The Common Good

Don't sit out the school board election

The November election could not be more important for the Heights community. The future direction of municipal government and the school district will be defined by whom we elect.

As a public school advocate, I am focused on the seven candidates who are running for three seats on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education.

They have vast differences in values, motivation, experience and priorities. There are stark contrasts in their styles, involvement with our schools, and commitment to public education. There are real choices to be made that will affect student experiences and our community’s identity.

Please get informed about this lineup and then vote on Nov. 2. We have a significant opportunity to shape our collective future and reaffirm our commitment to the common good.

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Volume 14, Issue 10, Posted 11:39 AM, 10.01.2021

Public schools are for all

A banner in front of Heights High reads “Public is for all!”

The proclamation is both an invitation and a reason to enroll.

A hallmark of our democracy is the guarantee of a free public education. Universal access to a publicly funded education expresses the equal value and rights of all children and appreciation for the relevance of education to self-governance. It serves the common good. Because a community benefits from the education of its children, public schools unite communities in common purpose.

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Volume 14, Issue 9, Posted 10:05 AM, 09.02.2021

Vigilance needed to make victory certain

In June the Ohio House passed the two-year state budget with a vote of 82–13, and the Senate followed, 32–1. The budget includes a new school-funding formula, two years of partial funding, and the end of deduction funding, which diverts state aid from public school districts to voucher programs and charter schools.

These were gratifying victories for public education, democracy, and the Cleveland Heights–University Heights (CH-UH) City School District. They will make the funding system fair and predictable, and, when fully funded, adequate and equitable.

After the Fair School Funding Plan was approved, statehouse allies recognized the effectiveness of advocacy by the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters: Authentic testimony submitted by many, a constant stream of letters, e-mails, phone conversations and postcards, and pointed opinion pieces and letters to the editor added up.

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Volume 14, Issue 8, Posted 3:10 PM, 07.30.2021

Thank you, Heights teachers

This column is dedicated to the 19 Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District professionals who retired at the end of this school year. Our retirees, 18 teachers and one counselor, have spent between 16 and 45 years in the district, collectively providing more than 450 years of service to our community!

I am deeply grateful to each of them for their long-term investment in our schools and our community. Because teaching skills are perfected through practice, none of our retiring teachers arrived fully prepared, but all of them depart with invaluable expertise, relationships, and institutional knowledge. It will take time for those who replace them to catch up.

While I have had public school teachers in my family (my sister taught in Chicago and my grandmother taught in a one-room school in Iowa), my respect for this profession comes from what I have witnessed in our school district, often from this year's retirees.

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Volume 14, Issue 7, Posted 3:32 PM, 07.01.2021

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.

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Volume 14, Issue 6, Posted 10:27 AM, 05.27.2021

Become a crusader for democracy

I have been writing this column for more than six years. Sometimes I feel like a broken record, repeatedly showcasing the ways in which our community suffers from state laws that inappropriately use tests to define our public schools—and our children—as failures; state laws that take resources appropriated for public school children to pay for private education; and state laws that shift a disproportionate share of the cost of funding public education to local taxpayers, while the state cuts taxes and disinvests.

All of these policies undermine the quality of education available to our youth, increase friction among the stakeholders in the education community, create hostility among neighbors and toward school leaders, make our community less competitive, and weaken our system of public education.

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Volume 14, Issue 5, Posted 10:29 AM, 04.30.2021

Can the Ohio Constitution save public education?

“Two hundred years ago our Founding Fathers gave us two gifts. Both were relatively unknown in the world. The first was democracy. The second was public education. These gifts were inextricably intertwined.” So begins Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, the focus of a March 10 discussion sponsored by the Heights Coalition for Public Education. More than 75 participants joined the first session of a three-part conversation. 

Black, a constitutional-law scholar at the University of South Carolina, public school advocate, and unapologetic defender of democracy, kicked off the evening. He explained that he set out to write about testing and privatization, but soon realized he needed to take a step back and look at the relevance of education in our history and in our democracy. He likened undermining public education to attacking voting rights. As Black put it, this “is not about policies, it is about our values.” 

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Volume 14, Issue 4, Posted 10:11 AM, 04.01.2021

State legislature again defeats school-funding equity

It is hard to imagine that any school community has fought with more fervor to end EdChoice than Cleveland Heights and University Heights. EdChoice is the state program that transfers state aid from local school districts to pay for private-school vouchers, a scheme known as “deduction funding.”

The Heights Coalition for Public Education has put the state’s war on public education on the local agenda and fostered understanding of the damaging effects of state policy on local communities—especially ours.

Forums, book discussions and research documenting the impact of this theft of public funds have helped people understand the issues and fight for remedies. Legislative resistance pushed our board of education to join a legal challenge to EdChoice.

