Uncertainty No Excuse for Inaction

When I look at the reactions to recent school shooting incidents, I am struck by two things. First, lots of people seem to have opinions about what will and won’t work to reduce violence in the nations’ schools. Second, nobody really knows.

I count myself in this: my 0pinion is that we should outlaw assault weapons, strengthen background checks, reduce the age limit for purchases, and so forth.1 But that’s just an opinion; I don’t have data to support it. And, as somebody said once, unless you have data, you’re just another person with an opinion.

I hear legislators jumping on one bandwagon or another: they have their beliefs, but they generally don’t know much about the causes of school violence. That doesn’t surprise me: what does shock me is that they haven’t taken any action to learn more. That would seem to be a no-brainer: We’ve been averaging one school shooting a week; outside of war zones, no other country has this problem.

Congress loves to investigate, so where are the Congressional hearings on school violence? The only document I’ve been able to find is a post-Columbine FBI paper prepared nearly twenty years ago. (You can read and/or download it here.) You would think that nineteen years later, somebody at the federal level would say, “Hey, this doesn’t seem to be right. Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?” But no. They’d rather opine.

So when I contacted my federal legislators, I didn’t ask them to fix the problem; I don’t believe they are capable at present of fixing it. Instead, I asked them to use their authority to find the fix.2 Here’s my letter; feel free to copy it and paste it into your own.

Dear [sent individually to Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH11), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Senator Rob Portman (R-OH)]:


In 2019 we will observe the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. In those years, hundreds of American communities have been torn by a uniquely American epidemic of school violence that has only gotten worse.

In the aftermath of last week's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, I'm sure that you are receiving countless calls and emails asking for specific steps: better background checks, reducing the firearms purchase age, arming the teachers, hardening the sites, enacting a ban on assault weapons, etc. I'm not doing that.

I confess that I am not sure what will cure this epidemic of school violence. What I am sure of is that the epidemic is not normal.

I call on you and your colleagues in the [House,Senate] to begin the steps necessary to create a national commission on school violence. The purpose of the commission would be to explore the evidence about why we have such a high level of school violence and what we can do to reduce or eliminate it. This commission should operate at the highest level of government, involving all three branches of the federal government, state and local officials, and educators, parents, and students. It should work quickly and make its results public as soon as possible.

Two previous examples are instructive: "A Nation at Risk" in 1983 and "The 9/11 Commission Report" in 2004. Both documents and the commissions that created them were responses to a national sense that something was deeply wrong. Of the two, the 1983 report was flawed by ideology and politics, while the 2004 report is generally regarded as a model for such projects. It is important that the commission be properly constituted and that its report follow the example of the latter.

No consensus presently exists about what we can do to end school violence. Even so, it is unconscionable that the highest authorities in the nation have done essentially nothing to find out why we have this problem and what we can do about it.

Sincerely,
William S. Lavezzi
  1. I confess gun control isn’t my topic. I fired some .22s at summer camp, but nothing since then. I’ve never owned a gun or felt the need to own one. I’m not anti-gun: I would probably enjoy target shooting, but I don’t need another hobby.
  2. No substantive responses so far. No reply from Senator Portman or Representative Fudge. Senator Brown sent a form letter, but it didn’t address my specific question.

Points Raised, Solutions Elusive

The education alternatives David Osborne offered at The City Club on Friday were thought-provoking but flawed.

I value the work of the Cleveland City Club, and I’m proud to serve on its Education Committee, where we work to bring presenters to the podium of America’s oldest free speech forum. The Education Committee is a diverse group, with members representing a wide variety of interests. The City Club aims to bring a wide variety of opinions to the podium, and sometimes I attend presentations where I expect I won’t hear much that I like. (We should all do more of that.) Friday’s was one of those.

Osborne’s talk was entitled “Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Educational System.” That’s also the title of his most recent book, which I haven’t read; to be fair, it’s likely that the book explains things that weren’t addressed in his talk.

Osborne focused on three school systems which he identified as showing exceptional improvement among large city schools. He identified two of those, New Orleans and the District of Columbia, as previously corrupt enterprises that have improved educational performance for their students, and he credited the third, Indianapolis, with introducing “innovation schools” within the public system.

