I spend a lot of time reading about education issues in Ohio and throughout the nation, but was grateful to have the opportunity recently to hear the issues straight from the people impacted by them: students, teachers, parents, and administrators.
I come from a family of educators, so I feel a sense of home in a public school, a certain rush of energy and motivation. I believe our schools, all our schools, should be palaces, thriving testaments to our civilization’s commitment to and investment in the power of learning.
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” That’s James Madison on the prospect of public education in Kentucky, and it’s one of my favorite lines of his. The next line is also killer: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”
In Ohio and throughout the nation, a movement has been launched to privatize and profiteer off of education, to disastrous results. Welcome to the farce. Welcome to the tragedy. Welcome to both.
Onerous student testing and unfunded mandates were primary subjects when the Athens High School Student Council and a variety of school district administrators, parents and teachers met with two Ohio state senators Monday to talk about issues facing public education.
Ohio Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, and Minority Whip Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, first met with students for an hour and then met with administrators and parents to talk about their concerns and ideas they have to improve Ohio’s schools.
Shiavoni and Gentile both expressed how impressed they were by the students with whom they spoke, and Schiavoni told parents and teachers how he’s holding “Columbus to the Classroom” meetings all around the state to get a sense of what’s working, what’s not working, and what the state Legislature needs to do.
Gentile said he suggested Athens for a host of reasons, and that he often consults with Athens City Schools Supt. Tom Gibbs on education matters.
Schiavoni said he has learned urban and rural school districts share many overlapping concerns. He asked what concerns the audience had.
Students cited an arduous amount of paperwork for teachers, which takes away from valuable classroom time, and ever-changing mandates from the state.
“Students are recognizing this stuff,” Schiavoni marveled. “They are feeling like the teachers are handcuffed. They know a lot about policy.”
Some school administrators noted that Ohio has reduced the number of days spent testing but did not reduce the number of tests.
“That’s what a lot of education policy has become recently,” Schiavoni said, “good headlines but not sound policy.” He said the Legislature has gotten into a disconcerting habit of passing education policies without gathering feedback first from those impacted.
He said the students expressed concerns about losing extra-curricular activities and non-traditional classes. He asked how the General Assembly could help, and administrators suggested taking the pressure off of testing and to stop tying testing to funding.
“All the freedom that we don’t have any more,” one teacher suggested.
“The pressure coming from the state takes the fun out of learning. It takes the creativity out of the classroom,” another observed.
Public school districts are required to push primary academics but are not supported by funding, people noted, and there are mandates to buy technology but no money left after doing so.
Poorer districts suffer a technology gap, Gibbs said, because they don’t have computers at home, and in school the technology is used for tech preparation at the expense of learning basic computer skills.
Gibbs and others praised the strong support the Athens local district gets from the community, but noted that many other districts around Ohio are not so fortunate.
State Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, who has two children in the Athens City School District, attended the meeting and noted that many rural districts have requirements for online testing but not the Internet bandwidth to meet them.
“So even if you have the computer, you lack the connectivity,” she said.
With the state of Ohio so frequently changing funding models, standards and plans, several people said, districts end up stumbling from one crisis to the next, and initiatives disappear before they are ever fully implemented.
Schiavoni pointed to an old line about how you don’t disassemble a plane while it’s in mid-air.
The discussion also touched on the difficulty of developing individualized education plans while attempting to meet unrealistic mandates, and dealing with a crush of testing.
During test weeks, teachers are still feeling pressure to keep up with regular curriculum, several noted.
Meanwhile, community agencies are losing funding in addition to the school districts, which takes away critical resources from people in need, one parent said. The overflow then falls onto the school district, and it’s difficult to get children who are going hungry to focus on learning.
Schiavoni spoke about the difficulty of making headway with the Republican majorities in the Ohio House and Ohio Senate. He said that Republicans in the state Legislature have been focused mostly on reducing income taxes.
“We tried to push for robust investment in education,” he said, “and we were told ‘absolutely not.’”
Gentile said that these types of meeting should be happening prior to the state General Assembly passing legislation.
“I’m also concerned we’re going to get to a place when we are discouraging good people from going into the (teaching) profession,” he said, to which several in the crowd responded, “Or staying.”
“We need to be ever-vigilant in support of public education,” Gentile said.
Parents noted the stress on their children, when a third-grader is talking about test preparation months in advance. Others talked about the injustice of tying teacher evaluations to testing when the state keeps changing standards and it’s out of their hands. Some teachers indicated they feel like the state has hijacked the purpose and use of testing as a tool for teachers.
“We have a lot to work on and that’s saying it lightly,” Schiavoni observed.
After the meeting, I couldn’t help but to peruse the library shelves, and noted that looming ominously over my chair through the discussion was the noxious Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I looked through the shelves more and was relieved to find several P.G. Wodehouse titles and Gore Vidal’s Burr. I determined to do some small part myself by donating the remainder of Vidal’s American Chronicles series, for the only way to recognize where we need to go is to know where we’ve been.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.