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Volume 14, Issue 2, Posted 11:07 AM, 01.29.2021

School-funding pain must end

Have you ever lost your credit card and worried that a stranger was ringing up a big bill for you to pay? Fortunately, once you discover you have lost your card, you can cancel it and stop the theft. In most cases, the credit card company will cover the fraudulent expenditures assigned to your small piece of plastic.

Deduction funding, the way the state legislature funds private-school vouchers and charter schools, is like a community losing its credit card and then having the state legislature pick it up and use it to advance its agenda, without paying for it. The legislature has had a field day over the last decade, cutting taxes and looking good to voters, while simultaneously increasing education costs and slowly shifting more funding responsibility to local taxpayers and more blame to local boards of education.

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Volume 14, Issue 1, Posted 10:44 AM, 01.01.2021

Fair school funding could save the common good

My personal commitment to public education is grounded in the belief that all of us benefit from the education of our youth, and that’s why we invest public funds to provide for an education that is free and available to all. It is an expression of equality and interconnection. It has taken our society a long way and been fundamental to making democracy work. However, as I write this column while basking in beautiful fall sunlight, I fear that the common good may go the way of the dinosaur.

Well-funded think tanks and lobbyists, the secretary of education and the departing president, to name a few, have persistently championed individual rights over the social benefits of investing in the success of all. They encourage separation. They champion the use of public resources to advance religion, and, when it comes to education, they promote privatization over investing in strong public schools.

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Volume 13, Issue 12, Posted 10:34 AM, 12.01.2020

Organized advocacy is good for our community

I moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979, drawn by its racial integration and lively civic culture—good reasons to move to an aging first-ring suburb. Here, being an engaged citizen is not only essential; it is also rewarding.

Our community is no place to be passive. Our challenges are plenty: We must end state disinvestment in municipal government and public education, overcome the lasting fallout from the housing crisis, build a truly inclusive community, maintain a viable tax base, confront climate change and economic inequality and end the glorification of exurban living. The list goes on.

We are up against a lot. Unfiltered Internet complaints notwithstanding, we have plenty of people who look out for one another, engage in debate and problem-solving, seek to understand complex issues and participate in the political process. People want our community to be a good place to live.

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Volume 13, Issue 11, Posted 6:19 PM, 11.01.2020

The common good is on the line

I was waiting for the light to change, and there in front of me was Cleveland Heights High School, the flagship of our public schools.

The school looked glorious in the late afternoon light—a grand building with history and a public purpose that is as substantial as its presence at Cedar and Lee roads. It is a concrete expression of how our community united to invest in the well-being of our young people, and yet, here we are in a tragic moment, shut out of our public space, isolated and unable to partake in the full power of education.

Public school kids are being home schooled with the aid of a computer screen and hardworking teachers who are trying to nurture and inspire from afar. It is foreign territory for everyone. I can’t get my head around how it works.

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Volume 13, Issue 10, Posted 5:42 PM, 09.30.2020

EdChoice vouchers institutionalize discrimination

John Lewis, the heroic advocate of nonviolence, beseeched us: “When you see something that is not right, you must say something.”

If you read this column regularly, you know I have not been silent about EdChoice vouchers, a state program that requires public school districts to pay for private-school vouchers out of the school district’s state funding. They are particularly damaging to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, which transfers more than 30 percent of its state aid to vouchers, the highest proportion in the state. It is this huge expense that led the school board to cut the district budget by $2 million this year and next, and to put a levy on the ballot in November.

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Volume 13, Issue 9, Posted 3:46 PM, 08.31.2020

Local control shouldn't mean going it alone

The 2020–21 school year in the Cleveland Heights–University Heights district is expected to begin Sept. 2. The year will be unlike any other, with back-to-school excitement being tempered by health-related worries. We know children learn best when they are with their teachers in person, and families need teachers to take over instruction, but will the benefits outweigh the risks?

Covid-19 will dominate daily life for now, but Superintendent Liz Kirby hopes this will be the only year the virus factors into when children are in school, how they get there, what they do each day, and how much contact they have with others. She is determined to keep students on track. They cannot afford to lose more learning time, but how do you operate when so much is unknown?

Education is a shared responsibility of the state legislature and local school districts. Sadly, when it comes to planning for education in a pandemic, the legislature punted.

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Volume 13, Issue 8, Posted 9:43 AM, 07.31.2020

Hard times for schools are here

For whatever reason, I weep at parades. Predictably, my tears began to flow as a police-led parade of public school teachers turned right off of Taylor Road onto Euclid Heights Boulevard, where I was cheering, at an acceptable distance, with seven Monticello Middle School students who missed their school and missed their teachers.

