Ohio: Birthplace of Charter Education … and Opposition to It

As Ohio education reformers aim ahead toward the new century and prosperity through remaking of the public school system, the Obama administration reform plan takes us back to the “choice,” “free market,” and “small government” mindset of the 1980s, of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush:

Executive order 12803 issued by President George H. W. Bush, April 30, 1992: Sec. 3. Privatization initiative: To the extent permitted by law, the head of each executive department and agency shall undertake the following actions:

(a) Review those procedures affecting the management and disposition of federally financed infrastructure assets owned by State and local governments and modify those procedures to encourage appropriate privatization of such assets consistent with this order: . . .

(c) Approve State and local governments’ requests to privatize infrastructure assets. . .

Deserting the Public Education System

As a professor of teacher education, I’ve been directly challenged by the struggle to place highly qualified teachers into the field to teach our most precious resource, our nation’s children. I see these teacher-candidates preparing themselves to enter a field that will place staggering demands on them to outdo all previous generations in evoking student achievement. It is impossible to participate in the grooming of these highly motivated teachers-to-be without resenting on their behalf the blatant contradiction that though having such high expectations for our teachers, political leadership hasn’t valued the public education system enough to adequately and equitably fund it, as though they care not a whit as to the conditions under which teachers teach and students are expected to learn. It’s as though a silent agreement has been made to let the public education system die so that, as with the sell-off of other government owned properties and agencies such as prisons, parks, and military services that began in the 1980s and early 90s, a new, privatized system can take its place.

In my own lifetime as a student, teacher, educational researcher, and teacher educator I’ve been witness to the ongoing and ceaseless efforts to diminish the success of public education through a saturation barrage of assaults by opportunistic politicians, whose vitriol gets carried almost without comment in the mainstream media.

Trumpeting a lack of faith in shared governance, and an antipathy to the idea of collective bargaining, this nihilistic chorus reached high C when on May 7, 2009, like The Three Tenors of opera fame, the ever so vocal trio of Gingrich, Bloomberg, & Sharpton (Newt, Michael, and Al) was booked for a command performance of the “Ode to Charter Schools” (also known as the “Requiem For Public Schools”) on the White House Lawn, complete with Education Secretary Duncan conducting the Media Networks Orchestra and the audience and press joining in at the end in singing of the final chorus, “Why, O Lord, Are Our Beloved Children So Dumb!”

While many would consider it a bargain that a mere $500,000 contribution to Sharpton’s National Action Network, donated by a charter-loving hedge fund in Connecticut, should buy the administration’s announced plans for conversion to charter schools (otherwise known as “education reform”) a plug by such a marquee name as Sharpton’s, few would appreciate it if they knew the reality of the charter model that, as always in the name of “education reform,” the three caballeros of song were there to promote: a system of giveaways to business that are hidden from the public eye, from taxation, and from public oversight and accounting, a system poised to put education in the hands of profiteer operators of charter schools masquerading as educators while effectively mortgaging a curriculum designed for democracy in exchange for fill-in-the-bubble tests created by the high-profit testing industry and for the benefit of their high-profit business partners, the high stakes test-prep tutors.

Make no mistake about it, and somebody has to say this in so many words, for all their talk about education reform, those talking loudest — the Gateses, Milkens, Whittles, Waltons, Forstmanns, and Broads — are in it not for philanthropy or love of America’s children but for the fortunes to be made from privatization of the $740 billion education market!

First there was the dot.com bubble, which (as bubbles do) popped. Then following that the next bonanza for get-rich-quick investors was real estate, which also popped.

Now the bubble being rolled out for the next profit-seeking investment frenzy is education, with schools and schoolchildren being outsourced to corporate exploiters (charter school entrepreneurs) as in the days of Dickens when Fagin under pretense of fatherly caring for his orphaned dependents used the alms begged in the streets by Oliver Twist and his fellow-foundlings for his personal enrichment.

The, for me, pernicious effort of these latter-day “reforming” Fagins to privatize the component parts of public education for the sake of profit moves forward in every realm of the educational system that allows a buck to be made, with the selling of those parts to the highest bidder, whether it’s outsourcing of the food and custodial services, contracting out to for-profit Supplemental Education Service (SES) providers, or literally handing local school governance over to Educational Maintenance Organizations (EMOs).

