“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.