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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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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.
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).”
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.
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.
According to J. Renee Gordon, Chief Executive Officer of E Squared, between 2009 and 2014 there has been a 39% decline in the number of students going into education at colleges and universities across the country. In addition, depending upon the rate at which those who are eligible to retire go ahead and retire, she is projecting a shortage of between 650,000 and 1.5 million classroom teachers within the next five years. E Squared provides staff recruitment support for our nation’s schools.
Four years ago this coming November, a statewide initiative led by Ohio’s school superintendents to give their citizens a stronger voice in shaping education policy was born. Today, the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network includes 140 school districts. Early next year, local residents from 20 Ohio school districts will take an important step in turning this superintendent-led initiative into a grassroots movement led by Ohio’s citizens. In January, they will begin building community-based discussion groups in their districts to learn about and deliberate on education policy issues and concerns impacting their local public schools. This initial pilot effort, in turn, will serve as the foundation for creating a statewide network of community-based discussion groups.
Included in the initial draft of a new book that my long-time friend and colleague, Charlie Irish, and I are writing, is an entire chapter devoted to the power of deliberation. In this chapter of Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Save Our Public Schools, we share a powerful quote from an essay for the Kettering Foundation in which Scott London writes that the objective of deliberative dialogue is not so much to talk together but to think together: “Deliberative dialogue differs from other forms of public discourse — such as debate, negotiation, brainstorming, and consensus-building — because the objective is not so much to talk together as to think together, not so much to reach a conclusion as to discover where a conclusion might lie. Thinking together involves listening deeply to other points of view, exploring new ideas and perspectives, searching for points of agreement, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open.”
Over the past 25 years, I’ve turned to the work of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, to help me better understand some of the most important challenges facing our public schools. One of Kettering’s research questions continues to be: Is there a public for the public schools? While I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to this pivotal question, I have a theory that I’d like to share. Since most citizens only have a vague idea of the education taking place today in our public schools, it is no wonder that there’s such a wide gap between what our public schools are actually doing and what much of the public thinks they are doing. As a result, most of our public schools and the communities they serve are like two ships passing in the night. To help close this gap, the public needs to hear directly from our teachers about how they are trying to address the educational needs of our children and the barriers that are getting in their way. To learn how some of our educational leaders are taking steps to strengthen the connection between the public and… Continue reading
Over the weekend, I had the good fortune of being at one of the most interesting and relevant presentations I’ve ever experienced. It was about the incredible story of the of The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. At the top of the list of why it has become one of top luxury hotels in the world is the long-term view of its owners. As the hotel’s executive vice president and chief administrator officer explained, it took a long time for The Breakers to become what it is today. My immediate reaction to his insight was that, as a result of the way our public schools are currently being controlled and influenced, they don’t have the luxury of time. They are trapped in a culture of short-term election cycles ranging from local school board and tax issue elections to the election of state and federal policymakers. There is, however, a way to counteract the disruptive impact of our political system and buy more time to build and sustain excellence in our public schools. It is returning them to the stability of our local communities and placing them in the good hands of… Continue reading
This month, the Network for Public Education issued a report card on “Grading the States: Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools.” The report examines our nation’s commitment to democracy by assessing the privatization programs in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It not only highlights the benefits of a public school education, but compares the accountability, transparency and civil rights protections offered students in the public school setting versus the private school setting. Each state is graded on the extent to which it has instituted policies and practices that lead to fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails it has or has not created to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. Ohio received an F.