With the creeping acceptance of publicly financed charter or “choice” schools in districts around the country in the past decade, there has been an exhaustion, in the media, among elected leaders, and even in the ranks of educators themselves, of enthusiasm for our public education system that historically has been the cornerstone of our democracy. Ohio already has 88,000 students in charter schools, says Akron Beacon-Journal education watchdog Dennis J. Willard, and therefore, even though he has himself decried unsavory charter school practices such as exaggeration of graduation rates by Ohio’s most prominent charter school management company, White Hat Management, claiming 145 graduates from a school that only graduated 10 and 338 graduates from a school that only graduated 42, Willard admits, resignedly, that the charter schools will simply have to be funded.

Along with the major media, educators themselves are seen giving up on the public education ideal, with even the head of a teachers union, AFT’s Randi Weingarten in New York City, presiding over the opening of two union-run charter schools.

Somehow at a time when 35 million people, that is, 12 percent of the population, and 16.7 percent of American children, are reported to be living in poverty, and 1.2 million children listed as homeless, the notion is being sold to, and blithely accepted by, our political leaders of both parties and the American media that the cycle of childhood poverty can be reversed and these massive numbers of hungry and medically uninsured children turned into Horatio Algers on Harvard scholarships by bringing in education “reform.” What education “reform” means to these pro–charters zealots is giving business corporations a free hand to “turn around” supposedly failing public schools, by firing the staff, breaking the teacher union, implementing “pay for performance” that pits teachers of a school’s better students (who are awarded bonuses) against teachers of the school’s lesser achievers (who aren’t), bringing in “coaches,” and instituting scripted lesson plans. Teaching’s former mission, the creation of thinking, questioning, humanistically literate, and socially aware citizens, is replaced by test-prep drilling, aka “teaching-to-the-test,” and finally what was once a traditional public school and is now a test-obsessed boot camp, run at the lowest possible cost to maximize profits, winds up being called by its new name as a “public” Charter school.

Not everyone who sets forth these days to be an “education reformer,” however, is on this privatization bandwagon and for-profit gravy train.
Indeed, you can search far and wide, but nowhere will you find a more valiant struggle being waged to save rather than dump, and reform by rebuilding rather than replacing, the public education system than in the state that calls itself “Beautiful Ohio.”

Ohio: American Public Education’s Crucible

Crucible: 1. A severe test, as of patience or belief; a trial. 2. A place, time, or situation characterized by the confluence of powerful intellectual, social, economic, or political forces.

“I do not believe injecting the profit motive into public education is a good thing” —Ted Strickland, Governor of Ohio.

Over the years since the founding days of this country, Ohio has been where public education—the public education that came not from the cloistered trappings of puritanical Massachusetts, but the raw unfettered stump that grew into a tree emerging out of the backwoods of the Miami hunting grounds and between Forts Hamilton and Washington (present day cities of Hamilton and Cincinnati), and out of The McGuffey Reader at Miami University in Oxford—really began, and it is there that the key provision of the great Northwest Ordinance of 1787, to ensure that every citizen is educated, begins . . . or ends . . . for us all.

The Ohio education story started in 1803 . . . when what were called public schools were confined to Massachusetts in little boarding rooms for the privileged, while the poor were, if they were lucky, housed 400 to a room in Lancaster schools, to be seen and not heard . . . at the same time in Ohio, emerging with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance was the real public school in the backwoods of the westernmost portion of the United States of America. Even before Horace Mann was riding his horse through the great state of Massachusetts, the public school was setting up shop in the frontier between Fort Hamilton (now the City of Hamilton) and Fort Washington (now the City of Cincinnati).

With the publication in 1836 of the most famous school textbook of all-time, The McGuffey Reader, by William Holmes McGuffey, a professor at Ohio’s Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, the seed was planted in Ohio for the true American public education system.

So it is that Ohio, the symbolic birthplace of this country’s public education system by virtue of having been the first territory west of the thirteen original states of the union, and the first to institute common schools, continues today in its role as the nation’s education flashpoint, the state where proponents of a privatized education system have concentrated their biggest efforts, and the state where the battle to save our two centuries-old public education, or replace it with a privatized system, will be lost or won.

