Can our schools survive the legislature?
At the beginning of a year, I like to look forward with hope and resolve. However, as a public-school advocate who believes in the value of every child and the essential role of public education in our democracy, I feel dread, not hope, as I anticipate 2023.
We will have new elected officials representing us in Columbus, and they will have to contend with whatever the supermajority in the Ohio legislature has up its sleeve in terms of further weakening our public schools, privatizing education, centralizing power, limiting student rights, maligning educators and censoring classrooms.
None of this is good for kids, our communities, or democracy, but the legislature appears hell-bent on destruction. We must live with the consequences of what they have done and prepare for the next attack. As the year begins, single-party rule in all echelons of state government moves from theoretical to real. What options do we have for protecting our values when those with power have different ideas?
Last year, when the supermajority approved new maps for state elected offices and perpetuated gerrymandering, Cleveland Heights was grouped with communities that are less like it. This change also coincided with the departure of state Sen. Sandra Williams and Rep. Janine Boyd, elected officials who know our community and have represented our interests with vigor. It’s especially hard to lose our great ally on the State Board of Education, Meryl Johnson, who will still serve but in a district that does not include us.
Our new statehouse representatives, Sen. Kent Smith and Rep. Juanita Brendt, support public education, as does our new state board member, Tom Jackson. If we want them to represent us, outnumbered as they are, we need to welcome them, get to know them, and help them know us. We need to encourage them to fight in battles where the outcome may already be decided.
Our second line of defense in this difficult climate is the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education. We live in a “local control” state where most important decisions about the operation of our schools are local concerns. The state’s primary obligation is to fund public education, yet most funding is local. Elected boards of education provide oversight to make sure our public funds are well spent and reflect community priorities.
This structure gives the board authority to set policy. I am grateful to our board for standing up to the bullies in the statehouse. Last year, board members led the charge with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of EdChoice vouchers, which compete with public schools for insufficient state education funds. They testified in Columbus and passed resolutions rejecting initiatives in the legislature and state board to censor instruction, reject equity as an education priority, and value some students over others.
It is hard to know how far our local leaders can go to protect our community’s commitment to our students, and to equity as a guiding principle. We need them to reassure our teachers that our nation’s history of racial injustice is a reality that should not be ignored, and to continue to make school a safe place for all students. They are bucking state laws in some cases. We need to stand with them. If there were ever a time to pay attention to our district and its commitment to serving our community, it is now. Local control can only endure if we support our local leaders.
This is a horrible moment for our democracy and for creating a just and inclusive society. No matter how hopeless it feels, we can’t turn our backs on the governance of our public institutions. We remain the bulwark of our democracy.
Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.