“What It Makes Is Democracy”— An Open Note to Chicagoans

I was inspired to write this note by blogger Marilyn Rhames’s “Open Letter to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis” (Charting My Own Course in Education Week Teacher, March 2, 2015).  In it, she thoughtfully offers her own opinions on the current mayoral race in Chicago—both its issues and its past and present players. 

9Some years ago, Mitch Brickell and I wrote a book for school board members based on his lifetime of work educating tens of thousands of school board members around the country.  We opened with this statement:

The most remarkable thing about our remarkable country is this:  Ordinary citizens control almost every major public institution.  No matter how many expert professionals are on the payroll, they do not have the last word.  Somewhere above them, above the top of the pyramid of experts, is a group of civilians.  They have the last word.  They are not as expert as the experts, but they have the last word.  They may know less about the operations than anyone on the payroll.  Still, they have the last word.

Does this make sense?  What it makes is democracy.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people.  We, the people, govern ourselves.  The professional experts do not govern us.  We govern them; they serve us.

This is a particularly American idea.  It may be the most American idea of all.  No nation uses it more.  It is our favorite form of governance.  We use it for villages, townships, cities, counties, states, regions, the nation.  We use it for sewers, police, roads, firefighting, rivers, libraries, prisons, forests, the military—every government function, without exception; all staffed by experts, without exception; and all governed by civilians.

With a bow to my good friends and colleagues in the U.K., which has its own long and strong tradition of school governors, I can say that I am proud of our American idea of “citizen governors”—whether they are city council members, state governors, members of Congress, the president, or school board members.  All are elected by the people to govern the people.

And that brings us to Chicago.  There is so much in the news right now about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s upcoming runoff with Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on April 7 and, perhaps surprisingly, their education platforms have been one focus of those news stories.  While there are several education issues being debated—including school closings and a teacher strike—the issue closest to my heart is Chicago’s school board.  Emanuel wants to continue his mayor-appointed board, and Garcia promises to propose and promote the establishment of an elected board (the state legislature and governor would have to agree to change the law for Garcia to make good on his promise).

I am taken back to one simple sentence in the opening pages of our book:  “What it makes is democracy.”  That is hard to argue with.  I am sure that there are many political and intellectual and practical arguments in favor of an appointed school board, and I am sure that some are persuasive.  But is any argument as persuasive as this one:  Citizens voting for the individuals who will govern their lives is the way we run our country.

Good luck on April 7, Chicagoans.

About Henry M. Brickell, Chairman

Henry M. (Mitch) Brickell founded Policy Studies in Education in 1973 and has directed the work of its over 500 projects. He has addressed local, state, and national audiences of teachers, administrators, school board members, legislators, and citizens in most states over the past 55 years. He was named one of the first Distinguished Professors of the National Academy for School Executives, operated by the American Association of School Administrators for the training of administrators.

Dr. Brickell created the Davies–Brickell System of School Board Policy Making and Administration, which is the basis for the policy systems used today in most school districts nationwide, and he is a nationally recognized expert in the training of school board members. His policy system has served as the foundation for PSE’s project work in numerous school districts and training sessions conducted in most states in the U.S.

Early in his career while on special assignment to Commissioner James E. Allen, Jr., at the New York State Education Department, Dr. Brickell wrote the landmark book on educational innovation, Organizing New York State for Educational Change. He has authored numerous other books, book chapters, and articles for professional educational journals (e.g., Phi Delta KappanEducational Leadership, The College Board Review). He served as a chief speaker and author for the Education Commission of the States during the debate over minimum competency testing for students. He co-authored Americans in Transition, published by The College Board, about the national trend of adults returning to college.

Dr. Brickell served as the American Educational Research Association’s representative to the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation, which published benchmarks for the sound evaluation of educational programs. He served on the panel that chose the original sites for the federally funded educational research and development laboratories and centers; as the longtime chair of the outside review panels that oversaw the work of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory and Research for Better Schools; as the outside evaluator for projects conducted by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education; and as an advisor to the Council on Educational Research and Development, the national association of federally funded educational research labs and centers.

Dr. Brickell directed statewide studies for legislative commissions on planning public and nonpublic education in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He planned and carried out a statewide professional conversation on the redesign of teacher education in Ohio and, later, presided over a months-long debate for the Ohio State Senate on how to improve the cost-effectiveness of public education in the state. He chaired the National Institute of Education’s conference on exemplary youth employment programs and prepared the conference report for the Vice President’s Task Force on Youth Employment.

Previously, Dr. Brickell taught high school English in Illinois, served as an assistant superintendent for the Manhasset (NY) Public Schools, taught at New York University and Stanford University, and served as Associate Dean for Research and Development at Indiana University. He earned a B.S. from The Ohio State University, an M.A. from the University of Chicago, and an M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.