Ohio was indeed the state where, in 1991, vouchers allowing parents to send their children to schools of their choice rather than according to their district of residence first achieved legitimacy. Ohio has been the state that has sanctioned creation of the greatest number of charter schools. And yet here it is nearly two decades since the original vouchers experiment in the City of Cleveland, and Ohio under Governor Ted Strickland is becoming the number one of the states in venting its disillusionment with the charter concept and in mounting a statewide political effort to set the state on a course toward what could, some have predicted, even wind up as a post-charter era.

One may justly find oneself in wonderment that Ohio, after a half century of passively letting its cities’ funding-starved public education system deteriorate to the point where stop-gap remedies such as store-front charter schools in abandoned urban shopping centers have been fantasized as an improvement, suddenly finds itself having elected a governor whose agenda is to take the broken system and rather than simply throwing it overboard go back and rebuild and improve it — i.e. by properly funding it, by investing more funds, advancing education to work, supporting creativity and curricular innovation, and placing greater accountability on largely unregulated Charters schools. Strickland’s audacious budget, aimed at finally fixing a school funding system deemed for many years to be unconstitutional and in violation of the civil rights of the State’s most vulnerable citizens, namely poor children, has challenged the state to show what it is made of, has put “education” on the front pages and editorial pages of Ohio newspapers on a scale simply not previously seen.
This fresh wind of Strickland positivism about public education that’s now blowing through Ohio has been in reverse direction from the negativism about the public system that had been spewing out of this bellwether state since the electoral triumphs of Reaganite Republicanism ushered in the names of Taft, Voinovich, Blackwell, Fox, and Boehner in the 1980s and 90s:

Item No. 1: In 2002, the dreaded make-or-break education law, No Child Left Behind, was signed in the City of Hamilton, Ohio, thus putting a stigma of inadequacy and failure on the thousands of teacher education graduates from Miami University, 20 miles to the north in the city of Oxford, who have filled the staffs of Ohio’s so-called “underperforming” public schools through the years and who do so today.

Item No. 2: In Cleveland before the Republican Supreme Court appointed by former Governor Bob Taft, the Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris decision was rendered also in 2002, ensuring that “School Choice” or vouchers were deemed not to be categorically unconstitutional.

Item No. 3: In 2005, under the radar, America’s traditional public school governance was devalued by an important Ohio Supreme Court decision that corporations can indeed run their own schools, spending tax payer dollars to do so, and have unelected boards of shareholders in place of elected school boards, yet still be publicly funded and be called a “public” school.

Was it for the reason of all this public school bashing taking place in their state that Ohioans have finally cried “no mas,” and have responded to public education defenders who have made a stand of opposition to the process?

I take special satisfaction in putting a spotlight like this on Ohio’s struggle for preservation of public education because of my own personal roots in the state prior to my family’s move to Wisconsin: my past residence in Canton where I attended middle school, the city where my folks currently reside, Springfield, and my past video research on video and virtual learning in the Appalachian cities of Ironton and other urban centers dotting the valleys and hills of southeastern Ohio, such as the state prison city of Lucasville that was the birthplace of Governor Strickland. With the close collaboration of my co-author of this article Geoff Berne from Hamilton, Ohio, stretching over ten years, I have had a close vantage point from which, commuting from Wisconsin for key events such as the Strickland May 8th rally, to study the advent of, and now the growing backlash against, charter education in Ohio, a backlash that as early as 2006 commentator Mark Shields was predicting would touch off a nationwide anti-charters reaction.

Core of the Strickland “Insurgency:” Districts And Teachers

As Ohio rallies to restore the state to its onetime place of productivity and leadership through education, a mobilization reaching into every school district has given the commandership of the new governor a strong base from which to hold high the banner of public education in seeming defiance of the ill winds blowing in, nationally, in favor of charters and privatization. I have been privileged to interview on two occasions, in 2004 and in conjunction with the May 8, 2009 rally, two of the leading figures in this Ohio public education juggernaut, William Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Adequacy and Equity In Education, and Sue Taylor, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

I interviewed both Phillis, executive director of the coalition of 611 public school districts that brought the series of four DeRolph lawsuits since 1995 that successfully challenged the constitutionality of Ohio’s school funding in the Ohio Supreme Court only to be ignored by the Ohio legislature, and Sue Taylor, who prior to her current statewide presidency was president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, first in 2004 for the 2005 video documentary “Public Education In The Crosshairs” and on May 8th, in Columbus, directly following the rally. Their answers to my requests for their assessment of Ted Strickland as a person and what he has accomplished for education afford an intimate look at a national leader-in-the-making, a state official whose name is sure to become more familiar around the country as the confrontation between public and private education in Ohio that he has touched off makes its way into the national news.

