Public Relations and Public Schools

"Ours is a dynamic, changing society. Only new answers using all our old resources -- buildings, teachers, and old school Board Members, too can produce a cooperative solution to our many problems."
Bloomington, IL • March 09, 1957

A political scientist once was called upon to analyze the success of the Conservative Party in Great Britain. He was asked to explain how that party had managed to maintain itself, in power or out of power, for almost two centuries. After much study, the scientist concluded that four qualities, almost characteristics, of the Conservative Party were largely responsible for its leadership and success. He defined these qualities as a sense of responsibility, a sense of continuity, a sense of style, and a sense of greatness.

To me these four qualities are as necessary for educational leadership as for political leadership. Without such leadership public relations for our schools would have a sorry task indeed. Honest and effective public relations can be based only on a profession, person, or product of quality and character -- and this means the qualities and characteristics of leadership.

For these reasons I’d like to discuss the four qualities of leadership required of education today with the hope that discussion of them will enable us to see more clearly the areas in which our public relations efforts should be concentrated.

First, is the need for a sense of responsibility. In or out of office, it is said, the British Conservatives were accustomed to talk and act like men who have held power and are prepared to hold it again. They knew what they said in opposition they would have to live up to in office.

To me as a school board member, this means that I should not ask for taxes, services, or favors which I would not grant were I on the other side. For example:-

Our Chicago Board of Education is now requesting the state legislature for authorization to raise local taxes to the highest levels in our city’s history. We are requesting additional taxing powers for educational purposes, textbooks, buildings, and recreational facilities.

In my judgment, we have a high duty to present to the state legislature only those requests which we can substantiate to a gnat’s eyelash. Gone, as far as schools are concerned, is the age-old political procedure of requesting twice what is needed to compensate for inevitable reductions by a legislature grown suspicious through bitter experience.

Instead, we have the responsibility to analyze our needs for money, and support them with precise and accurate financial data. When we as businessmen, lawyers, journalists, and housewives, serving on Boards of Education, have convinced ourselves that we are right, we have the duty to convince the people and their legislative representatives, not that we are half-right, but all right. This is not easy. We may not always succeed. But if we have done our “homework,” we should have the answers. And no one, least of all public officials, should be afraid of fair and honest questions concerning public business.

Our scrutiny of budgetary aid financial matters should include genuine efforts to find “savings” for the taxpayers and new efficiencies in operations. Last year in Chicago we increased by 11,000 the money available for education, over 1955, simply by paying our bills more promptly and earning discounts on them. We invested our idle cash balances more quickly and earned $217,000 more than the year before. We uncovered ways in which we could utilize our existing classrooms more efficiently and thereby created the equivalent of 3,814 additional classroom seats in overcrowded neighborhoods.

These specific indications of our determination to make every dollar count are responsible, in part, for the overwhelming public support we have recently enjoyed. They are examples of responsible public service, and they are their own reward just as they are the basis for public confidence and support.

The public will give when it knows the money is going for education, not entertainment. And the public has an absolute right to this information.

It seems to me that responsible journalism can be of great help to the public school systems which have taken the trouble to analyze their problems and present their requests in this manner. When the public and the legislature know that the press is well informed, legislative requests for increased taxes are not likely to be pruned unconscionably by legislators eager to pose as being economy-mindedstatesmen.

I am not suggesting that newspapers or radio stations become merely the mouthpiece for a board of education. I am well aware, too, that “fights make news” more than stories of effective public service, but I believe that journalism based on exhibitionism is becoming less popular with responsible newspapers and publishers. The newspapers and the radio can serve the public best if they expose not only corruption in office, but day by day performance as well. These are two sides of the same coin, which is basically this: Public relations exist to inform the people of all the facts, the good as well as the bad.

A sense of continuity is the second quality which our political scientist noted as typical of successful leadership. Wise political leaders, he noted, realize that history cannot be reversed, and that one government should not seek to undo everything done by another.

We in public education must realize this, too. Even Dr. Bestor’s best bombshells cannot erase the fact that John Dewey did live, did have influence, did train many distinguished schoolmen, and did affect our public school system. I say, let’s forget Dr. Bestor’s fulminations.

