Ideas Matter

Ohioans go to the polls tomorrow to determine the fate of Senate Bill 5, which aimed to replace public employee collective bargaining with collective begging. In a series which ends today, I’ve been writing about “three things that matter.” I’ve been working backward from the observation that leadership–particularly local union leadership–matters, and that this was made clearer by this year, in which our members have learned to their sorrow just how much elections matter. Today, I’m writing about the most basic of these: ideas matter.

III. Ideas Matter.

Our leaders and our members had to do such heroic work this year (leadership matters) because we face a political foe who has made it his business to destroy public employee unions (elections matter). But our political foes couldn’t get much traction if they hadn’t been winning an ideological fight for many years. If we can’t figure out how to win that fight, then all the elections and all the organizing in the world won’t save us.

Virtually no intervention prescribed to improve public schools has worked. Charter schools, vouchers, high-stakes testing, merit pay, take your pick–none have worked. American schools continue to be victimized by capricious and inequitable funding, inconsistent academic standards, and indifferent community support. And yet, despite an almost total lack of evidence that they work, each of the interventions I’ve mentioned has its fervent adherents.

All of this would simply be a continuing, nagging aggravation except for the biggest wrong idea of them all–the conversion of public education from a common good to a commodity.

In the late nineties, when the Ohio General Assembly passed the Cleveland “scholarship” (voucher) program, the argument was that the Cleveland schools were in such miserable shape that anything that could be done to help them should be done. But today’s school choice advocates are beyond choice for failing schools. In March, Republican Senate hopeful Josh Mandel, talking to a school choice group on the steps of the Statehouse last spring, argued that taxpayers should pay for whatever education choice parents make, a concept which is embodied in House Bill 136.

HB 136 is the logical fruit of the ideological tree planted in the establishment of the Cleveland voucher program: although it is need-based, it would permit most parents to take tax support and apply it to any school of their choice.

Ohio’s Constitution requires the General Assembly to “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state” (6.02). The DeRolph suit was about whether Ohio school funding provided a “thorough and efficient” system; HB 136 makes that question irrelevent by forgoing common schools altogether and making education a tax-supported consumer purchase.

Ideas matter. This one is probably the worst idea going, and it has bipartisan support: Representatives Bill Patmon (D- Cleveland) and Michael Stinziano (D-Columbus) are co-sponsors. It has a chance of being passed because the public generally doesn’t understand the importance of public schools.

And that’s the case with all the other bad ideas out there in the education marketplace. Our critics have an open field for their narrative: education consists of what standardized tests measure; public schools are failing; quality teaching consists simply of improving students’ best test scores; educator unions are an obstacle to school improvement; merit pay offers an opportunity to improve teaching by providing incentives for better teachers, who by definition are the ones who get the highest test scores; by empowering parents and using market forces, school choice can fix an ailing system.

Let me connect the dots of the case I’ve been trying to build.

  • Leadership matters: We’ve had to use every organization tool at our disposal because of a crisis brought on by the election of zealots.
  • Elections matter: Those zealots were elected in part because of lukewarm support among educators and others who felt that he hadn’t been strong enough in support of our causes. (The same sort of lukewarm support being expressed nationally for President Obama.)
  • Ideas matter: Governor Strickland endorsed bogus education “reforms” because the public tends to believe in them. (And on the national level, President Obama has done the same thing.)

If we don’t win the ideological battle, then ultimately we won’t win the organizational and political battles. If we make it through Election Day with the repeal of Senate Bill 5, we need immediately to start figuring out how to counter the tidal wave of opinion that made us such easy targets in the first place.

Author: StgCoach

Retired teacher and public education leader. Pastoral musician, community activist, parliamentarian, and photographer.