Phillis is a champion for public education in his own right, having struggled since 1990 in a tenacious battle to get the Ohio Supreme Court, the legislature, and Ohio Governors to uphold the rule of law. In requesting to interview him again, I wished to see how he would assess Governor Strickland’s effort, his political acumen, especially in his growth from early on as a Congressman of the poorest district in Ohio, to his tenure as the Governor, and leading advocate for Ohio’s schools and children.
Phillis made some prescient and critical observations regarding the come-from-behind battle Strickland and public education’s advocates face, in fighting for public education to move the long delayed implementation of the DeRolph decision toward fulfillment:

In reflecting back over the last year on the process leading up to this event, Phillis noted that the educational rally had been a success, crediting Governor Ted Strickland’s building of support through openness to communication and input, meeting with the legislature’s Education committee, for example, 40 times, sometimes with 60 people sometimes with 2 or 3 people.

Qualified by his own two-decades long record of pro-public education advocacy, Phillis’s, if anybody’s, is a reliable character reference on the genuineness of the Strickland education fight and the durability that can be expected of Strickland’s personal commitment to it. In the real world of politics, those who claim to be change agents, let alone reformers, are often unwilling or unable truly to affect the change that is needed. And then there are those who merely window dress, pretending to radically reorganize the system when all that is being done is minor reform and tweaks around the edges. . . . Governor Strickland is not one of these. When it comes to public education, Phillis said flatly, the Governor is “walking the talk.”

Another Strickland believer is Sue Taylor, Ohio Federation of Teachers president, whom I also interviewed after the rally: I asked her to “tell us about the Governor; who is he, and why did he have this education reform rally?”

Taylor: His background, you know, is being a minister [note: in the United Methodist Church], and when he feels passionately about something you know he really does use it as his bully pulpit! He obviously is very passionate about improving education and very frustrated by the wall that’s up in the Senate and whether or not we can get through that wall.

Taylor reflected on her own frustration with the Obama administration:

“I don’t understand it. The president and Arne Duncan are breathing new life into the Charter movement because it’s clear that its failed in Ohio . . . yet they do want to breathe new life back into it and I’m not sure why. If they had some plans to improve them in a clear set of strategies, ok, but they’re just espousing them.”

Prior to the rally, on May 6th, Taylor had forwarded a letter on behalf of the OFT to President Obama in an attempt to explain the union’s position on educational reform.

In the letter, which she handed me at the outset of our interview, she called Ohio’s $3.4 billion investment in charter schools “experiments that have wasted $3.4 billion of taxpayers’ money and have failed thousands of our children.” Documenting this glaring failure of charters to show the dramatic improvements claimed are the data she offered:

“Two out of three charter schools earned failing grades from the Ohio Department of Education on last year’s state report card; 64 percent of charter schools that received state report cards earned Academic Watch and Academic Emergency ratings . . . Statewide, traditional public schools outperform charter schools in each tested subject at each tested grade level; the difference in pass rates ranges from 5 to 10 percent. Traditional public schools experienced gains in proficiency levels that are from 2.2 to 4 percent a year higher than those of charter schools.”

Charter schools, exempted from No Child Left Behind testing requirements and from state fiscal and academic oversight, have, as Taylor reminded the President, put the public schools at a disadvantage and further lowered achievement levels by, on top of everything, draining their budgets of funding such as the $27.3 million redirected to charters from traditional Toledo Public Schools.

Taylor’s letter concludes by asking the President to hold true to his stated focus on eliminating charters that do not produce results for students. “We hope that our state’s experience will highlight the need to carefully consider whether the expansion of charters, in the absence of demonstrable benefits and real accountability, is a path that should be pursued.”

