After a nine-month tour of America in 1831, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, a volume that remains one of the best descriptions of American civic and political life.
De Tocqueville focused much of his analysis on America’s civil society, the tapestry of voluntary organizations that citizens put together to unite themselves and solve problems. He wrote:
“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.”
I have a paper out with Washington, D.C.’s R Street Institute exploring the role the civil society has played in Kansas City’s charter schooling sector. While the traditional public school district has struggled with legitimacy and engagement over the past three decades (enrollment has been on the decline, and KCPS struggles to recruit enough candidates to make school board elections competitive), charter schools have been an outgrowth of the community, reflecting their needs, values, and desires.
In the paper, I briefly explain the roles of local philanthropists in founding and supporting high-performing charter schools, of civic organizations like the Guadalupe Centers in creating schools geared towards the needs of specific communities, and of parent groups in recruiting potential school operators to create the types of schools that they want.
The charter sector in Kansas City is not perfect, but it is built on a sturdy foundation. Somewhere, Alexis de Tocqueville is smiling.