If necessary, let’s forget John Dewey. Dewey is dead -- physically, at least. Let’s stop arguing about “Who dun it?” and get on to the problems of who’s going to do it -- namely, who is going to do the job of teaching the increased thousands who appear at the front doors of our schools seeking our fabled American freedom of educational opportunity.

Everyone in this room could retire to a shady college campus and compose an ideal educational program, new from buildings to curriculum content. I like “Utopias,” too, especially when the setting is a lush Gauguin island in the South Pacific. But, for most of us who are not Platos, this is a waste of time.

We cannot tear down all the school buildings constructed before 1900. We cannot eliminate teachers simply because they may not qualify on some new test created by the Princeton Educational Testing Service. (I’m a Yale man myself!) We cannot tell in-migrants “Go back where you came from; our schools are filled to capacity.” Instead, we must build educational programs, using all the existing, as well as new resources we have, each to its maximum capacity.

In Chicago, for example, we are not waiting for new, specially-trained teachers, new shiny buildings, or recommendations from some new research project. Instead, we are using our existing teachers, existing buildings, our present sources of ideas in order to plan educational programs and procedures suitable for the revolutionary problems we face today, -- when each September our schools open their doors to 16,000 additional students.

We have instituted a “Master Teacher” program utilizing our present teachers to train our newest, and to help out in schools where our student population is weakest.

We have taken over buildings, deserted by others but now used by us, to provide new and different educational opportunities unprecedented in our city’s history, and unique in the lives of most of the children now studying in these new schools.

We have said to our existing principals: - Study your community and the children in your school. Discover their individual levels of education. Then devise courses of instruction for each of them as individual human beings -- courses where the weak English student can study twice as much English as his next-door neighbor who, in turn, may be taking twice as much Arithmetic.

Yes, we have read the books on the “Comprehensive High School” versus the Double Purpose High School. Yes, we would like to have all students in all classrooms progressing easily from grade to grade according to biological age but that idealization reminds me of a static Currier and Ives print where one moment of a 19th Century Christmas scene has been captured, never to be the same again.

Ours is a dynamic, changing society. Only new answers using all our old resources -- buildings, teachers, and old school Board Members, too can produce a cooperative solution to our many problems.

Once again, it seems to me that responsible journalism can give invaluable service to public education by helping to explain why new programs of education are necessary; how these programs are being conducted; what results are being obtained from them; why they may cost more than traditional methods of instruction, etc.

It is said that in Chicago we shall need 350,000 additional skilled laborers to fill industrial jobs between now and 1960. Our biggest businesses and businessmen seek this labor nationwide. Much of it comes to Chicago unskilled, and we in public education must try to train these newcomers for urban and industrial life. This is not cheap, but the full development of America’s industrial potential requires it.

Journalism can help to explain these facts of modern life. Newspaper stories on subjects like these might not sell as many newspapers as front-page streamers on dope addiction -- which in the Chicago area, incidentally, has declined tremendously but such journalism will serve the cause of public education well.

The third quality necessary for leadership has been called a sense of style. This particular quality is one which should be of special interest to everyone connected with public relations and with the communications media of modern America, because by a “sense of style” I mean that “the dignity of deeds requires an equal dignity of words.”

It isn’t enough for public schools to do an excellent job of education. We must explain what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what results we are getting. And, we must clothe our explanations in words as precise and inspiring as the educational programs we create in the classrooms.

You may say, like Gertrude Stein, that a school is a school is a school is a school. But I shall reply that the words “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” immortalized the deeds done on the battlefield of Gettysburg and raised those deeds to an eminence beyond Shiloh, Pittsburg Landing, or Appomattox.

Are we not all familiar with the fabulous soprano voice of Maria Callas, the celebrated opera star? Of course we are. But I challenge anyone in this room to show any respect in which Mme. Callas’ voice surpasses the voice of Renata Tebaldi. Even the best critics divide in evaluating the merits of these singers. But no one will deny that Callas has more fame, commands more money, excites more public interest in opera, because of one thing only:- she has style.