Taylor argues that it isn’t the Charter per se that the union has been militating against, but the type of Charter that has emerged and how Charters in Ohio were draining taxpayer funds:

Taylor: At the national level the president has said, here in Dayton during the campaign before he was inaugurated, it was still during the campaign before he was elected, that if he were elected he would double the amount of federal funding to expand Charters. And of course he said that at the Hispanic luncheon . . . it’s like Colorado and Oklahoma; a couple of pro-Charter state legislators came to a panel here in Columbus, one from Oklahoma one from Colorado and they’re big proponents of Charter schools and they came here to explain their reasons why and they have very few charters in those two states and because they have few they have quality people and you know . . . Ohio has 330! How can you keep track and how can you bring quality to 330? We’ve got over 600 school districts that have existed and now slap on 330 more. How do you keep track of making sure they’re being held to the same standards? That’s really different than if you are dealing with seven or fifteen, as they have in Oklahoma and Colorado.”

Taylor sees merit in the accomplishments of Oklahoma’s Tulsa charter programs, but considers them untypical and too small in scale to be used as validation of the charter model.

Taylor: There is more substance I think in Oklahoma and most of the Charter schools are in the Tulsa area and they really are truly doing better than the public schools in Tulsa and that’s fine and I applaud them and they deserve to be there if they’re doing better and maybe in Tulsa the public school in Tulsa teachers and the administration can learn some things perhaps from the Charter schools that are doing better. I welcome that. I mean our kids deserve the best that we have to offer and I do believe that, but in Ohio, 330 [Charter schools] its free enterprise gone awry! It’s total lack of regulation that’s led to the kinds of abuses that we have just witnessed in Wall Street and we have seen in Enron, which have multiplied the lack of regulation, that’s what we’re being faced with in Ohio, literally 64% of Ohio’s Charter schools who received a report card ranking . . . not all did . . . but 64% of those 330 who did are either in academic watch or academic emergency. It’s totally “deregulation gone awry,” free market system gone awry, and the kids are suffering, and because the Charter operators don’t have anything else to hang their hat on to stay alive they’re using the race card [to cast Strickland’s plan for more accountability as racist].

A Fallen Warrior for Public Education

The late president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, from 2000-2004, who preceded Taylor, Tom Mooney, waged a relentless battle on behalf of public schools, putting together the Coalition for Public Education, and fighting the emergence of Vouchers and for-profit Charter schools, both of which drained several billions of dollars from the general education fund.
President Mooney, in an interview conducted in 2004 for the “Public Education In The Crosshairs” video, made the interesting and insightful comment that it wasn’t the Charter school operators but the federal government under the Department of Education who were the largest contributors to privatization, inasmuch as that it was the feds who provided lucrative start up funds to operators often at times when there was not even a building to house the teachers and students! His words were then and are now prophetic:

Tom Mooney: It’s hard to overstate how bad it is, in fact, I want to say they’ll give a Charter to any P.T. Barnum with a tent but that would be an understatement because they don’t really need a tent.

He lamented the unique problem of Charter schools, pointing out that they emerged initially with the good graces of the union:

Tom Mooney: We still believe Charter schools are a good idea, the notion still has potential, though in Ohio it’s been hijacked by a combination of profiteers and ideologues who want to push privatization for the sake of privatization; doesn’t matter whether the results are good or bad or indifferent because private is inherently better than public service in their minds.

Mooney’s untimely demise in 2006 deprived the cause of saving public education of a true warrior-hero; however, along with Sue Taylor, Mooney’s brother, Attorney Don Mooney, continues to challenge the constitutionality of charters and privatized education in the courts, valiantly failing in one attempt in a 2006 case to prevent for-profits Educational Maintenance Organizations from maintaining the “public” label.

Unions: Allies Rather Than Pariahs

Teacher unions have been the whipping post for those promoting replacement of the public with a private system. When public schools are closed, the private schools that are brought in to replace them are almost entirely non-union. Ohio’s teachers union leaders Mooney and Taylor break the cartoon union stereotype and demonstrate that they are first and foremost teachers and educators whose affinity with the positivism about public education of Ohio’s governor, and respect for his hands-on experience in a number of educational posts, has made them valued assets to his cause.

Sue Taylor, Tom Mooney’s successor as president of the OFT, noted in our interview that the teachers union has been among the prime supporters for the Governor’s budget for a number of reasons, the main one being that the Governor in his advocacy for public education is for real and in that way cut from a wholly different cloth from governors of the past:

Taylor: He grew up himself in very meager circumstances; house burnt down, you know . . . all eleven siblings, living in a very rural poor area . . . so he understands and he’s lived the idea that education is the key to a better life and he knows that’s true for individuals and he knows that’s true for communities and for the state. I think his emphasis on improving education is what ultimately will improve the economy . . . he believes that so much.