It was the last day of an eerie, remote, and separate two months of learning and teaching from home. The end of a school year is a moment to celebrate hard work, progress, relationships, trust, freedom, and the future. This year was different, more subdued, with an overlay of worry and uncertainty. But we did it nonetheless—from the safe distance of automobiles decked out with balloons, signs, pink flamingos, and the Heights tiger. 

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Volume 13, Issue 7, Posted 1:38 PM, 07.01.2020

Voucher costs deepen inequality

I used some of my time during the stay-at-home order to take a deep dive into data about which school districts lose funds to EdChoice vouchers—a state program that requires certain school districts to pay for private-school vouchers out of the district’s state-aid allotment. My hours buried in the Ohio Department of Education website confirmed in breathtaking terms my suspicions about the unfair impact of this misuse of public funds.

The EdChoice voucher program is expensive, affects some districts a lot more than others, and fuels inequality in education funding and opportunities. Most of the children enrolled in the districts hardest hit by vouchers live in poverty and are racial minorities. How much longer can policymakers ignore that their diversion of public-school funding to support private education discriminates against our neediest students?

The CH-UH district is among the hardest hit by this threat to educational opportunity. It is among the 22 of Ohio’s 612 school districts that together carried 90 percent of all of this year’s EdChoice vouchers.

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Volume 13, Issue 6, Posted 11:00 AM, 06.02.2020

Vouchers during a pandemic

I am a slow learner. As both an optimist and defender of public education, I don’t want to give up the fight to ameliorate the destructive impact of voucher costs on public schools.

I keep thinking that if we just make more calls, share more facts, mobilize more people and explain the problem, lawmakers will do the right thing. Surely, they don’t want to foster disparity in educational opportunities or run our public schools into the ground.

The pandemic adds new urgency to this issue. We don’t know the extent of human and financial suffering that lies ahead, but we do know unemployment will continue to skyrocket, household income will fall, local and state tax revenue will decline, and new demands will be put on public resources.

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Volume 13, Issue 5, Posted 11:37 AM, 04.30.2020

We are all interconnected

I am grateful to Cleveland Heights City Council for adopting Resolution 15-2020 at its Feb. 18 meeting. By approving the resolution, city leaders took a stand on school funding and vouchers—issues that have critical ramifications for the health and well-being of our community.

The resolution states, “This Council demands immediate financial relief be provided to all Ohio school districts impacted by EdChoice vouchers and that the state not deduct EdChoice payments from local school district funds.” It also calls for the legislature to remedy “its school funding system as ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court.” 

The resolution does not have enforcement powers, but it makes clear that current state policy has a negative local impact and that community leaders object. Silence is tacit agreement.

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Volume 13, Issue 4, Posted 4:15 PM, 04.02.2020

No time for despair

I’m a hopeful person. I believe deeply in democracy, and I am devoted to the contribution our public institutions, especially our public schools, make to society and human advancement. But lately I’ve felt a lot more despair than hope.

When it comes to lawmaking, Ohio legislators seem to prefer sneaking their pet ideas into closed-door budget negotiations. When it comes to education, the legislature has imposed policy after policy focused more on destroying our public schools than elevating them. The policies advance a narrative of failure, not success, and justify disinvestment and flight rather than support and participation 

This bleak landscape makes me weary. 

On Feb. 10, State Rep. John Patterson, a four-term Democrat from Ashtabula, spoke at a public forum at Heights High about bi-partisan legislation that he and his best friend, Lima Republican State Rep. Bob Cupp, have worked on for more than two years, to “get right” Ohio’s system for funding public schools.

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Volume 13, Issue 3, Posted 9:39 AM, 02.28.2020

State lawmakers created a problem for us

I became an activist in the era when bumper stickers were equivalent to a tweet. My car was a traveling billboard. The yard sign, another kind of short-form communication, still works for me. Forget social media. At election time I still clutter up my yard with these temporary message boards.

My basement is an archive of school-levy yard signs. I’ve lived in Cleveland Heights for more than 40 years, and levy campaigns are necessary every four to five. I’ve got a half a dozen signs to prove it.

I will be sporting a new sign by the time this column hits the streets, because public school students in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District need us to vote yes to fill the crater that vouchers have created in the district’s operating budget.

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Volume 13, Issue 2, Posted 11:46 AM, 02.01.2020

Let's make 2020 the year of the teacher

It’s a new year—2020. Let’s make it the year of the teacher!

Let’s put up banners at the top of Cedar Hill, up and down Lee and Coventry and all along Taylor and Noble roads, declaring our respect for teachers and our gratitude for their important work.

