Why an Engaged Public Is Necessary

For the past 25 years, I’ve been a devoted student of the work of the Kettering Foundation, a non-profit foundation which studies what it takes for democracy to work as it should.  In the foreword to a research report published in 1993 entitled “Meaningful Chaos:  How People Form Relationships with Public Concerns,” Kettering Foundation President David Mathews wrote something that has had a profound influence on my thinking over the years.  In it he explains that on important issues, the conventional approach is to try to reach the public through publicity.  However, to be authentic or legitimate, he said that public opinion has to be more than a manipulated response.  It has to be formed independently by the interaction of citizens with citizens.  He concludes that “when issues can only be resolved by public action (as in those situations where sacrifice is required), an engaged public is a necessity.”  For school districts faced with the prospect of a school tax issue, Dr. Mathews’ insight has shown that local residents are much more likely to support a tax increase if they have a voice in placing the issue on the ballot.  For the leaders of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network, his message is that school district residents need to be engaged with one another in thoughtful conversations about the impact of high stakes testing and other statewide policy initiatives.

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