UNO professor emeritus brings passion to public school advocacy

Photo courtesy of Jack McKay

Greg Staskiewicz  

Jack McKay, executive director of the Horace Mann League and professor emeritus in the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Department of Educational Administration, lives by the principles that Horace Mann envisioned when he set out to create an egalitarian and inclusive public school system in 1837.

“I’m a great advocate of public education, as opposed to private schools,” McKay said. “I think public education is the equalizer and open to everyone. It’s inclusive, rather than exclusive.”

The Horace Mann League is a national organization that exists to strengthen public schools and recognize excellent teachers.

Mann, widely considered the father of public education in the U.S., himself said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

McKay’s relationship with public education started early. He attended public school in Seattle, where he said he had great coaches and teachers to guide him along, especially his high school history teacher.

“He kind of mentored me along my way, in my wayward ways,” McKay said.

Public school not only taught McKay — it also drove him to achieve outside of the classroom.

While in college, McKay worked for the forest service on the west coast, building trails and fighting fires. Once, his crew had to hike for days to reach a fire high up on a mountain.

“We thought we were the first ones to the fire on the top of this mountain, and when we got there, about six or eight guys were there, and I went, ‘How did they get here before us?’” McKay said. “Well, they were smokejumpers, and they parachuted in.”

After that, McKay himself became a smokejumper, a firefighter who parachutes to fires in rough terrain.

For the first five years of his career as an educator, McKay said he taught American history and civics and coached football and basketball at Port Angeles High School in Washington. He later earned his master’s degree in educational administration, and over the next few years served as principal of several Washington high schools.

At this point, his mentor at Washington State University invited him to pursue his doctorate in educational administration.

“And then, after that, I had an opportunity to go into higher education,” McKay said, “which was kind of an aspiration of mine.”

McKay became department chair at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, where he worked on developing California State University, Sacramento’s doctoral program.

This experience paved the way for McKay’s work at UNO, where he was the department chair of educational administration in the College of Education.

While at UNO, he worked with faculty from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to develop UNO’s doctoral program for educational administration over two years. McKay said he wanted to make the doctoral program a place where aspiring school administrators could learn to be effective leaders.

Not only has McKay done a lifetime’s worth of work in education, his family is also closely involved with public education. His wife taught at a Ralston, Nebraska public school when the couple lived in Nebraska, and both of his children work for public school districts in Washington – McKay said his son is a school superintendent and his daughter is a bus driver.

“You’re darn right they went to public school,” McKay said.

The Horace Mann League values the principles of inclusivity and equality, McKay said. The league works to address the inequities that still exist between different school districts, for example in rural schools, where schools face low enrollment and funding, and between different urban school districts.

“We’re trying to support quality public schools across the community,” McKay said. “We feel that the community school in every community in the nation is the cornerstone of that community.”

Despite all the accomplishments since Horace Mann began his work in Massachusetts, inequities still exist, McKay said. One hurdle that public education has to face currently is the government’s endorsement of charter schools, which McKay said are exclusive and corrupt.

Horace Mann League’s work is vital in a time in which public education is being criticized, and even demoralized, said Martha Bruckner, executive director for Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium.

Bruckner has served on the board of Horace Mann for about five years, was president of the league from 2017-2018 and worked with McKay when he was the department chair of educational administration at UNO.

“I think he’s the lifeblood of Horace Mann League,” Bruckner said. “Horace Mann League is obviously made up of some people who are very, very dedicated to public education, but all of us have real life jobs that take our attention, and no matter what position he has had in his career, he’s held a very fond place in his heart for public education.”