In all three examples, Osborne credits charter schools for most of the improvement. He their their variety, risk-taking, accountability, and autonomy.

Few would miss what he derided as the “cookie-cutter model” of big-city education. But he evidently sees the loss of neighborhood schools, career teachers, democratic local control, stability, and consistency as a worthwhile price to pay, and I think we might miss those.

He brands his alternative “21st Century Schools”: “Rather than everybody working for one organization, as an employee of a district, you have a bunch of autonomous, accountable public schools run by independent organizations.”

I don’t think that’s a realistic solution. To make the future we desire as a nation and a society, we must educate all our children, and we must educate them well. Claims of a better educational system must demonstrate that they are scalable and sustainable. Osborne’s vision is neither.

  • When asked about scaling his ideas to all of OEA’s school districts, he admitted that it probably wouldn’t work, at least not for a long time. He has no answer for the geographic realities of rural areas, and didn’t address why taxpayers and parents in successful school districts would want to blow up a working system.
  • A sustainable educational system needs to be worthy of public support. Public schools are a democratically-governed public good, and it’s hard for me to believe that the public will support a patchwork of schools that they don’t own and don’t control.

In response to a question he said, “People think there’s one right answer, and I disagree.” And I, in turn, have to disagree with that. Granted, it’s difficult to find a correct answer, but where one exists we have a responsibility to find it. I don’t think he’s found it yet.

He continued, “I think there are lots of different kids who will thrive in different environments, and their parents should be allowed to make the choice of the environment that they think their child is going to thrive in.” That’s education-as-commodity thinking at work: taken to its extreme, it brought us ECOT. It negates education as a public good, and if allowed to, it renders education unworthy of public support.

I don’t want to give the impression that I thought the hour was wasted. Osborne is a thoughtful, knowledgeable speaker, and he represents concerns shared by many of us, in and out of traditional public schools. Most of us wouldn’t want to work or attend school systems he described as  “too centralized and hierarchical, so their principals and their teachers feel disempowered.” And his concerns about the potential risks of universal voucher systems (“widening inequality and . . . increasing intolerance”) were exactly right.

Indisputably, the schools making up the “portfolio” that Osborne supports are educational institutions. But can we build a sustainable educational system on them? I have my doubts, and so should voters.

You can read more about the forum, hear the audio podcast, and view the video here.

Mary Taylor Speaks at the City Club

These days Republican candidates are under a lot of pressure to establish that they are True Conservatives, and  that means embracing school choice, low taxes, and business interests. But it hasn’t been that long since the state’s largest teachers’ union endorsed Republican Mary Taylor for State Representative in 2004.

Now she’s Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor, and she is running to succeed term-limited John Kasich as Ohio’s next Governor in the 2018 election.

So it was natural that I wanted to see her “Meet the Candidates” appearance on July 7 at The City Club of Cleveland. As most of my readers and friends know, I am pretty much a single-issue voter. It’s not that I don’t care about other issues, but I know more and care more about education than any of the other topics. (And it’s pretty much the only topic on which people ever ask for my opinion.)

Taylor identifies as a conservative, but on education she downplays ideology. She affirmed her support for school choice, but she also pointed out the need for charter school accountability. Perhaps more important, she recognizes that charter schools were originally envisioned as laboratories to try out education innovations–not just to provide competition for the public schools. She wants to bridge what she sees as an excessively sharp division in K-12 education between college prep and career training tracks.

You can hear or see the whole session on The City Club’s website; or you can focus on what she said about education. Here are points I identified from the audio podcast: you can hear all three in less than five minutes.

  • At 17:29, she makes her position statement on education, and this is where she mentions her concern about the separation between college prep and career education.
  • At 28:30, you can hear her address my stock question to candidates for Governor: “What will a Mary Taylor administration do to maintain and improve Ohio’s common schools?” You can judge for yourself how successfully she answered the question.
  • At 50:00, she answers a Twitter question about vouchers.

All three comments are important to understanding her stance on education, and you can listen and draw your own conclusions.

Four Republicans are running already for Governor, and it’s likely that one of them will represent their party in the fall 2018 election. Even Democrats like me need to pay attention to their positions. I plan to ask my question to as many of the candidates as possible, and I’ll report my impressions here.