Students are deeply affected by these adults who, while not family, are intimately involved in their lives. Our community is also deeply affected by these professionals who work valiantly to realize our aspirations for our youth and to prepare them to be wise voters and leaders. While the rest of us are sequestered for the most part from other people’s children, teachers spend every day with the young people of our community. They are the front line of educational opportunity.

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Volume 13, Issue 1, Posted 9:16 AM, 01.03.2020

Celebrating community ownership of our public schools: Reaching Heights turns 30

My, how time flies!

It’s already been 30 years since an idea that was hatched on my deck became a reality. Fresh from a two-year examination of the best ways to support a successful, integrated school district, a half dozen public-school advocates, who shared a commitment to equity and excellence, created Reaching Heights.

This community-based organization—independent of district administration, the teachers’ union, and the Board of Education—was designed to stay out of elections and mobilize the community as a full partner in providing a quality education for its students. The mission also called for nurturing public appreciation and respect for the public schools.

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Volume 12, Issue 12, Posted 4:30 PM, 12.02.2019

I don't want to be first

Being number one is typically a coveted status, but not when it comes to ranking school districts by their unfunded voucher costs.

The Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District has the heartbreaking distinction of subsidizing vouchers at the largest dollar amount per student of any district in the state. Being number one is undercutting educational opportunities for public school students and putting pressure on our community to solve a school-funding crisis not of our making.

In fiscal year 2019, the 5,111 public school students in the CH-UH district lost $851 apiece so 1,300 other students could attend private schools.

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Volume 12, Issue 11, Posted 9:52 AM, 11.01.2019

New school year inspires renewed advocacy

Each year I have the good fortune of walking across the street on the first day of school to help launch my five neighbor children as they start a new school year. The ritual includes me standing with the kids for the first-day-of-school portrait.

It started 12 years ago when the oldest children, twins Adele and Patrick, started kindergarten. With three younger siblings, including another set of twins, it was a challenge for the family to get these new students to school. I became their walking buddy. For the next eight years, accompanying these five youngsters to elementary school was part of my morning routine.

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Volume 12, Issue 10, Posted 11:22 AM, 10.01.2019

Time to fix the voucher problem

In his 2003 book, Seeking Common Ground, Public Schools in a Diverse Society, education historian David Tyack observed that "government requires environmental impact statements for construction projects, but not student and teacher impact reports for educational reforms.” If only Ohio’s policymakers had done an impact study of their voucher laws.

Vouchers are eroding, rather than improving, education available to children of color and those who are enrolled in high-poverty school districts in Ohio. The use of public funds to pay for private schools is made worse by the payment method. Funds for three voucher programs are deducted from state aid to local school districts, often taking funds away from public school students.

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Volume 12, Issue 9, Posted 12:41 PM, 09.02.2019

Music camp promotes learning and growth

The struggle is real, and it is good.

This was the theme for the Heights Summer Music Camp held June 10–15 at Cleveland Heights High School. This was the 15th camp season and, like the other 14, it was a great week of exploration, growth, engagement and success.

Reaching Heights, our local community support organization for the Heights schools, sponsors the camp that provides fifth- through eighth-graders who are residents of the Heights school district with the chance to engage in an intense week of playing their instruments in chamber groups and an orchestra. They also explore music in choirs, jazz groups or ukulele ensembles, and they learn about musicianship.

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Volume 12, Issue 8, Posted 10:56 AM, 08.01.2019

Supporting strangers strengthens community

“We need to pay more attention to the good news,” observed Jaqueline Blockson at a reception honoring two college scholarship recipients. Community members had gathered at Forest Hill Church to offer financial and emotional support to students and express confidence in their capacity to navigate the future. It was affirming and hopeful.

Blockson, a wonderful ambassador to the community and advocate for Heights High students, is the point person for connecting community donors who want to provide college scholarships with the students who need them.

This year, Heights High graduating seniors received $96,000 in scholarships from 45 different scholarship funds. Blockson was the matchmaker that made it work.

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Volume 12, Issue 7, Posted 12:22 PM, 06.27.2019

Ohio LWV votes to reject high-stakes testing

Patience and perseverance have their rewards.

On May 12, at the annual policymaking meeting of the League of Women Voters of Ohio (LWV Ohio), delegates from across the state unanimously approved a resolution declaring test-based accountability to be a misuse of standardized tests. Advocating for the end of using tests as a means of holding schools accountable is now part of the organization’s action agenda.

LWV Ohio, a nearly 100-year-old defender of democracy and advocate of sound public policy, has more than 30 chapters and 3,000 members.

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Volume 12, Issue 6, Posted 8:49 AM, 06.03.2019

School board rejects high-stakes testing

I am grateful to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education for taking a stand on high-stakes testing. At its March 19 meeting, the board unanimously approved a resolution titled “Time to Teach, Time to Learn,” which rejects “the overuse and misuse of standardized testing.”

