Harmony-Meier Institute panel takes on equity and democracy in education

Friday, March 27, 2015

Post courtesy of IU Newsroom, written by Annie Brackemyre

A panel of educators and lawyers has called for an education system that treats all people with dignity and respect. Taking part in Wednesday’s public launch of The Harmony-Meier Institute for Democracy and Equity in Education, they touched on topics ranging from race in America to the gay rights movement and the need for dramatic changes in education.

“The common issue here is dignity,” said Roberta Kaplan, chief litigator for Edith Windsor in the Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor, which ruled that a key provision in the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. “Whether it is the dignity of gay couples, children in the civil rights movement or in education, we have to uphold their dignity.”

The panel was made up of Kaplan; Deborah Meier, a founder of the small schools movement; Steve Bonchek, founder and executive director of Harmony School in Bloomington; and Kevin Brown, the Richard S. Melvin Professor of Law in the IU Maurer School of Law. It was moderated by James Damico, chair of the Literacy, Culture and Language Education Department in the IU School of Education.

With panelists from such varied backgrounds, the conversation touched on the importance of democratic education through a variety of lenses. The panelists all engaged in topics such as how to best prepare children to be involved democratic citizens, how to protect the rights of children and how to help disadvantaged and minority students in the American education system.

“What I want for America is an education system with the primary goal of teaching kids how to be democratic citizens and everything else is second,” said Meier. “What other institution did we think would shape kids into democratic citizens?”

The mission of the Harmony-Meier Institute for Democracy and Equity in Education embodies these values with the core mission of educating and inspiring K-12 teachers, pre-service teachers and educators more broadly. The new institute is equipped to do so with partnerships and access to the Deborah Meier Archives, which are housed at the IU Lilly Library; Harmony School, which provides field experience to IU pre-service teachers; and the IU School of Education INSPIRE living-learning center.

The institute is an extension of the mission of the Harmony School, founded by Bonchek in 1974. The school embraces progressive attitudes similar to those that Meier has worked toward in her time as a teacher, principal and director for boards of education.

“Through civil rights and the anti-war Vietnam student protests, it became clear to me that young people could be involved democratic citizens and that we needed the education to prepare them to be so,” said Bonchek.

The new institute confronts the issues of democracy and equity in education through advocating new rights for students and encouraging a free flow of ideas not only top-down from teacher to students but also bottom-up from students to teachers.

The panelists disagreed on the best way to execute education reform nationwide, but all agreed that some sort of reform is necessary for the advancement of civil rights and the creation of better democratic citizens.

“We have come through 55 years of education reform,” said Brown. “This is depressing not because we are not trying to fix the education system but because we have been trying for so long and are still falling short.”