But also the fact that he’s a psychologist! It’s been so interesting over the last two years to watch him and to listen to him because it’s the first time that we’ve had a leader who isn’t a career politician, who has worked in education, whose wife has been an educational psychologist in schools . . . they really do understand the process of learning, they understand the human dynamics of learning, and therefore what students need to truly be educated. So it’s been very, very different than the career politicians that we’ve had in the past.

It may come as a surprise to those holding a stereotype of teachers unions as being opposed to progress to discover that union leaders like Taylor favor innovation and experimentation.

Taylor: We [teacher unions] don’t oppose Charters but we want them to be held accountable, and in the legislation for his education reform plan he’s [Governor Strickland] going to put together a grouping of Charter school point people, representatives in traditional public, with the idea being to promote more collaboration between the two so Charter schools will learn more of the best practices of some of the public schools and it’s just the opposite of what the Charters schools said 11 years ago; they said we can do it better and we can do it cheaper. And neither promise has held out.

Taylor is concerned that the Obama administration doesn’t fully understand the critical situation of Charters’ abuse in Ohio:

Taylor: I think President Obama did mention when he was in Dayton during the campaign, he said “now I’ve heard that Ohio’s had trouble with the for-profits,” so I know he’s acknowledged that; how aware he is I’m not sure, . . . but they’ve [EMO’s] really lined their pockets. My phraseology is, it’s just unconscionable that businessmen would get rich off of the poorest kids in the state. I mean that’s just ethically wrong.

While the Obama administration seems, as Sue Taylor says, to want to “breathe new life” into the Charter school movement, and also seems to want to grow incentive/pay-for-performance schemes, they are bound to fail to fix anything if they embrace eyes-wide-open the privatizer agenda, and, in turn, turn a blind eye to the area where real reform needs to start, funding, and the need to fix the grossly inequitable school funding formula which plagues not only Ohio, but much of the rest of the country. In Ohio the average income of the richest fifth of families increased several times faster than the poorest fifth of families, with the average income of the latter increasing since the 1980s by only $150, according to a study by Ohio’s Center on Budget Policy Priorities and Economic Policy Institute in conjunction with Policy Matters. With high-income families clustering within the same school district boundaries, it’s become almost impossible to pass levies in most low-income districts, making a mockery of national legislation forcing all schools to meet the same standards of “excellence” by 2014 or be shut down.

In contrast to the Obama administration “reform” that shuts down minimally funded schools in tax-poor neighborhoods and does nothing to bring equity to the funding of the poorer as well as richer district schools, the Strickland philosophy of reform comes from the wholly opposite direction, taking dead aim on inequality of funding and creating mechanisms to provide the funding needed by the property-poor and not just the property-rich schools. For both Bill Phillis and Sue Taylor, the emphasis on funding equity is what sets Governor Strickland apart from major players in the education debate, including President Obama and his Education Secretary, Duncan.

For Phillis, the Governor is the one offering the real “reform package.”
The “real reform package,” for Strickland, and for Phillis, would be to fix the unconstitutional funding system and create quality education by, for the first time, actually funding it (i.e. on an equitable basis), leaving no school behind.

For Taylor, likewise, handing out performance bonuses to select teachers, an option supported by the Obama administration, is not going to bring improved teacher, student, or school performance levels without fixing overall funding first. First of all, she sees “incentivizing” with bonuses as a distraction from the teacher’s real source of inspiration, but, admittedly, a distraction that the public is increasingly being persuaded to accept.

Taylor: You know, teachers don’t go into education for the money and they don’t perform better because somebody dangles a few hundred dollars out in front of them. It’s really very offensive but even though it is offensive and we know that not to be, in order to not be perceived as being sloths, then we, representing teachers, need to figure out some way to show to the public ‘ok if this is what you want we’ll work toward it.’

What I found in Cincinnati, we did have a school accountability and incentive plan, and were very proud of the fact that for each school goals were set, for different grade levels, as well as content areas. The last year that I taught our school did get recognized as having met improvement goals. More than the few hundred dollars that we got as a group incentive, just being able to put that banner in the hallway that we were now an incentive school, it’s the pride! You know, we really do want the kids to do better. It’s not the dollars; it’s the sense of satisfaction. The reality is that in districts now with the economic downturn and the loss of tax revenue the loss of the tax base . . . there’s not extra money for those incentives right now, unless there are foundation funds that are made available.

