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America’s schools are at a turning point.  Our children are being over-tested, our teachers are physically exhausted and emotionally demoralized, and our tax dollars are being diverted to replace our public schools with a privately managed, free-market system of education.

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Corky O'Callaghan

Obama’s Lost Army

I just read an insightful article in The New Republic about “Obama’s Lost Army.”  This eye-opening expose provides an inside look at how he built a grassroots machine of two million supporters and then let it die.  For those involved in leading the transition of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network from a superintendent-led initiative to a grassroots citizen-led movement, this article is must reading.

Words of Hope and Aspiration

As I stated in my most recent blog, Rich Harwood has been a source of hope and aspiration for me for the past 25 years.  Yesterday, on the eve of our nation’s midterm elections, he did it once again.  Here are the highlights of what he had to say:  “Everyday we hear that our country is divided and polarized.  Of course, when I travel across the country, I can hear these rumblings, too.  But I also hear something else.  People are in search of ways to come together…This includes all Americans — no matter who they voted for in 2016 and in today’s midterms…So, on Tuesday night, as we watch the TV networks color their election maps red and blue, keep the following question in mind:  What will it take to create the conditions for people to tap into their potential and join together to build a common future?”  Over the past 30 years, Rich has innovated and developed a new philosophy and practice of how communities can solve shared problems, create a culture of shared responsibility and deepen people’s civic faith.

A Hero of Mine

Rich Harwood is a hero of mine.  I met him 25 years through his work with the Kettering Foundation, and after reading his report, “Meaningful Chaos:  How People Form Relationships with Public Concerns,” I was never the same.  It changed how I viewed my work with our public schools and sent me down a path to where I am today.  Currently president and founder of The Hardwood Institute for Public Innovation, Rich discusses in a brief two-minute video how public knowledge differs from professional knowledge and the conventional wisdom that often turns public engagement into public relations.

A Concern I’d Like to Share

Superintendents leading the work of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network met recently to discuss the policy implications of their core beliefs about public education and the role of our public schools.  One of those core beliefs is that a quality educational experience should address the social, emotional, and intellectual development and well-being of all students.  The good news is that this mindset seems to be gaining support from a growing number of state-level policymakers who realize that high stakes student testing, alone, doesn’t address what it takes to provide a well-balanced public education.  With this said, I have a concern I’d like to share.  Our teachers and students are currently overburdened by an education accountability system that includes way too much student testing and other state mandates.  My concern is that, if our local educational leaders and our communities fail to get out front in helping to define how to incorporate a quality educational experience into our accountability system, the long history of education reform will repeat itself and another layer of state mandates will be piled on top of the ones already in place.

January 15, 2019

Our public schools are in trouble.  Not only have our teachers and students been overwhelmed by three decades of sweeping education reforms, but the long-standing relationship between the public and its public schools is hanging by a thread.  Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows:  A Strategy to Take Back Our Public Schools exposes the root of the problem as misguided conventional wisdom which, until now, has been immune from criticism.  Charlie Irish, who helped me write the book, and I have just learned from our publisher that it will be available January 15, 2019.

Conventional Wisdom Misleading

With the graying of America, the percentage of households with children who attend the public schools is shrinking.  This is a major concern for many public school supporters because, according to conventional wisdom, a high percentage of senior citizens don’t support their public schools.  This conventional wisdom, however, is misleading.  Based upon dozens of community surveys that I’ve conducted over the past 25 years in Ohio, 55% of seniors and 60% of school parents say they support nearly all school tax issues.

Why Deliberation Is So Important

Kathleen Knight Abowitz teaches in the Educational Leadership Department at Miami University.  She also is helping to lead a grassroots movement to help Ohio’s citizens take back their public schools.  In her book, Publics for Public Schools:  Legitimacy, Democracy, and Leadership, she explains why deliberation is so important when encountering many of the problems currently facing our public schools:

“Citizens’ powers to shape their local schools’ vision and policies are mostly limited to participating in local      school board elections or, more indirectly, one-way communications with their local/state/national legislative representatives.  School boards will hear from a few more motivated or vocal citizens at compulsory open forum times at school board meetings, but the random and irregular nature of citizens’ comments in such forums means that board members cannot rely (in terms of quantity or quality) on such irregular input for decision making.  Yet on a consistent basis, school boards and administrations encounter wicked problems that are perfectly suited for citizens, in deliberation, to exercise a more substantive voice in school decision making (Abowitz, 2013).”

Inspiration from Lancaster, PA

By the 1990’s, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a city in rapid decline.  Then, community leaders took charge.  In an op-ed article in the New York Times that chronicles the dramatic turnaround in Lancaster, Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman opens with the following observation:  “Last week I wrote about why political parties across the industrial world are fracturing from the top down.  Today I’m writing about the political units that are working.  On this Fourth of July, if you want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head.  The country looks so much better from the bottom up.”  Chronicling Lancaster’s success story, Friedman explains that volunteer community activists stepped up, checked their partisan political beliefs at the door and focused on fixing the problems plaguing their city.  Lancaster’s story should serve as inspiration for the leaders of Ohio’s grassroots movement to help the public take back its public schools.

The Threat from One of Our Founding Principles

One of the founding principles of our democratic republic is that we elect other people to speak on our behalf.  Throughout most of our lives, it has been drilled into our heads that this is how our system of representative government works.  As a result, many citizens believe their patriotic responsibility begins and ends in the voting booth.  Even though keeping citizens on the sidelines, other than on election day, may be compatible with the way our democracy is supposed to work, it is a serious threat to the future of our public schools which need the full support of an engaged, knowledgeable and empowered public in order to take them back.

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