For too long, public schools in Ohio have been tethered to a destructive judgment system that legislators said would ensure that all children succeed in school. This approach uses standardized tests to make consequential decisions that are supposed to motivate high achievement. The goal is admirable, but the strategy is misguided. High-stakes testing is a misuse of standardized tests.

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Volume 12, Issue 5, Posted 10:33 AM, 05.02.2019

Concert celebrates the common good

Every four years, Reaching Heights, a community-based organization that supports our public schools, mounts an all-district musical extravaganza, Reaching Musical Heights, at Severance Hall. The concert features vocal and instrumental performances by children from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights elementary and middle schools, and Heights High. On March 5, nearly 600 young musicians graced the stage of the elegant hall and ignited joy, pride and hope.

Severance Hall communicates dignity, excellence, tradition and reverence for music. Reaching Musical Heights properly positions our community’s children within that milieu.

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Volume 12, Issue 4, Posted 10:18 AM, 04.02.2019

Books can inform, inspire and unite

Ari Klein and I are the conveners of the Heights Coalition for Public Education, where we have observed that discussing a book can lead to a shared understanding of complex issues, and set the stage for action.

More than 160 parents, teachers and others, mostly from Cleveland Heights and University Heights, read and digested Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Threat to America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch, in 2014. The eye-opening discussion brought out the ways in which public education is under attack. It led the readers to establish the coalition, which exists to resist destructive education policy.

Last month, 60 people met at Heights Middle School to discuss another book, Daniel Koretz’s The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

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Volume 12, Issue 3, Posted 10:42 AM, 03.04.2019

Scholarship honors Ron Register

Attending college is an opportunity for students to expand their horizons, discover and develop their strengths, and make a path to achieve their dreams. Advanced education, however, is too often a financial difficulty that denies many motivated, gifted and capable students the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.

This lack of equal access to college inspired the Black Caucus of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian, to propose and implement a college scholarship fund for deserving Cleveland Heights High School graduates. This scholarship honors Ron Register, a church elder and advocate for equity, inclusion, justice, excellence and quality public education for all.

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Volume 12, Issue 3, Posted 9:47 AM, 03.02.2019

Learning how to learn at Boulevard Elementary

I like to learn. It keeps me alive, keeps boredom at bay and, I hope, makes me a better citizen. My curiosity has led to satisfying employment.

While “learner” is the job title we most frequently assign to students, learning is, in fact, a lifelong necessity for all of us. For that reason, I am thrilled to report that the teachers and principal at Boulevard Elementary School are paying a lot of attention to helping their students master the skills and enjoy the thrills of being learners.

While test-driven public policy makes it advantageous to help students build their test-taking muscles, and puts a premium on getting the “right” answer, Boulevard is focused on developing powerful learners.

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Volume 12, Issue 2, Posted 9:52 AM, 02.01.2019

Advocacy is fundamental

The midterm election is over. We elected people to represent us, and now it is our job to make sure they do!

Advocacy—speaking in support of a cause or an issue—is part of our civic responsibility. It may feel intimidating to address an elected official or testify at a public meeting, but such participation is important to the democratic process. It’s the way we inform our representatives about what matters to us, their constituents.

After the November election, the Heights Coalition for Public Education held a workshop to inspire supporters to advocate for public education with neighbors, friends, community leaders and elected officials at the local, state and national levels.

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Volume 12, Issue 1, Posted 11:35 AM, 01.02.2019

Accountability can't deliver quality

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of accountability, a strategy policymakers have adopted to guarantee quality education. It assigns consequences to teachers and their schools when student performance on standardized tests falls short of defined levels. This is supposed to improve results.

When parents assign their children weekly chores and then make their allowance contingent upon completing those chores, they are holding their children accountable. Kids are perfectly able to put away their toys or take out the garbage. They aren’t being asked to clean the gutters or repair the roof. The expectations are appropriate and attainable, and fully within the control of the child.

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Volume 11, Issue 12, Posted 4:37 PM, 11.29.2018

State report cards should get an F

October was school-quality judgment month. The Ohio Department of Education issued its annual report cards that assign school districts single letter grades from A to F. This system uses performance on standardized tests as a proxy for school quality. The stakes are high when tests are used for making judgments like this.

Throw away your report card. It doesn’t matter if you got an A or an F! It doesn’t tell you enough about what matters, and it was built on a rocky foundation that ignores warnings about the inappropriate uses of standardized tests. When the reputation of a school or a community is on the line, or a child’s future is going to be affected, judgments should be based on legitimate methods. High-stakes testing does not meet this standard.

