studies of three school boards’ deliberations over a two-year period, during which board members addressed local educational concerns in the context of accountability and market driven state and federal policies. Through these cases, Robert Asen demonstrates how theoretical issues in deliberative decision-making manifest in the work of local boards as they decide how to approach issues like district extra-curricular activities, finances, personnel and open enrollment. Drawing on the work of deliberative theorists such as Habermas, Rawls, Dewey, and others, the book explores themes raised by the boards’ deliberation and argues that school boards are positioned to play a pivotal role in advancing the “Great Community” that Dewey envisioned.
The book includes five theme-based chapters, in addition to an introduction and conclusion. Early on, Asen references public sphere theory when he describes school boards as “strong publics” – publics engaged in both opinion formation and policy-making. As such, they serve as sites where “participants might engage one another to develop collectively perspectives and positions that each might not hold individually and to act on these perspectives and positions in charting a common course” (p. 35). Asen argues that school boards are distinct from most other examples of strong publics because they operate within an “education policy network.” This requires them to spend time interacting in state and federal policymaking environments, as well as in direct interaction with local constituents. From this unique space, the book explores how board members—as interlocutors— negotiate a policy environment which may constrain deliberation, while responding to contingent developments, localized needs and contested matters within their communities.
The next three chapters focus on individual cases and address the themes of ideology, scarcity and expertise. “Ideology” is explored through an analysis of one board’s decision to officially recognize a Gay Straight Alliance that had been informally meeting in the district’s schools. The chapter describes how dynamics of ideology interact in school board deliberations where participants’ individual commitments, district policy, and the law produce public tensions and board members are forced to make a decision under threat of a discrimination lawsuit. The next chapter considers the resources a district needs to deliberate productively. By examining budget deliberations in a community severely impacted by the 2008 recession, Asen explores how “scarcity” influenced the board’s decision to adopt a budget that would paradoxically result in a decrease in state funding. In this case, a system of scarcity—demarked by high community unemployment rates, a strained school budget, relative power differences among community stakeholders and perceptions of people’s economic suffering—influenced deliberations and produced results that were both non-rational and counter to the intent of state laws 1 Molnar-Main: Review of Democracy , Deliberation and Education seeking to ameliorate funding inequalities. The theme of “expertise” is explored through the case of a school board serving a more affluent community. In this school district, board members disproportionately engaged expertise over community values when making decisions about which students should be welcomed into the district under state laws promoting school choice. The chapter reveals how market models of expertise and education can pervade deliberations and limit the scope of information and concerns engaged in decision-making. This, in turn, can produce outcomes that weaken opportunities for public school students to learn in classrooms that reflect the economic, racial and ethnic diversity of the broader public.
Download the full review from the Journal of Public Deliberation here.
About the Journal of Public Deliberation
Spearheaded by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in collaboration with the International Association of Public Participation, the principal objective of Journal of Public Deliberation (JPD) is to synthesize the research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in the emerging multi-disciplinary field and political movement called by some “deliberative democracy.” By doing this, we hope to help improve future research endeavors in this field and aid in the transformation of modern representative democracy into a more citizen friendly form.
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Resource Link: www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol13/iss1/art10/