Thursday, May 11, 2006

Wednesday in Columbus

One of the great challenges to organizing for public school advocacy is that the target demographic – parents of school-aged children – is made up of people with no spare time. Wednesday's Ohio Fair Schools Campaign Conference and Lobby Day felt like evidence of turning that corner.

We ended up with over a hundred people, including teachers, students, activists and – parents. Attendees included three from Akron, one from Copley-Fairlawn. The kids provided inspiration – a skit on school funding by a social studies class from an inner-city Columbus and winners of this year’s OFSC essay contest.

The long term project is a statewide network of mobilized grassroots activists. Short term, the General Assembly is getting into mischief with our schools, so we have some specific legislation we are watching. The big topic is legislation enacting Taft’s Core initiative – an ambitious effort to jack up high school requirements. The GA has taken it up in H.B. 565 and S.B. 311. Legislative Services compares current and proposed requirements with a handy table:

It’s an idea with arguable merit in the abstract, but here on earth, the legislature isn’t providing any money for it – just unfunded mandates. While Taft has proposed spending money on more teacher training, that money isn't in this bill. What's more, without some fundamental reforms in the school funding system, schools will continue to go through the cycle of levy failure, program cuts, student loss and more funding crunches. Core requirements like foreign language instruction and science labs are hard to fund on a shoestring.

In addition, the real trouble comes when the charter lobby and their friends in the legislature get last-minute amendments. Sorry to sound like conspiracy guy, but it doesn’t take long, before you start looking at everything in terms of “how will this tilt the field more for charters?”

Second up is H. B. 431, which would set up “special education scholarships;” in other words vouchers for special ed. students. This is a wholly unnecessary bill. Currently, a parent can enter mediation to secure a private-school placement. Parents are successful 93% of the time. H.B. 431 allows private schools to take in Special Ed. kids – and the money that goes with them – with no real accountability. This time we don’t need to wait for the last-minute details. This is patent screw-the-schools stuff.

We met with Rep. Brian Williams' staff (D-41). They told us about some of the Republican monkey business including this story the day before it broke. Bottom line: Democrats are essentially shut out of any real decision making.

But we're working it. Every year we get more people involved, more people learn how the system works and how the deck is stacked. The question remains whether public schools can survive the constant assaults from the Right long enough for state momentum to shift, but we're on the case.