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Volume 11, Issue 11, Posted 9:45 AM, 11.01.2018

Privatization consumes essential public resources

Ohio’s constitution provides for a thorough and efficient system of public schools, but state lawmakers subverted this essential responsibility when they allowed public education funds to be transferred to private education providers in the form of vouchers and tuition payments to charter schools.

They justified privatization of this public good as a way to increase competition and thereby improve education. The thinking was faulty and the results are terrible for children and communities. The public system is held accountable and being bled dry, while private and charter operators enjoy unfettered access to public resources.

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Volume 11, Issue 10, Posted 2:45 PM, 09.27.2018

Accountability should be built on trust

It’s back-to-school time, with all the excitement that comes with new beginnings. Sadly, test dread is waiting in the wings.

In the name of accountability and to force educational improvement, state-mandated testing is used to shame and punish children, teachers and whole school districts.

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Volume 11, Issue 9, Posted 2:27 PM, 09.03.2018

A news desert diminishes democracy

For more than 30 summers my family has spent two or three weeks at our cottage in northern Wisconsin. The closest town is Boulder Junction. Each day starts with an eight-mile drive to town to pick up the morning newspapers from Milwaukee, Madison and New York. Sometimes it includes a stop at the bakery. We devour the news and then use the papers to start fires on cold summer days. 
This summer was different. Newspaper distributors no longer deliver papers north of Route 70, a crossroad about three quarters of the way up the state. To get a paper we must drive more than 25 miles south of our summer retreat. It’s not environmentally acceptable or a good use of precious vacation time to travel that far for the news, and, because our cottage does not have reliable phone or Internet service, there is simply no way to read the news!

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Volume 11, Issue 8, Posted 12:37 PM, 07.31.2018

Educators speak with one voice

No one likes a whiner. Complainers who decry how hard, unfair or useless it is, come across as powerless, not as effective change agents. 
Superintendent Talisa Dixon of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools participates in a monthly meeting with superintendents from Cleveland and 15 inner-ring suburban districts. Because they serve our most vulnerable students, these districts are the most vulnerable to the state legislature’s obsession with basing high-stakes decisions on test scores. Because tests are predictors of income rather than school quality, these districts and their students are punished. 
One glaring example was Ohio House Bill 70, which included a punitive provision giving state officials authority to take over school districts. Six variables—graduation rates and five performance measures based on test scores—are used to determine if a district is in “academic distress.” If test scores don’t improve after three years, governance responsibilities are taken from local elected boards and their superintendents. The assumption is that those leaders are slackers and the solution is to have an appointed outsider lead.
Youngstown and Lorain have already come under state control, and the outcomes have been disastrous. Three Cuyahoga County districts are next in line: East Cleveland, Maple Heights and Warrensville Heights. That’s just the local count. The takeover threat is spreading across the state like the plague.

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Volume 11, Issue 7, Posted 10:28 AM, 06.29.2018

City and school leaders work together

On April 16, Cleveland Heights City Council passed a resolution calling for the Ohio General Assembly to stop ranking schools based on state test results. The resolution calls for a report card that “more accurately measures how public schools are fulfilling their primary role of developing productive citizens.”
The current system combines aggregated standardized test results, complicated growth measures and graduation rates to create an A-to-F grade for school districts and individual schools. This quick and dirty system defines winners and losers but provides no real insight into the quality of opportunity or learning.

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Volume 11, Issue 6, Posted 11:52 AM, 06.01.2018

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.

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Volume 11, Issue 5, Posted 4:12 PM, 04.30.2018

Political ideology is not a substitute for educational principles

“Keep your eye on the ball!” Those were my Dad’s words of wisdom as he coaxed me to improve my tennis game.
This is also sound advice for those advocating for great public schools. It’s important to keep your eye on the ball—the right ball!

Privatization and the accountability movement have cast long shadows over everyday life in our schools. The goal is to cripple public institutions. They are selling a political ideology, not a philosophy of education. They justify these policies as levers to improve schools through competition, but they don’t work. It’s been a distraction from paying attention to what does!

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Volume 11, Issue 4, Posted 8:54 AM, 03.30.2018

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.

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Volume 11, Issue 3, Posted 1:41 PM, 03.01.2018

Diversity is essential to greatness

To gather energy for a new year, I read John Lewis’s 2017 book, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America. Civil rights icon Lewis is committed to democracy and human equality. For him, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act.” A more just society depends on continuous action by every generation. The work of democracy is never done. It is for all of us to do.
In describing our most recent national election, Lewis observes, “The intolerance of difference got even worse. It became a rallying cry in code words, ‘Make America Great Again,’ as though diversity had damaged, not uplifted, our civilization.”

