I've taught in a Montessori school for two months now. Its a much better gig than public schools, but the pay isn't nearly as good. That's not to say public school teachers make a decent wage. In my opinion, the vast majority of teachers are not paid what they're worth. My salary is somewhere in between that of a public school teacher, and that of a free school teacher. As for the school community being democratic, it is to a certain extent. For the most part, children have free choice in their activities. However, they do not make the rules as a community in a free school would. I don't see why the elementary students couldn't have court and community meetings though.
I think my main issue with the school I work at is we still admister the state's standardized test. I get the sense that Maria Montssori would've thought the standardized tests we give kids today are limited at best. The main reason we feel "pressed for time" is the tests. Activities such as knitting and yoga are pushed aside because we fear the scores. In free schools the teacher does not use coercion and they could care less how their kids rate according to the state. I think coercion isn't so bad, and I like Montessori's notion that we should feed children's natural love of learning. They are intrinsically motivated to "know", why not expose them to what is out there. Her idea of going from the big picture to small details makes sense. Montessori Montessori felt work was not a bad word. I agree. However, I also agree with A.S. Neill that children learn through play. I don't think it has to be one or the other. I think the philosophy and ideas of the two could be united to for a Super School. I imagine a place where children could learn democratically, with plenty of opportunites to work with interesting materials as one chooses with the guidance of an adult. I imagine this adult to be both wise, and not afraid to admit he doesn't know something. I see no reason why Dewey, Montessori, and Neill couldn't find a way to get along. In my mind they certainly can.