Silence is the enemy of change
Five years ago, I was among 160 people making their way through snow and cold on three consecutive Wednesdays to discuss Reign of Errors: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, by public school advocate Diane Ravitch.
The book documents how wealthy ideologues captured education policymaking to promote privatization and accountability at the expense of the common good. Ill-conceived state policies that use tests to grade school districts and punish students, and which allow public funds to be extracted for unregulated charter schools and private-school vouchers, are widespread.
Choice and accountability, while sounding benign, are anything but that! They have damaged public schools, punished the most vulnerable, and violated basic principles of our democracy—specifically, separation of church and state and public oversight of public resources.
This community reading activity inspired about 40 participants to form the Heights Coalition for Public Education, to challenge what we understood to be a war on public education. This all-volunteer effort that unites community stakeholders to focus on education policy is a unique voice in Ohio.
The policies we oppose are still in place, but so are we! We are more determined, and our ranks are growing. More than 1,100 people have endorsed our position statement! This is a political process and it takes focus, clarity, anger, creativity, time and perseverance to challenge policy and, if necessary, replace the policymakers.
At times it seems impossible. The legislature is dominated by adherents to the policies that are damaging the public system. It’s slow going, and it’s hard to feel that our efforts have changed anything, but we have empowered more people to speak up and encouraged public-school stakeholders to use their voices. It is this collective voice that will cause change.
Our influence comes from the squeaky-wheel strategy: People with shared concerns work together to demand change. Breaking the silence is the essential first step. It makes it possible to stake out an issue, draw others to it and empower people, who may have been silenced by the policy, to begin to use their influence. As with every issue, it takes someone to challenge the status quo before others will say, “Me too.”
Silence is the enemy of change.
Our group started by crafting a position statement that affirmed our commitment to public education. We invited others to express their support by endorsing our position. Those names are real people who vote and who care about this issue. They are people who come to our events, guide our work and ask others to get involved. They make it real. They are ready to do more. Add your name at www.chuh.net/coalition.
As our knowledge and confidence have grown, so has the sense of urgency. We have stayed the course but with growing impatience. How do we make a difference?
Our key strategy is building an informed constituency that feels connected to others who share our concern, and is willing to advocate for change. This winter we sponsored three more public events to keep the conversation going, information flowing, and understanding and commitment growing.
Despite the weather, about 100 people came to the January forum that featured three superintendents who are fighting back. Different stakeholders are joining our chorus. This time it is superintendents!
Public-school bashers have silenced educational professionals from challenging awful policies by both blaming them and calling them apologists. Silencing the most knowledgeable and expert voices is a common tool for those whose intentions are not in the public’s interest. It has worked for a while, but superintendents, after all, are education experts. Much of their work is defined by state laws. It is their job to know how policies affect their students. They are well positioned to inform policymakers if laws are meeting stated goals. Of course, challenging public policy can be risky. For these superintendents—Jim Lloyd, Walter Davis and Talisa Dixon—a supportive school board was essential to giving them the freedom to truly advocate for their students.
Dixon, CH-UH superintendent, credited the coalition for pushing her and the board to actively resist damaging policies. Our voices helped them use theirs! Advocacy is now an expected board activity, and an energetic team seems ready for it.
I was encouraged by our guests who shared their experiences with legislators. They were also clear that, even though districts are different from one another, all are threatened. Superintendents should unite.
Their final message was not really a surprise: The public holds the power to make change.
That's us, and ours is a work in progress.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.