The Ohio Public School Advocacy Network

Bringing Citizens Together to Make a Difference for Public Education

Category: OPSAN Thoughts

A Seminal Moment

By Charlie Irish

EdChoice, with all of its twists and turns, is highlighting the direction in which education policy in Ohio is headed.  Vouchers to attend other schools has cleared a hurdle and is becoming widely accepted, whether we like it or not.

What we are debating now is mostly about a definition of eligibility and the financial impact all of this has on our public schools.  The resistance to current legislation appears to be largely focused on a competition for money.

However, there is another major factor that is creeping into the picture beneath our radar while we fight for money, and it is far more significant than what is happening to public school budgets.  It is the growing acceptance that education is no longer a community responsibility. Instead, it is a commodity belonging to whichever institution people believe can get the job done.

There is, however, a huge unintended consequence associated with education no longer being viewed as a community responsibility. When education no longer demands that people come together to deliberate, make choices and take action around what they want for their children, it gets removed from the list of things that make a democracy work.

Chances are pretty good that the current debate over EdChoice will prove to be a seminal moment in the role schools and communities assume in the education of our children. As we struggle with what to do, we should 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?

A retired superintendent of the Medina City Schools, Charlie Irish is currently an educational partner of the Kettering Foundation which studies what it takes to make democracy work as it should. He also is a member of the Statewide Leadership Team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network.

A Paradox We Need to Confront

By Charlie Irish

With the publication of her new book, Learning How to Hope, our colleague Sarah Stitzlein’s timing couldn’t be better.  While I suspect that she had no idea of the specifics that would come to define EdChoice legislation when she began writing, her book is an excellent study into what we face and the changes we will have to make to overcome it.

She writes about hope as a verb, the purposeful action of people who choose to come together and pursue their common aspirations.  She calls it a “pragmatist hope” where people take charge of their hope by building habits that are founded in mutual commitments to inquiry, truth and growth.  Then she gives all of that the perfect name — “hoping together.”

We all read works of this nature through lenses that focus on our preferences, so her ideas will impress each us in different ways.  I encountered my arresting moments when I pondered the contrast she draws between pragmatist hope and privatized hope.  Where pragmatist hope is founded in the work that involves people pursuing their common aspirations, privatized hope is the drive to achieve one’s own limited dreams.  That difference helps me to understand why some view education as a competitive, zero-sum game, and others see it at its best when it is a community effort.

This points to a paradox I think we need to confront.  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.  That has a lot to say about the future of public education, whether it is a reflection of a public’s aspirations or just a name.  The paradox I see is that we have been drawn into a struggle for the support from citizens, which feeds neatly into the narrative EdChoice advocates promote — it’s all about competition.  And yet, if we do not engage in the struggle, we will lose significant financial support.  Of course, we must respond to this legislation, but I think that Sarah presents us with an opportunity to think about that response in a way that is more expansive than just winning.

The book is replete with ideas and examples of how the habits of hope can become an integral part of the goals for education.  These include students, teachers and groups of citizens who work and learn together to make their communities and schools better places.  I suspect that the people in these communities would view EdChoice-type legislation as an affront to the community, not just the schools.  They would know that what is at stake is more precious than money.

It seems to me that those who are actively involved in the everyday habits around the work of hoping together are our best bet for bringing about an ethos that values true public education.  The people who want to preserve this aspect of their community life are those who are best suited to effectively confront EdChoice legislation.

Charlie Irish and Sarah Stitzlein are members of the Statewide Leadership Team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network.  

Brexit and Sacred Cow Thinking

By Charlie Irish                                                                                                            

As a public school superintendent, I spent much of my career challenging the conventional thinking of my profession.  Recently, I wrote about how the Brexit saga in the United Kingdom exposes some of the sacred cow thinking that is putting that relationship in jeopardy.

Trying to follow the convoluted twists and turns of the Brexit matter becomes a mind-boggling effort for most of us.  Yet, I see a lesson in it.  It is simply that when confronted with complicated issues in a democracy, voting is the last thing to be done, not the first. 

Consider how things might be different in the U.K. if what we are seeing now had been a pre-election discussion rather than post-election fight.  It strikes me that, as a nation, the U.K. is being asked to define itself with a gun to its head.  Before we get too smug, however, let’s bring that notion closer to home and compare it to the ways schools address serious matters like finances. 

It has become the norm for a board of education to lock in the parameters of choice in an election before there is any public deliberation.  Even in the very few cases when public discussion occurs in advance of the board’s action, it typically is to confirm what has already been decided “up high.”  And then, of course, when people finally become involved in levy campaigns around an unalterable choice, there is nothing left for them to decide other than yes or no. 

In Brexit, the vote preceded a national deliberation where people begin to understand what the issue means to their lives.  In our schools today, we lock in the choices given to the public before it can have meaningful conversations about them.  I don’t see much of a difference between the two. 

Instead, what if the whole process began with public deliberation?  What if, through its deliberation, a community would tell its elected officials what is the appropriate choice to be presented on a ballot? What if a board of education committed to not put any issue on the ballot until it was clear that the community had deliberated sufficiently enough to narrow its choices and was now ready to vote? 

That doesn’t mean a consensus has been reached.  Rather, it simply means that people have identified their choices and understand what is at stake — as they define it through their own eyes, not the eyes of professional educators.  That is when voting becomes the next appropriate step. 

In addition to greatly improving the chances of passing tax issues, meaningful public deliberation would ensure something even more important.  It would strengthen the legitimacy of the school district as part of the community. 

Just to be clear, legitimacy does not automatically come with the designation, “public school.”  Legitimacy exists when citizens believe the institution is theirs, not when someone tells them that their only choice is to say “yes” or “no.”

Charlie Irish is a member of the Statewide Leadership Team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network.  He retired after serving for 13 as superintendent of the Medina City Schools and currently is an educational partner of The Kettering Foundation

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