Heights pilgrims advocate for our community
On May 4, Elizabeth Kirby, CH-UH schools superintendent, made another pilgrimage to Columbus to urge the Ohio Legislature to improve the state’s investment in public education, and to directly fund vouchers and charter schools. The current funding of education choice has resulted in deep cuts in programs and personnel in the Heights schools, a steep increase in local taxes, and plenty of tension and anger as state policy puts the future attractiveness of our unique community in doubt.
Heights Coalition for Public Education members Robin Koslen, Toni Thayer and Joan Spoerl, along with Jayne Geneva, a longtime member of the district’s lay finance committee, also spoke before the Senate’s primary and secondary education committee, during hearings on the state’s biennial budget. The Legislature must approve an operating budget by June 30, and fixing school funding is a big-ticket item in the budget.
Eighteen of the 136 people who submitted testimony in writing or in person during the hearings were from our school district. We are in a crisis. It is no time to sit back.
We have an impressive track record of citizens speaking up and stepping up to create the community we want, instead of passively enduring bad policy. That’s the reason I moved to Cleveland Heights 40 years ago. There it was on full display again: the citizen voice! I could not be prouder.
Each witness used her five minutes to put a face on the issue and convince lawmakers to support a strong system of public education. They referenced the myriad ways in which existing policy is undermining education quality, devaluing children and educators, and damaging the communities served by the Heights schools.
The funding plan is popular with Ohio school districts. Who can argue with a plan that serves all children and school districts and gives all students an equal chance to excel, regardless of their needs or the ability of their community to fund its public schools?
School officials from across the state testified in support of the plan. Our district stood out, however, as the one community where 17 other people added their voices to the superintendent’s. Voters and levy workers, parents and grandparents, career educators, and school district residents who have a stake in the success of our public schools presented their case. Visit the Heights Coalition for Public Education website (http://chuh.net/coalition/) to read their testimony.
They spoke for the people who live in our community and are invested in its long-term viability and success as a stable, vibrant and inclusive oasis. No one else brought that perspective, the sense of urgency, and the set of values that people who are looking out for their community can articulate.
Each witness personalized the need for better funding. They made clear that paid lobbyists and think-tank experts are not the only people who should shape policy. They effectively challenged the prevailing narrative that public schools, which serve 90 percent of Ohio students, have failed. They appealed to lawmakers to uphold the Constitution.
Koslen and her two adult children are graduates of the Heights schools. Her four grandchildren attend Canterbury Elementary School. Devoted to her hometown, Koslen said, “I would feel terrible if I didn’t do everything I could to get the legislation passed. I have the opportunity and the time; there is no excuse not to speak up.”
Spoerl had the luxury of participating and felt compelled to use it. She wanted to participate in democracy and hoped to “open [legislators’] hearts and minds so they would listen to another point of view.”
It remains to be seen if the legislature got our message.
Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. Her book, "Resisting Segregation," documents the grassroots activism that helped shape Cleveland Heights as an integrated community between 1964 and 1976.