As a public school superintendent, Charlie Irish spent much of his career challenging the conventional thinking of his profession. This past year, he and I co-authored Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Take Back Our Public Schools. In it, we identify “sacred cow” conventional beliefs that are severely weakening the relationship between the public and our public schools. He recently wrote about how the Brexit saga in the United Kingdom exposes some of the sacred cow thinking that is putting that relationship in jeopardy.
Trying to follow the convoluted twists and turns of the Brexit matter becomes a mind-boggling effort for most of us. Yet, I see a lesson in it. It is simply that when confronted with complicated issues in a democracy, voting is the last thing to be done, not the first. Consider how things might be different in the U.K. if what we are seeing now had been a pre-election discussion rather than post-election fight. It strikes me that, as a nation, the U.K. is being asked to define itself with a gun to its head. Before we get too smug, however, let’s bring that notion closer to home and compare it to the ways schools address serious matters like finances. It has become the norm for a board of education to lock in the parameters of choice in an election before there is any public deliberation. Even in the very few cases when public discussion occurs in advance of the board’s action, it typically is to confirm what has already been decided “up high.” And then, of course, when people finally become involved in levy campaigns around an unalterable choice, there is nothing left for them to decide other than yes or no. In Brexit, the vote preceded a national deliberation where people begin to understand what the issue means to their lives. In our schools today, we lock in the choices given to the public before it can have meaningful conversations about them. I don’t see much of a difference between the two. Instead, what if the whole process began with public deliberation? What if, through its deliberation, a community would tell its elected officials what is the appropriate choice to be presented on a ballot? What if a board of education committed to not put any issue on the ballot until it was clear that the community had deliberated sufficiently enough to narrow its choices and was now ready to vote? That doesn’t mean a consensus has been reached. Rather, it simply means that people have identified their choices and understand what is at stake — as they define it through their own eyes, not the eyes of professional educators. That is when voting becomes the next appropriate step. In addition to greatly improving the chances of passing tax issues, meaningful public deliberation would ensure something even more important. It would strengthen the legitimacy of the school district as part of the community. Just to be clear, legitimacy does not automatically come with the designation, “public school.” Legitimacy exists when citizens believe the institution is theirs, not when someone tells them that their only choice is to say “yes” or “no.”