At the core of American democracy is the notion that the problems of communities cannot be left to policymakers and other leaders alone. Citizens must participate, either directly or through the election of those who represent their beliefs. Democracy is more than just a belief in the importance of basic human rights such as equality, freedom, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. For 244 years, Americans have answered democracy’s clarion call: coming together to solve problems openly and thoughtfully. More recently, devolution – the shift of major activities and services from federal to local control – has bolstered the belief that local communities can and should solve their own problems. This shift of power and responsibility has created new demand for services and supports at state and local levels. Across a wide range of issues – health, welfare, education and economic development – communities are struggling to improve the capacity to solve problems collectively. But often, a community’s capacity for problem solving is challenged by changing demographics, disengaged citizens, fragmented public policy and inequitable distribution of resources. Local responsibility for healthy, productive and successful schools requires different kinds of collaborative relationships between schools and their communities. Community-based organizations often are catalysts for bringing people together. They provide services and supports that once came from government. They serve to strategically organize and mobilize groups toward specific actions, outcomes and goals. Community-based organizations are not political entities, but they do represent the beliefs of their members and often add value to the political and policy debate. They represent democracy in action. Local problem solving requires new relationships, decisions, behaviors and norms. After they’ve been developed, community leaders and residents can move toward sustainable, long-term change.
A recent survey reported that the vast majority of Americans have a deep-rooted commitment to make schools better for all children. Americans see their public schools as the centers around which community life revolves, and they recognize that quality public schools have a value beyond measure. Public schools are the key to the well-being of our communities and our future prosperity as a nation. The health of public schools is a barometer of our democratic way of life. We believe that community demand for change is critical, particularly in low-income communities, where schools are failing and students are not succeeding. Where the education system is not working, the public needs to reclaim its responsibility for community change. The public not only has the right to demand high quality in its schools; it also has a responsibility to improve and protect public education. But in the very communities where students face the most barriers to achieving at high levels and meeting new academic requirements, residents are often disengaged from their schools. Many community members have given up on their local schools, feeling that they have no control over school quality. Indifference, disillusionment and outright hostility between parents or other community members and educators often replace dialogue, common goals and collaboration. For more than 16 years, local education funds (LEFs) have helped to create sustainable change in public education systems nationwide. As independent community organizations, LEFs work with local school districts and communities to design collaborative solutions that improve public schools and promote student achievement. They have played the roles of conveners, brokers and coordinators of school reform activities. LEFs have built partnerships between schools and communities, leveraged resources and spearheaded community action to improve individual public schools and entire school districts.
More local education funds have developed a body of knowledge about mobilizing local resources and engaging the public to support long-term and systemic solutions to the problems of public education. This historical perspective has deepened the understanding of what it takes to create a community with new relationships, norms and capacities for problem solving and has led to new thinking about a framework of strategic interventions for community change. These interventions are expressions of democracy. If citizens are truly to help define what they want for their public schools, and if they are going to act to help achieve those ends for all students, it is important to bring them together to articulate their beliefs, goals and areas of shared understanding. In public dialogue, citizens can come to agreement on goals for their public schools and their community and develop plausible local strategies to work toward those goals. Community dialogue presents opportunities to educate communities about important concepts: how the education system works, meaningful data that show how effective the system is and what constitutes a quality education. With a new, common understanding, citizens can then develop a collective commitment to improving their public schools. It’s not enough just to talk; public dialogue needs to be structured to produce action-oriented outcomes. Engagement opportunities broaden the diversity of people involved and renew their commitment to common goals. In many cases, dialogue serves to raise expectations for community change. The knowledge gathered in public forums informs and convinces people of the need to advocate for specific action to improve public schools. Local education funds often serve as conveners and facilitators in this work. LEFs don’t convene community conversation and dialogue simply to put forth a point of view. Instead, they create opportunities for dialogue by building effective partnerships among community-based organizations, schools, faith-based groups, elected officials and citizens. Forums for this dialogue include strategic planning processes, town meetings and education roundtables. Local education funds face the challenges of moving communities from talk to action and of including appropriate stakeholders at the right time. Often, as conveners, LEFs also need to mediate divisive, deeply entrenched beliefs to keep the dialogue productive.