Lobbyists for the common good needed
As a true believer in democracy, I take my rights as a citizen seriously.
These rights are a lot like muscles: Use them or lose them. Our democracy was set up to give citizens the power to make government accountable and useful. Because government appears to me to be veering off course, I am propelled to exercise a broader range of what is available to me as a member of a democratic society.
It is an almost religious experience to cast my vote. We will have that chance again on May 8. Big issues are on the ballot, including a vote on the system that defines how state legislative districts are drawn. Be sure to exercise your vote.
The right to assemble is newly important to me. Until recently, the last time I had demonstrated was as a college student protesting the Vietnam War, but in the last 15 months, I have put up with a lot of cold weather to show my opposition to Betsy DeVos’s appointment by demonstrating in front of Sen. Rob Portman’s Cleveland office, march with women in Washington and Cleveland, and demand an end to gun violence with thousands of young people in Washington, D.C. The signs, energy and shared resolve of hundreds of thousands of citizens together are motivating and critical to energized and determined engagement. It has strengthened my resolve.
In March, following a Heights Coalition for Public Education forum about ways to influence state policy, I took a big leap. I decided to speak directly to state legislators who I consider to be barriers to what I think is good for public education.
In mid-March I took the 150-minute drive to Columbus for my five minutes in front of the House Government and Accountability Oversight Committee. I registered opposition to H.B. No. 512, because it would further politicize public education policy and curtail citizen input by severely limiting the role of the elected state school board and transferring some of its powers to the governor. It proposes to merge K-12 education with workforce development. It’s a damaging proposal for education and governance.
While public speaking always makes me anxious, I stepped to the podium and looked the author of the bill, Rep. Bill Reineke (R-Tiffin), in the eye and criticized the legislation that he had drafted. I was thankful to see some committee members nodding their heads in agreement as I registered my support for public education and democratic governance. I kept going.
I was among the last to speak, and when it was my turn only a handful of committee members were still there to hear my testimony. Several home-school parents gave testimony in opposition to the bill, as did our state school board member, Meryl Johnson. A lobbyist for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce spoke in favor. A small-business owner from Lorain and an education activist from Cincinnati registered their concerns. The mix of voices was interesting.
The trip was worth it. I was reminded that all kinds of people care, and for different reasons, but they show up. Second, it isn’t hard to do. The public is supposed to have a turn, and this is how you participate.
I realized I am guilty of demonizing the opposition and this cripples my engagement. By speaking to the author of this bill, I had to acknowledge him as a valid player too. The legislative process expects stakeholders to share their perspective, concerns and evidence. If you dismiss legislators as bad guys, you forfeit the chance to inform their decisions with your perspective. You denigrate the process.
News coverage of the hearings was informative. Reporters listed categories of witnesses, but none of them described me. Their reporting portrayed the stakeholders as organized groups, usually of people who are employed in schools. That didn’t describe me. I spoke as a beneficiary of public education. Like the residents of every community, I pay for public education and I benefit from it because we all depend on an educated citizenry. All residents of Ohio, whether they use a school or not, have a vested interest in a strong public education system. It’s about the common good.
The common-good constituency is not easy to capture in news reporting, but our collective voices are needed to demand policies that support a strong public education system. If I return to the legislature, I think I will identify myself as a lobbyist for the common good.
Maybe by naming it I can call greater attention to what is really at stake.
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.