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Volume 11, Issue 2, Posted 11:34 AM, 01.31.2018

Local accountability fosters common good

The Internet makes it easy to gain access to events that you don’t attend in person. I recently spent several evenings on the CH-UH City School District’s website, viewing recordings of board of education meetings going back to 2012. I recommend it. To view the recordings, go to and select “Board of Education” from the “About” menu. 
The board meetings provided a body of evidence about our district’s history and the role of the school board for a project I have been working on. They were fascinating!

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Volume 11, Issue 1, Posted 2:03 PM, 01.02.2018

Public education: essential but not invincible

Drip, drip, drip. 
Canyons, bluffs and barren hillsides attest to the power of slow, persistent attacks by the elements. Seemingly impenetrable spaces are shaped and reshaped subtly over time. 
I think public education and democracy are like mammoth landforms. When you look at them, they appear to be strong and enduring. They are a given. They define our reality and provide sources of security and comfort.

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Volume 10, Issue 12, Posted 11:09 AM, 11.30.2017

Public school advocacy: passing the torch

I’ve been a public school activist since 1976. That’s a long time. 
Each year it gets harder to go to meetings—the bread and butter of any grassroots engagement! So, when the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Council of PTAs-sponsored candidates’ night for the CH-UH Board of Education rolled around on Oct. 3, I didn’t want to go. 
The meeting was right up the street at Boulevard Elementary School, so I had no excuse. This is my school. I’ve been a volunteer there since my daughter started kindergarten in 1988. It has always been my most authentic source of connection to public education and inspiration about the work that teachers do every day, and it was hard to ignore the invitation to attend from fellow Boulevard enthusiast Kristi Bidinger. I headed up to school.

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Volume 10, Issue 11, Posted 2:15 PM, 11.01.2017

Let's translate outrage to action

Where is the outrage? 

This is the question William Phillis, Ohio’s guardian of public education, poses at the end of most of his blog posts.

Phillis is the standard-bearer for fairness in school funding. In 1992 he left his post as Ohio’s assistant superintendent of public instruction to lead the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. This alliance of school districts filed suit against the State of Ohio for its failure to meet its constitutional obligation to support public education. In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the DeRolph case, finding that the legislature failed to provide for a “thorough and efficient” system of common schools.

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Volume 10, Issue 10, Posted 2:05 PM, 09.29.2017

Leader sets high bar for board of education

I met Ron Register in 1994, the year he and his family moved to Cleveland Heights from Memphis. We were both involved parents at Boulevard Elementary School. I remember making plaster of Paris zoo animals with his delightful young daughters and feeling happy to meet the parents who went with them. 
Register and I clicked. Perhaps it was our shared background as urban anthropologists, or our appreciation of the advantages of integrated education, or gratitude for our district’s rich range of resources to help meet the needs of diverse students. We both believed that parents and communities have a lot to contribute to making schools great places for kids.

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Volume 10, Issue 9, Posted 1:13 PM, 09.01.2017

Music, not testing, helps to develop kids' brains

My summer gig is directing the Reaching Heights Summer Music Camp. Tamar Gray and Betsy Neylon, two exceptional music educators, and I founded this intense weeklong musical enrichment experience 13 years ago. Reaching Heights has kept it a priority ever since, and so have I.

We keep at it because it is an exceptional learning experience and a hothouse for developing leaders and music professionals. It encourages kids, adds to the school district’s music program, and draws on the amazing expertise of our public school teachers, students and graduates. It can be magical.

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Volume 10, Issue 7, Posted 12:14 PM, 06.29.2017

Leaders motivate teachers through trust

It’s June. Another school year is in the books.

Summer brings a much-needed opportunity for teachers to regroup and recharge after months of getting up early, building relationships and advancing student learning, juggling family obligations and late nights, and falling into bed so they can make the next day a successful one.

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Volume 10, Issue 6, Posted 1:32 PM, 05.31.2017

Opinion: Restoring faith in public institutions

On March 30, the Senate Intelligence Committee held an open hearing on Russia’s use of “active measures” to affect the 2016 presidential election.

Active measures, including misinformation used to sow discord among allies and distrust in democratic institutions, have long been a tool of Russian efforts to shift balances in power through subversion. The Russians are pros at this, and now social media has made it even easier for them to interject themselves into our lives and create chaos.

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Volume 10, Issue 5, Posted 11:46 AM, 05.02.2017

School vouchers do not support public education

Senator Rob Portman voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, despite a fervent outcry from his constituents—including me and the Heights Coalition for Public Education. He defended the decision on his website, saying DeVos had expressed her commitment to “strongly support public education.” And he liked her embrace of local control.

She sure fooled him. The DeVos agenda supports neither public education nor local control.

