Published On: September 17, 2021
Home>News, Participatory Budgeting>How The U.S. Public School System can Save Democracy. And the Sooner, the Better

The American Dream is in danger of becoming the American Mirage, a Pollyanna’s vision of the future that many of our children — tomorrow’s taxpayers, voters, officials and business leaders —believe is unattainable. If this doesn’t scare you, it should; and it will eventually as the social contracts that sustain democracy continue to unravel, and our government systems falter or fail.

Businesses, organizations, and, yes, whole countries require future generations to sustain them. Study iconic corporations, sports teams, political movements and you’ll likely see years spent cultivating succession plans and the people needed to execute them.

So, how is the United States doing in the eyes of the people who would be taking the torch from today’s voters and income generators? Well, according to studies conducted in three areas essential to sustain our democracy, it’s striking out repeatedly.

Young people are losing faith in American democracy. That translates into distrust in the public institutions that support it. As a result, they will either refuse to vote, or back candidates representing positions that undermine democratic institutions.[1]

Civics education is uneven or absent across the U.S. No wonder most of us barely play a role in civic life beyond merely voting.[2] Our schools are not inspiring informed participation.

Without standardized financial literacy curricula, more U.S. citizens will remain financially illiterate.[3] Leading to increasing levels of economic inequality, this also permits powerful individuals and institutions to swindle the vulnerable and underserved members of society.

The bottom line is that our country’s economic well-being is linked to public finance: To continue generating the taxes that fund government operations, we need to cultivate more individuals capable of producing and managing income and wealth. But how do we achieve that quickly and equitably, using systems that are already in place?

The answer: a public-private partnership that accelerates national adoption of participatory budgeting in public schools.

I recommend that the Biden-Harris Administration rapidly create a public-private partnership to launch a national Participatory Budgeting (PB) program in public schools. And given our current political climate, today would not be soon enough. The faster the government initiates this, the sooner our country will accrue the benefits of giving students and their families more say in their futures, while learning how public finance happens.

Not some exotic ivory tower theory, PB is a real-world practice endorsed by the United Nations and the State of New York. Several schools across the U.S. already practice it, and the number is growing. A democratic process that puts real money under student control, PB allows young people to make investment decisions about their own schools. Through hands-on practice, they develop vital life skills in financial literacy,[4] design thinking and civics. Moreover, it increases positive civic engagement.[5]

An example in action is the Civics for All curriculum of the New York City Department of Education. Students who participate acquire financial and civic knowledge through project-based learning.[6] Recognizing PB’s power, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) declared that beginning in the 2019-20 school year, all low-performing schools (Comprehensive Support and Improvement) must implement some form of participatory budgeting process.[7] In other words, New York City managed to put all the pieces together.[8] The rest of the country needs to do the same, and fast. However, to accelerate the adoption of PB nationwide, three things are needed:

  • Participatory budgeting curricula that states can customize
  • Purpose-built software
  • Program seed money to “incentivize” state adoption

So, how do we find and activate the components required to empower every state to leverage the insights behind what New York has already implemented? Fortunately, the elements are already available. The answer is to initiate a public-private partnership that would support a PB solution at the state and/or local level.

The Department of Education can rescue Democracy — with help from FirstRoot.

The Department of Education would be ideally positioned to launch a national PB initiative, if only it had the software and expertise at the ready. The thing is, it does, if it launched a public-private partnership with us,, a mission-driven, U.S.-based public benefit corporation.

We are experienced, ready, and able to successfully deploy a complete PB solution at scale to schools throughout the country.

A public-private partnership is the best path forward for three reasons:

1) Speed — We need to act quickly, faster than the number of years it would take the Federal Government or individual states to develop a solution from scratch.

2) Low Cost — To succeed, the cost to taxpayers needs to be minimal. A public-private partnership would leverage outside investments into the private company. Additionally, government endorsements accelerate investments into private companies, facilitating growth.

3) Distributed Control — States may want the prerogative to build their own solution and maintain control over curricula, implementation, and program adoption.

Once a public-private partnership is established, the U.S. Department of Education will have a template to encourage all states to adopt PB by offering them the “seed money” of $10.00 per student (or up to $2000 per school) each year for two years. But there would be a string attached: the strict requirement that this funding is placed under direct student control.

This would now allow partner companies to begin implementing PB programs nationally within one school year. The one-time cost to taxpayers would be between $100M-$150M, spread over two years. Such a program could cover 50 to 90% of the school districts that make a firm commitment at no extra cost to the states or schools. After two years, ongoing funding would become the responsibility of the Local Education Authority (LEA).

Our democratic way of life is in jeopardy. Due to the lack of civics engagement, financial literacy, and growing economic inequality, many young people have lost faith and trust in our democracy. However, the solution is clear: Allow students to make decisions that matter about how money is spent in their schools, increasing their agency and hope in the future.

But change this consequential takes time: We need to start now. To support the national adoption of PB, the Biden-Harris Administration should prioritize this recommendation in the next 100 days.

Most students in secondary schools will be voters soon. Only when they have the personal involvement of being an active citizen, experiencing their agency and responsibility, will they want to vote and participate more fully. And maybe, just maybe, they help save democracy.

I would like to thank Harry Max, a Silicon Valley executive coach and consultant, and Alan Sharavsky, author, consultant, and committed citizen for for their considerable contributions to this article.