Bridging a Growing Gap

July 2018
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

The concept of “maximum feasible participation,” which was written into the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 -- legislation unofficially known as the War on Poverty -- captured one of the central, enduring problems in governance: how to balance administrative expertise and effective community involvement.

With the increasing complexity of the modern world and the need for data and analysis to solve ever bigger and thornier problems comes a corresponding need for professionals with the necessary training and skills. Inevitably, however, the distance between these experts and the people on whose behalf they are working grows. This produces tensions that are most likely to flare into open conflict in areas where government is the most visible and its interactions with citizens are most frequent, such as with zoning or land use issues and police-community relations.

But perhaps nowhere is this more of an issue than with public schools. While there are a lot of reasons for this, it seems that a big one is the fact that so many of the experts and others in charge of government don’t send their own children to public schools. As a result, they may see a very different purpose and role for those schools than the people who do send their kids there.

Some of the seeds of the current wave of teacher strikes grow from this conflict over who owns and controls the schools and their funding: the state legislature and the governor, or the people in the local communities? The teachers are often able to prevail because they are seen as more legitimately part of the community and fulfilling an important role that the state’s elected leadership has neglected.

John Nalbandian, a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas and former mayor of Lawrence, Kan., has written extensively about these issues, and he believes that bridging the gap between the professionals and the community is a role that increasingly must be filled by the people at the top of public organizations, serving as translators and intermediaries.

That requires credibility on each side. Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools profiled in J. Brian Charles’ feature in this issue, seems particularly qualified to carry out the role Nalbandian describes. She grew up in Chicago, was educated in its public schools, got her doctorate in education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, taught in the local schools and sends her own children to them. A lot is riding on how well she can make maximum feasible participation a reality for Chicago.