Or, take the prosaic world of the law – my own profession. Isn’t it true that arguments made before the Supreme Court by one man will carry more weight than the same arguments, even the same words, used by another?

American businessmen long ago discovered the package can be as important as the product. My recommendation today is that we present our educational programs in “packages,” if you will, or in words, convincing and expertly chosen.

This requires skill, professional skill, public relations skill, and hard work. This is another area where the press and radio can assume a joint responsibility with school people in the days ahead.

It is true that the responsibility of the press is to bring news to its customers. It is also true that the press functions at its best when it is espousing a cause -- particularly a cause that affects the best interests of the community and the well being of its people.

Unless the signs are completely wrong, America faces its greatest internal crisis in the education of its children. If this is so, then the press and educators must work together in helping communities face their educational problems.

We must print what schools are doing educationally, as often as we print stories of mayhem and murder. We must evaluate together what we are doing in our community schools.

The CHICAGO SUN-TIMES provides an excellent example of constructive journalism in today’s edition where Ruth Dunbar concludes her series on new developments in our Chicago public schools. The DAILY NEWS assigns one of their best editors, Van Allen Bradley, and one of their ablest reporters, Helen Fleming, to cover Board of Education activities in the news columns and on the editorial page. Our other Chicago newspapers have published able and thorough studies on federal aid to education, schools in changing neighborhoods, and teacher recruitment.

But we still contend with front page stories about “hooliganism”, dope addiction, or a street-fight after a football game. The days of journalism based on stories of “two-headed calves” are not altogether behind us.

Finally, there is needed the quality which we may call a “sense of greatness.” In other words, a leader must mold events as well as be molded by them; he must raise his followers to his level of action rather than be dragged down to theirs. Henry Ford, II recently expressed it in these words:- "...We’ve got to get out ahead of events and try to lead and shape them to the best of our ability...”

To achieve this quality of greatness requires one thing if it requires nothing else:- a firm and sincere conviction that education is the most important function of local government in America. Educators themselves must be convinced of this. I think they should also try to convince journalists that state and local government can concentrate their attention and assistance on nothing more important than the three great bulwarks of American democracy: - the home, the church, and the school. I guarantee that journalists who believe this will do an effective public relations job for education.

We hear many arguments about federal aid to education. Such aid is not popular in Illinois. But it is not right to compose editorials against federal aid to education while simultaneously maintaining silence about grievous cuts in state support of education. We are all in favor of local support for and control of education. But we cannot have it both ways. Either we do the job, locally, and properly, or we shall find the federal government, of necessity, giving to education the aid we ourselves have failed to provide.

Nor is it right, proper, or fitting to lump education with other municipal services, - with sewers, streets, and garbage disposal; or even with parks and boulevards; and then object because the overall tax bill is too high. Here again I believe responsible journalism can serve the people and the cause of education by pointing out that aid to education like support for our churches and homes affects the highest levels of our democracy because it affects the spirit of our people. Expenditures for schools, homes, and churches must be considered in a different light than dollars spent for TV and tobacco, or for police and fire protection.

Education ranks with the home and the church as a principal bulwark of western culture. It surpasses in importance even the physical health of our citizens. Let us never forget that Western civilization survived the Plague in the 14th Century when one out of every three persons living in Western Europe succumbed to the ravages of the Black Death. The bodies of millions were gone, interred in makeshift graves; but the spirit of western culture lived on because of education in the universities and monasteries.

If the U.S.A. is to fulfill its role of world leadership, it will do so not because we are healthy, have pearly white teeth, drive longer and lower automobiles on smoother and smoother superhighways, but because in this day and generation we put our dollars to work where work is needed -- in the minds, hearts, and souls of young America.

I have said it before but I should like to repeat it because I think it is still true:-

Here in Illinois, it is said, we are located in the “Heart of America.” It is, perhaps, our special responsibility to make known the true nature of that heart, -- a heart dedicated to the enlightenment of man’s mind and the inspiration of his soul.

The people in this room this morning can do much to assure such a development and revelation. May all of us decide today to play an important part in this great and enduring task.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
Get the Quote of the Week in Your Inbox