This morning, I spoke with Steve Barrett and asked him what he is learning from the coronavirus crisis. Steve is superintendent of the Gahanna-Jefferson City School District – just outside of Columbus, Ohio. His response was direct and to the point: “Some of things we obsess about (like testing) don’t really matter. What matters most is our humanity. As educators, we underestimate the importance of the human connection that our public schools provide.” I then asked him what he is doing right now in his district to react to the impact of the current crisis: “We are asking our teachers to socially and emotionally connect with our students. We also are reaching out to our community by, for example, partnering with our local food bank.”
Late last week, I spoke with Don Mook. Don is superintendent of the Columbiana Exempted Village Schools in northeastern Ohio. As you might expect, our conversation centered on the coronavirus pandemic. When I asked him what he sees as the primary role of his school system during this crisis, he responded that “it is about being a good citizen.” In addition to educating students and providing meals to many of them while they are out of school, he said that his teachers, administrators and non-teaching staff are currently discussing how they can reach out to the community and help school district residents cope with the local impact of this pandemic.
This past week, the existence of the coronavirus pandemic has become a harsh reality for the vast majority of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down. This crisis is not only a defining moment for our country, but it also can be a defining moment for the relationship between our public schools and the communities they serve. In recent years, the Kettering Foundation has focused much of its research on this relationship and concludes that many people no longer believe that they own the public schools. This is a dangerous trend which puts the future of both public education and our democracy in serious jeopardy. The defining moment created by the coronavirus crisis now serves as a window of opportunity to reverse this dangerous trend.
While the debate over EdChoice is the proverbial shiny object currently drawing nearly everyone’s attention, some of our nation’s most influential conservative voices are proclaiming that school choice is not enough and that conservatives need to re-engage in shaping the “substance of what we want children to learn.” By substance, they include “preparing young people for informed citizenship, restoring character, virtue, and morality to the head of the education table, and building an education system that confers dignity, respect, and opportunity upon every youngster.” Their focus in reigniting the education reform movement which they contend has stalled is chronicled in a new book, How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools. The pivotal issue that needs to be addressed is: Who will be at the table to discuss what we want children to learn? Will it include the American people and the communities in which they reside or will it be limited to an alliance of private and public interest groups and education policymakers?
One of our colleagues, Kathleen Knight Abowitz, recently co-authored an opinion piece for Cleveland.com. about the harsh reality of whose voices are being elevated and whose voices are being diminished when Ohio education policy is created. In addition to serving as a faculty member in the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University and school board member for the Talawanda City School District, Kathleen is one of the founding leaders of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network, a grassroots initiative to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy.
Boardman is one of the pilot school districts leading a grassroots initiative to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy. Last week, one of those citizens, Lynda Beichner, testified at the public hearings regarding amendments to EdChoice legislation. When asked to reflect upon her experience, she shared the following insight: “For me personally, it felt good to be able to participate in the process. As a parent, I can’t imagine my testimony had much impact in Columbus, but I do think it sent a message in Boardman – people seeing this as a topic worthy of attention. I also think it went a long way to show our staff that we as parents support them and understand a little bit of their frustration.”
My friend and colleague, Charlie Irish, believes that the current debate over EdChoice will prove to be a seminal moment in the role that schools and communities assume in the education of our children. As we struggle with what to do, he recommends that we ask ourselves an important question: Are we fighting to preserve an institution, or are we fighting to preserve an idea about what education means in a democracy? I urge everyone to read what Charlie has to say.
During his recent State of the Union speech, President Trump issued a full-throated attack on what he calls “failing government schools” as he pushed for a program of federally funded vouchers. In response, Jamie Vollmer weighs in on this attack against our public schools. One of our nation’s leading advocates for public education and the author of Schools Cannot Do It Alone, Jamie has created a package of videos and printed materials called The Great Conversation that can be used to help generate community discussions about the future of America’s public education system.
In his new book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives, Rich Harwood speaks about the future of our country: “Let’s be real. No no one believes that the seismic challenges we face today can be solved overnight or even through a series of large-scale initiatives. The task is to demonstrate the nation is moving in a better direction — onto a more promising trajectory. Where the circle of people taking action is ever expanding. Where trust is being rebuilt. And where civic confidence is growing. This is the path to restoring belief and, ultimately, to gaining the collective confidence that the nation can tackle larger systemic challenges.” By stepping forward and bringing citizens together to make a difference for public education, the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network is part of this expanding circle of people taking action.
Charlie Irish is a long-time friend whom I often quote on my blogs. I do so because he is a thoughtful educational leader who looks for the deeper meaning in major issues impacting our public schools and the communities they serve. His most recent insight involves the connection between the controversial expansion of EdChoice and a newly published book, Learning How to Hope, written by one our colleagues, Sarah Stitzlein. In a piece which now appears on the website of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network, Charlie takes a deeper look at EdChoice. In it, he asserts that “the struggle EdChoice has precipitated is about more than just money (though the amount at stake is huge). It is about how we will exercise our hope in the future.”