Shortly after taking office, DeVos and her boss announced their commitment to making vouchers the centerpiece of their education plan. Rather than advancing civil rights by investing in our public schools, for them the road to equality is giving more poor children the same opportunity as the wealthy to reject public schools.

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Volume 10, Issue 4, Posted 7:09 PM, 03.30.2017

Short messages work

Short and punchy messages are important to successful protest. They help frame issues and raise awareness. They can get to the core of an idea and make it real and raw.

My favorite short-form medium is the bumper sticker. As I try to organize and focus my concerns, my mind quickly turns to formulating a bumper sticker. When I gave up my 1990s Honda CR-V, it was covered with the names of my favorite candidates and messages about causes that mattered to me. I was disappointed during this election cycle to discover the bumper sticker was no longer a critical part of electoral politics.

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Volume 10, Issue 3, Posted 2:59 PM, 02.28.2017

Silence is not an option

What do you do when you don’t agree with the direction your elected officials are taking you? When you know their goal is to destroy something you value deeply, should you observe with disdain or act?

Is it sour grapes to disagree? Is it a violation of the principle of majority rule? Is it disloyal or unpatriotic or a waste of time?

Or is it the most important thing you can do as a citizen?

I’m taking the last option! Our voices are our most powerful political tools. You simply have to speak up if you disagree. When people are silent it implies indifference or consent, and it perpetuates compliance.

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Volume 10, Issue 2, Posted 6:01 PM, 01.31.2017

Superintendents protest new graduation requirements

When school superintendents protest at the Ohio Statehouse, you know there is something terribly wrong.

Their job is to implement policies mandated by their local boards of education and comply with the Ohio legislature’s demands. They are not exactly the boat-rocking kind—except when something seriously threatens their students.

On Nov. 15, more than 200 superintendents and school board members from across Ohio gathered in Columbus to protest Ohio’s latest misuse of standardized tests. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District participated in this public display of concern. Superintendent Talisa Dixon and board members Ron Register, Kal Zucker and Beverly Wright made up our contingent.

These advocates for students challenged Ohio’s newest high school graduation requirements.

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Volume 10, Issue 1, Posted 11:48 AM, 01.03.2017

In a democracy, citizens have the most important job

During the final three weeks leading up to this year’s presidential election, I spent eight days working in a basement on Edgehill Road in Cleveland Heights. I was part of a four-person team that welcomed volunteers to our staging location, where we trained them, assigned a “turf” and sent them off to knock on doors in our community. Their mission: to urge their fellow citizens to vote.

Each volunteer was given a walk packet identifying 35 to 40 addresses to visit. Some walked in pairs, while others went solo. They gave up beautiful days and private time because democracy matters. They endured rain and cold to reach one more street and a few more households. They presented themselves to strangers, some of whom readily engaged and others who slammed doors or yelled obscenities. They took themselves out of their comfort zones to do something important.

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Volume 9, Issue 12, Posted 6:02 PM, 12.01.2016

Participate in democracy: Vote!

The election is upon us. No one has expressed the importance of the vote better than Martin Luther King Jr. did in his “Give Us the Ballot” speech of 1957. “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote,” he said, “I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others.”

Nearly 60 years later, author and political analyst Donna Brazile observed, “For Dr. King, the right to vote was sacrosanct and foundational. It is the very essence of our social contract. Free elections create legitimacy. They imply the consent of the governed. He knew that unfair elections laws did not just hurt minorities or the working poor, they rendered hollow the very essence of American government.”

As neighbors, volunteers, workers, taxpayers and, yes, voters, each of us helps shape our community and workplace, civic life and public institutions, and our democracy. The vote is essential to the common good and to our responsibility as citizens, so, during this fractious political season, in an era of a resurgence of voter suppression, I decided to volunteer to register voters. It was something I could do to make the election more inclusive and democracy more complete.

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Volume 9, Issue 11, Posted 11:15 AM, 11.01.2016

Quality education requires making teaching an attractive job

Jeff Chapman was my daughter’s fifth-grade teacher at Boulevard Elementary School in 1992. He co-taught with his wife, Laurie Chapman, who was my son’s teacher a few years later. Parents and students couldn’t wait for fifth grade. They knew it would be exceptional!

In that era, before testing ran schools, these teachers inspired students and trusted parents. They were wonderful partners and they were school leaders, innovators, and people who researched their fields. They experimented and were willing to take risks and bend rules to break down barriers to equal results with rambunctious pre-teens. Much of my respect for teachers comes from knowing them.

Because teachers are such important participants in the development of our children, it is easy to forget that for them it is also a job. Jeff Chapman is the person who awakened me to the reality that teaching my children was his employment. He chose teaching as a way to contribute to the lives of children and as the way to support his own family.

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Volume 9, Issue 10, Posted 11:50 AM, 09.30.2016