More than any other school superintendent I have ever met, Clifford B. Janey believed in democracy. While it might be easier to run a school system in a top-down, autocratic fashion, he knew that doing so would send a terrible message to the students who were closely watching how the adults around them behaved. Dr. Janey, who died earlier this month, was the superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York (1995–2002), Washington, D.C. (2004–2007), and Newark, New Jersey (2008–2011); and everywhere he went, he made sure that democracy was at the center of the education that children experienced.

Embodying Inclusivity and Equity

I came to know Cliff when we served together on the board of the Albert Shanker Institute, a progressive think tank associated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Like Al Shanker, the president of the AFT from 1974 to 1997, Cliff could hardly have a conversation about education without talking about democratic values. In that sense, he was the mirror opposite of his successor in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee, who was often autocratic, and who and famously invited a camera crew to film her firing a school official.

Cliff believed that in order to teach children to be good citizens in a democracy, the adults had to demonstrate, through their own actions, that they believed in democratic values. That meant, among other things, including parents, teachers, and community members in decision-making in a way that is visible to students.

Cliff believed that in order to teach children to be good citizens in a democracy, the adults had to demonstrate, through their own actions, that they believed in democratic values.

In Rochester, for example, Cliff worked with union leader Adam Urbanski to develop a process of “peer assistance and review” for supporting and evaluating teachers. Whereas in most districts, school principals evaluate and fire weak teachers in a top-down fashion, Rochester developed a manifestation of workplace democracy in which expert teachers help struggling colleagues to improve. Only after this mentorship and supportive intervention, if the individual in question just is not cut out for teaching, a joint committee of labor and management makes the recommendation to terminate employment.

Knowing that racial and economic segregation of schools also undercuts the democratic message of public education, Cliff championed a program in Rochester to encourage integration. He adopted an innovative plan to allow greater choice within the public school system, with fairness guidelines to ensure that those choices resulted in greater socioeconomic and racial diversity.

After moving to Washington, D.C., to take on the role of superintendent there, Cliff continued his commitment to modeling democratic decision-making. He created the D.C. Education Compact, made up of government leaders, community activists, teachers, union officials, business leaders, and people from the philanthropic community to advise him on the district’s strategic plan. Among their recommendations was the adoption of a Washington, D.C., version of the highly regarded Massachusetts education standards.

And in the final stretch of his superintendency career, during his tenure in Newark, Cliff created a teacher-run school to model democracy. He arranged for a contract waiver to start the Brick Avon Academy, in which rank-and-file teachers elected fellow teachers to make decisions about curriculum, budgeting, and hiring. Teachers felt heard, and the school saw increased test scores in subsequent years.

It’s Time to Take Up Cliff Janey’s Example

Cliff was disappointed when the D.C. and Newark school systems both took turns away from his democratic approach in the years after his service with them. In 2016, we teamed up to write a Century Foundation report, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education,” which noted the decline in democratic practices in both cities. As chancellor of D.C.’s schools, for example, Michelle Rhee proposed getting a congressional declaration of emergency in order to avoid having to bargain with democratically elected teacher union officials. “Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building,” she argued, “are way overrated.” In Newark, meanwhile, outside technocrats were given “nearly dictatorial power” to run the schools, journalist Sarah Carr wrote in The Washington Post.

Cliff was also deeply alarmed by the rise of Donald Trump’s right-wing authoritarianism. He saw in it a failure of our schools to educate our youngest citizens, and called Trump’s election a “sputnik moment for civics education.” Cliff also had the courage to gently prod fellow progressives when they didn’t uphold egalitarian standards. At a conference we attended on civics education, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the featured speaker, made a well-intentioned point of asking any high school student who spoke whether he or she planned to go to college. The justice would congratulate them when they invariably said yes. When Cliff was given the chance to ask a question, he delicately made clear that students who did not plan to go to college also had a lot to offer and were deserving of support.

Our democracy’s continuing crisis makes the principles Clifford Janey stood for all the more important to heed.

Cliff was a warm and loyal friend—and always, like his wonderful wife Barbara, delighted in being a teacher and mentor to young people. He was the first African-American teacher some of his students had ever had, and he was known to inspire students of color, in particular, to become teachers themselves. Top-down education reforms like those championed by Michelle Rhee have begun to wane, as policymakers have grown to appreciate the importance of listening to teachers rather than punishing them; and I’m glad that Cliff lived to see that development. His career played no small part in making it possible. At the same time, our democracy’s continuing crisis makes the principles Clifford Janey stood for all the more important to heed. His passing leaves our democracy and our society poorer. Still, I’m thankful that having Cliff’s example leaves us poised to become more equitable and democratic with every educator that follows in his footsteps.