A guest tribute by Patrick Wolf
The education reform community lost a champion yesterday when John E. Brandl died of cancer on the eve of his 72nd birthday. John was many things in his lifetime: gas station attendant, Army ROTC officer, Harvard-trained economist, McNamara “Whiz Kid”, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Education in the Johnson Administration, Minnesota State Representative and Senator, professor, Dean of Public Affairs, scholar, author, mentor, husband, father, and friend to many. He is perhaps best known in education reform circles as the sponsor of legislation to develop and expand school choice in Minnesota, especially our nation’s first public charter schools. In 2005 he received the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Excellence in Education Prize for “Valor” and was saluted as the “godfather of school choice.”
He was my godfather as well, in fact and deed if not formally in name. My mother and he grew up in the same neighborhood in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in the 1940s and 50s and remained close friends their entire lives. I first met John on March 24, 1965, when I was two weeks old. I was born in Washington, DC (my dad was working for the General Accounting Office at the time) when John was starting to explore strategies of education reform at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. One of my uncles was named my godfather, but he was not able to attend the baptism. John stepped into the role, holding me while the priest delivered the sacrament, and never stepped out of it. That was John.
When I was 13 I had a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge about American history, politics, and public policy. In a telephone conversation one day, my mom confessed to John that she was having great difficulty “feeding the beast” of my interests. John had a simple solution, “Put him on a train to the Twin Cities and I will take him with me to the Legislature.” John was a State Representative and a member of the Democrat-Farmer-Labor (DFL) majority at that time. In the morning he gave me a quick walking tour of the State Capitol and allowed me to sit in on a DFL strategy session. John and I then had lunch with the Speaker of the House, Harry “Tex” Sieben. It was the second-to-the-last day of the legislative session, so dozens of important bills came up for a vote in the afternoon. John found me a seat on the House floor, just to the right of the Speaker’s podium, and set me up with a copy of “House Orders” so that I could follow the action. Periodically he broke away from discussions with his colleagues to sit down next to me and explain his vote on whatever bill was up for consideration. For a social studies nerd like me, this was heaven.
John was an accomplished scholar as well as a law-maker. Although he was an economist by training, the ideas that drove him were primarily Madisonian and Tocquevillian. From Madison, John took the idea that the worse angels of our nature need to be checked and the better angels encouraged through government-designed incentive systems. From Tocqueville he drew the insight that human needs are best satisfied by and within community institutions such as families and churches that are capable of loving the people they serve in a way that government organizations, unfortunately, are not. Government should not ignore or neglect the needs of citizens, John argued. It should provide resources and limited oversight to individuals and community institutions and allow them to deliver services to people in need. Parental school choice fit perfectly within John’s intellectual framework for effective service delivery, and he championed all forms of it – vouchers, charters, tax credits, magnet schools, and open enrollment – throughout his academic and policymaking career.
The following statement, from one of John’s many Minneapolis Star-Tribune columns, effectively captures his policy vision:
Meeting social responsibilities through associations rather than through government agencies honors the Democrats’ commitment to building community. In associations people are drawn by love or duty to help one another. Often, powered by those heroic virtues, associations can carry out social responsibilities better than can either private firms or government bureaus. Education is a good example.
John’s support for school choice came at a personal cost to him. After he had moved from the House of Representatives to the Senate in the 1980s, I asked him what was next on his career agenda. He said, “I’d like to be governor of Minnesota, but I can’t see how to get there from here.” This was an artful way for John to acknowledge the political problem that school choice posed for him. He was a Democrat his entire life. He thought that Democrats should stand for educational improvement for disadvantaged children, and that school choice was the best mechanism for bringing about that improvement. The teachers union disagreed with John on that issue, and their opinions held great sway in deciding the DFL nomination for governor. John had to decide between a reform that he was convinced helped children and a public office that he aspired to fill. It wasn’t even a fair contest, as John’s principles easily trumped his political aspirations.
John’s principles also made him a great husband, father, grandfather, and friend. His nearly 50-year marriage to Rochelle, an accomplished child psychologist, was a model partnership of commitment and love. He and Shelly raised three wonderful children: Chris (a home builder), Katie (a math professor), and Amy (a mid-wife). In his later years he often spoke of his two grandchildren with great wonder and delight. In June over 200 of John’s family members and close friends converged on the Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis for a dinner in his honor. They included fellow politicians (anyone ever hear of Walter Mondale?), professors, former students, childhood friends, and even policy adversaries. A common theme of the tribute speeches was how John was a master at effectively disagreeing with someone without being disagreeable. He never backed down from a fight but he also never disparaged his opponent. In his eyes, all people were equally dignified human beings and wondrous gifts from God, even if they couldn’t be persuaded to come around to his point of view.
I’ll always remember the last conversation I had with John Brandl. It was last Thursday and it was clear that the end was coming. I had something that I had to share with this man who had shared so much with me and with so many others. I told him, “John, you probably know that you taught me a lot about how to be a public policy scholar. What you may not know is that you also taught me how to be a man.”
Rest in peace, my friend. We, on the other hand, still have work to do.