For Sue Taylor, this should be the obvious question: if there isn’t enough money for serious school funding reform, where will the money come from for incentives?

The inequitable property tax, upon which many school districts base their funding, has ensured disparities between the richest and poorest of schools. Forcing states to raise their caps and doubling the federal funding of Charter schools, as the Obama administration is demanding Governors to do, will only exacerbate the situation, by creating a dual public school system.

The Real “Change Agent”

The discretionary money, i.e. the $5 billion that Secretary Duncan holds out for states that expand charter schools and institute teacher bonuses, will be only loose change, pseudo-change, and not much of a stimulus if we continue to shortchange the kids and shortchange the schools themselves.
One wonders how long the Obama administration can continue with its warmed over version of anti-public education ideas that go back to the “let business do it” mindset of the Reagan administration without having to contend with the rival strategy for reforming public education of Ted Strickland.

At what point will his administration’s slogan of “turning around” schools through privatization be put to the test by giving a fair hearing and a fair trial to the opposite idea of Ted Strickland in Ohio, to fund and rebuild the public schools themselves.

It has been Strickland the onetime student counselor in the schools, who said, “the road to turnaround the economic future of Ohio is our public education system.”

It has been Strickland the minister who says it would be a “sin” to allow the budget at this time of economic crises to flounder.
It is Strickland the psychologist, who as Congressman in 2004 decried the mindless standardized testing of students, saying, “it is abusive of that child.”

So it was at the Education Reform rally on May 8th, that Governor Ted Strickland, instead of Secretary Arne Duncan, emerged as the real reformer of education. Education reform has become a buzzword; advocates for everything from vouchers, to online education, from alternative teacher certification, to merit pay, from turnaround schools, to charters, all would-be reformers like to claim they are in it for the kids, but few really have the credentials, integrity and commitment of the Ohio governor, who with his education budget aims to finally, once and for all, fix the school funding formula and thus make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of students.

Not only at the rally, but also in his vision statement for education where he calls for building an innovative and creative world-class system that doesn’t blindly follow the dictates of the free market, Strickland has thrown down the gauntlet with his persistence in holding in high esteem the value of public education.

Already two years ago, at a similar rally for education at the State House in Columbus that Geoff Berne, Karen Chin, and I documented in our video “Public Education In The Crosshairs,” Strickland, then a U.S. Congressman and still a candidate for Ohio governor, showed himself as a man with a mission, a mission to uphold the concept of the state’s legal responsibility for education.

In a fiery speech to that rally, Strickland put the political leadership on notice that they would be called on to pay their court-ordered debt to, and find the funding needed for, the children:

Promises were made to the children of this nation . . . public schools of this country have made this nation what it is today. We are here to send a message to the Governor, to the Speaker of the House, to the Majority Leader in the Senate, to the other members of the House and Senate, to the Supreme Court, that our kids are being failed by their leadership! In a nation of law, in a nation and in a state that teaches our children that we should respect the law, why don’t they respect the decision of the court that says our current system is unconstitutional?

Since his election, in his town hall forums, state of the state address and in his constant stumping for his budget, leading up to the rally, Strickland has taken the heat of media criticism for fighting the good fight—and kept on fighting.

The Governor has held firm to his principles, canvassed his entire state, and, as previously noted, even upstaged the Secretary of Education in Columbus with the help of the DeRolph family. Strickland is fighting the fight for fixing public education—by funding it. His unflinching crusade to make the point that no amount of Charter schools or foundation funds will fix the problem, in its sheer single-mindedness, puts him in a category of one among the nation’s political leaders as public education’s nation’s keeper of the flame.

When Ted Strickland, as is expected, faces free-market ideologue of the Newt Gingrich era, John Kasich, in the 2010 race for Governor, the eyes of the world will be on the debate over education, and over charter schools versus public schools, in Ohio. Strickland’s tenure as Governor has more than readied him for such a contest. It is precisely the kind of fight on values and principle that he is best at, and clearly relishes.

TODD ALAN PRICE is author of The Myth and Reality of NCLB: Public Education and High Stakes Assessment.