Those were the final words of a key education reformer last week, yet they received no press when they occurred as part of a speech here in Ohio.  Consider for a moment the ramification of such a statement and the speaker:

To those of you who are parents, how would you respond if you were told this by your child’s teacher during a parent conference in response to concern’s about you son or daughter’s academic future?

If President Obama uttered such a phrase that spoke of imposing limits on the capability of our children, how would media and the public respond?

In fact, President George W. Bush could even be considered an unlikely source to utter such words publicly as the very premise of the statement is counter to the United States’ long-standing ideological commitment to equal opportunity for all.  This notion is arguably at the center of the former president’s No Child Left Behind legislation that is often pointed to as the turning point for the educational reform (as a negative term) movement we see across the country.

Of course, phrases like this are often taken out of context in an effort to twist the words of the speaker into a negative meaning and misguide readers.  In an effort to be completely clear about the context of these words, let us explain who made this statement, the full statement he made, and the context of his entire speech.

First, the full sentence:

“This is not Lake Wobegon; not every child will be above average.”
– Gerald Stebelton, 11/13/2012 

Gerald Stebelton (R), the chairman of the Ohio House of Representatives’ Education Committee, offered this thought at the conclusion of his nearly one-and-a-half hour testimony as he introduced House Bill 555 last Tuesday.  Stebelton has been the chair for the past two years for this Republican-dominated committee that has passed such reforms as the expansion of school vouchers, the third grade reading retention plan, the Cleveland Schools overhaul, the adoption and advocacy of Teach for America‘s easy expansion into Ohio, restoration of teacher retesting (after removal by Senate), mandated modifications to the process of teacher evaluations, and a revised school ranking system (to name a few).

And while Stebelton’s statement may be mathematically accurate (only 50% can ever be “above average”), the context of his statement is of the utmost importance.  Stebelton offered his majority opinion at the conclusion of his introduction of House Bill 555, new legislation that has a primary purpose of revising the manner in which school district performance is reported to the public.  The most significant change is a carryover from the Spring session that legislated the new district report cards should be squeezed down to a single letter grade based on a series of as-yet-undetermined separate measures of student performance on state-mandated standardized tests.

“Not every child will be above average.”

According to an analysis of House Bill 555 by the Legislative Service Commission, the grade for overall performance of a district or school must be assigned by the department based on specified performance measures and a performance criteria and method for assigning grades prescribed by the State Board. HB555 gives the following meanings to each of the letter grades for the metrics and the overall grade:

A – making excellent progress;
B – making above average progress;
C – making average progress;
D – making below average progress;
F – failing to meet minimum progress.

Schools and/or districts that continually have a large concentration of children performing below average (Not every child will be above average.) will receive lower grades, resulting in them falling under heavy scrutiny, increased public criticism, more bureaucratic initiatives including increased paperwork and meetings, and ultimately subject to pseudo-closure and complete staff overhaul in processes that cause greater disruption to student learning and have not been scientifically proven to have any positive effect on the long-term success of the students.

And if Stebelton has his way, he will ultimately link Ohio’s school funding model to the grades that schools are earning, even though he firmly believes

“Not every child will be above average.”

How do we know this about Stebelton?  In addition to his elitist statement mirroring the typical Republican notion that birthright is everything, he was also unambiguously clear in stating his position on funding and the new letter grades he is creating: “If I have my way, school rankings will impact resources and remove restrictions for highly-rated schools.”

(Sidenote: Stebelton also made it clear that HB555 had been properly vetted by Governor Kasich’s office where it had unquestionably originated.  He made this statement on numerous occasions.  Another strange and frequent reference was that Stebelton doesn’t know anything about the next school funding model that may or may not be proposed in Kasich’s budget next year.)

Stebelton is both a father and grandfather, so it is remarkable that he would even think about placing limits and labels on the opportunities of children.  But as the Ohio House Education Committee chair and a clear leader of education reform in the state of Ohio, it is appalling that his voice speaks as not only a leader for the Republican Party, but as a representative of all Ohioans. Stebelton’s use of the falsely idyllic Lake Wobegon (“the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve”) as the concluding thought to summarize the latest education reform bill demonstrates how comprehensively out of touch Ohio Republicans have become, yet seems to accurately describe the world they believe we are living in.

When George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act begins to look reasonable compared to the current crop of Republicans here in Ohio, we have reason to be concerned.