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.

Elections Matter

In my previous post, I said that I don’t think it’s too early to contemplate some lessons we’re learning from the events of the past nine months. I said that one of those lessons is that leadership matters, and that we might not have been reminded so forcefully of the importance of leadership if we hadn’t been reminded of how elections matter.

II. Elections matter

It is interesting how educators’ experience with the Obama administration parallels our experience with the Strickland administration in Ohio. If they are as similar as I think, then it is critical that our colleagues on the national level learn from our experience here.

In both cases, we were thrilled with the election of an ally. Expectations were high for both Ted Strickland in 2008 and Barack Obama in 2010. Strickland would fix Ohio’s unconstitutional school funding system. Obama would reverse the excesses of the absurdly misnamed “No Child Left Behind.”

And in both cases, we were disappointed. While Strickland produced an elegant formula for school funding, the funding itself wasn’t institutionalized–and probably couldn’t be without an increase in state revenue that he wasn’t able to get. Worse, even this improvement came with annoying compromises, like an increase in the time needed for teachers to be considered for continuing contracts.

On the federal level, the Obama administration offered improvements in school funding through Race to the Top; but those improvements were flawed in at least two ways. First, they were competitive and unavailable to all, and thus didn’t offer a genuine increase in school funding. Second, they were conditioned on acceptance of teacher evaluation premises that many of teachers and leaders were reluctant to endorse and which required levels of labor-management cooperation that don’t exist in most school districts.

In both cases, educators came to believe that elections didn’t matter. Our world didn’t end under Bush and Taft, and we didn’t reach paradise under Strickland and Obama; so why not send a message? And many Ohio educators, faced with disappointment in the Strickland administration, decided to do just that. They sat on their hands or even supported Kasich in 2010, and by doing so helped give us what we have seen this year.

Let’s be clear here–Kasich didn’t win just because Strickland lost some support from educators. There were plenty of other factors at work, not all of them under Strickland’s control. But some of our people became convinced that elections don’t matter.

Kasich’s supporters were under no such delusions. Strickland faced in 2010, and Obama will almost certainly face in 2012, a political landscape characterized by historically deep divisions between political ideologies. For generations, American candidates have run from their base and governed from the center. Kasich is the first Ohio governor in my 45 years in Ohio who’s not interested in governing from the center: he, along with the ideologues who handed him Senate Bill 5, are interested in trying out their theory of government, and they have the votes to do it. Many claim to be prepared to be one-term lawmakers, as long as they can change the status quo in the way they think it should be changed.

The Republican Presidential candidate in 2012 is likely to be just as ideological–or at least that’s what seems to be happening so far in the campaign, which features a contest among ideological extremists and panderers.

So when I say that “elections matter,” what I’m saying is that in Ohio, we have learned the difference between a weak friend and a strong enemy. And we have learned that the strong enemy is infinitely more dangerous. As hard as it may be, we need to support our friends just as strongly after we’ve learned their flaws as we did when they were our newest best buddy.

We shouldn’t leave this topic without paying some attention to the compromises made by both Strickland and Obama and considering why they felt those compromises were warranted. I’ll take that up in my next post, “Ideas Matter.”

Leadership Matters

Election Day for Ohio Issue 2, the taxpayer veto of Senate Bill 5, will finally arrive on Tuesday. Once the results are in, many smart analysts for media, political parties, unions, and think tanks will be studying the entrails to determine what we’ve learned from Senate Bill 5.

But we don’t need to wait that long to note three critical lessons that public educators should take away from these past nine months. And maybe we shouldn’t: by identifying them now, they won’t be contaminated by our reactions to Election Night.
So regardless of the outcome on November 8, I would suggest that our future survival as a profession–not just here but across the country–may depend on the intelligence with which we understand these lessons and the speed with which we apply them.
I call these the “three things that matter”:
  • leadership matters;
  • elections matter;
  • ideas matter.

I. Leadership matters.

This campaign reminds us once again of the overwhelming importance of leadership. We’ve seen over and over again that strong local leadership can make the difference between a proactive and a reactive membership. We have seen this consistently over relatively peaceful years–in negotiations, in professional development, in legislative awareness, and in member protection. If we find it to be true in calmer times, we shouldn’t be surprised that we find it during a crisis.
Among our locals, the ones that most readily influenced this campaign were the ones that were already positioned to do so. During years of relative peace, they had organized themselves so that when war came, they were ready to fight.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean to imply that many previously sleepy locals didn’t eventually do heroic things. What I do mean to say is that locals that got a crash course in local leadership would be unwise to forget those lessons now. We will need that leadership in the years ahead, no matter what happens on Election Day.
When I talk about leadership here, I am not speaking only of the actions of elected or appointed local leaders. Voicing an opinion or asking a question at a membership meeting is leadership. So is volunteering for a task that needs to be done. So is refusing to go along with an injustice. Crises have a way of bringing rank-and-file members into both formal and informal leadership roles. We must not waste this crisis. We must find ways for members who have just now become motivated and involved to stay that way. And that is the role of elected and appointed local leaders, and it will be their unique challenge in the months and years ahead.
This crisis brought the importance of leadership into sharp focus. It might never have happened in so spectacular a fashion if we hadn’t lost an election in 2010. Which brings us to my next point: elections matter. I’ll have more on that tomorrow.