Government of the people, by the people, for the people…except when it’s not

…”that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Never did those famous words of Abraham Lincoln mean so much to me as June 24 when I saw “the people” left completely out of the legislative process.

Let me back up just a little bit though to give you some context. The Ohio Federation of Teachers is a strong advocate for the Community Learning Center model in which parents, teachers, students, administration, community members, and anyone else interested have a voice in determining the needs of their neighborhood school and work to bring community resources into the schools to make them accessible to students and to meet the needs of children. We have seen this model work successfully in Cincinnati, and, for at least three years, we have worked to bring awareness to this model by bringing legislators, educators, and a variety of people to Cincinnati to see how it works. In addition, we worked with Rep. Denise Driehaus (D – Cincinnati) and Rep. Andrew Brenner (R- Powell) to draft legislation about the Community Learning Center model.

The result was a fantastic bill that focused on a model that addresses poverty by bringing the community together to identify the needs of the children and to draw upon the community resources to meet those needs.

That bill was HB70 – a bill that had wide bi-partisan support and easily passed through the House.

On June 24, 2015, that bill was hijacked. While the bill was in the Senate Education Committee, a 66-page amendment was added to change how Academic Distress Commissions operate within Ohio. Granted, it is not unusual that amendments are made to bills, but typically amendments are introduced and then people are given some time – a week, two weeks, a month, longer?- to respond. In other words, the people referred to by Abraham Lincoln have an opportunity to testify or to talk with their elected officials to say what they think is good or bad about the amendment.

In the case of HB 70 though, the amended bill passed through the Senate Education Committee, the full Senate, and back through the House for concurrence in ONE DAY. No time for legislators to talk with constituents to see if this amendment was “by the people.” No time to determine if this amendment would work “for the people.” Rather this amendment was done “TO the people!”

Granted there were a few Youngstown notables who came to testify in favor of the amendment. Somehow they knew about it before even some legislators. And I don’t doubt that they truly believe that this is a plan that will work for Youngstown. The problem is, this amendment could potentially impact urbans and other districts across the state yet no one else had any input into deciding what it might look like or even an opportunity to say how the amendment could potentially be made better. Clearly, the voices of the people were not wanted in this process. Someone – the Governor? the State Superintendent? the Senate President? thought it better to push this amendment through in one day rather than give people (educators, parents, community members) an opportunity to provide input.

While the original bill had wide, almost unanimous, bi-partisan support, the amended bill lost all democratic support and even some republican support. I guess some politicians do still believe that “of the people, by the people, for the people” means that you should at least have time to think about whether something is good for the people before passing it into law.

(Side note: Ironically, many of the legislators who voted to pass the 66-page amendment to the original bill in one day without any hesitation later claimed they could not pass an amended charter school bill because they needed more time to think about it, even though the amended version has been around a while. Go figure.)

So what’s so bad about this amendment? The intent of the original bill was to bring community resources into a school so that the needs of students could be met whether the needs be mental, physical, social, emotional, or academic. Though the model does address poverty issues, it certainly is not intended for only high-poverty schools. In fact, all students benefit from a community learning center model because the model allows for communities to tap into their resources to add to a child’s educational experience. In other words, the original bill promoted keeping kids in their neighborhood schools and using every existing resource to make that school the best it can be.

The amendment to the bill though does exactly the opposite. It provides ways to take both students and resources out of the schools with the potential of eventually shutting down schools or even an entire district. The new academic distress commission model makes every student eligible for a voucher, encourages bringing in an “accelerator” (which has complete autonomy) to bring charters into the system, pays surrounding schools to take students from the impacted schools, and gives a CEO the ability to shutdown public schools or turn them into charters. Yes, a CEO who will be appointed to run the district instead of the elected school board or the superintendent. So again, instead of bringing the community together to draw resources into the schools and commit to making them better, the amended part of the bill gives authority to one person who can privatize and charterize the system and send kids somewhere else instead of investing in their neighborhood schools.

“The people” still can exert some influence in this process though and this is where we need to read the fine print, step in and take action. The original part of this bill still exists and still allows for districts to become Community Learning Centers. Even within the amended portion, there are pieces built in that would support this model. For example, the CEO of the district is charged with bringing together stakeholders for both the district and for each individual school. These stakeholders are supposed to set expectations for the district and assist with building relationships with organizations that can provide services to students. In addition, The CEO is authorized to implement innovative education programs that address the physical and mental well-being of students and families, provide mentoring, provide job resources, disseminate higher ed information, offer recreational or cultural activities, and provide other services that will contribute to a successful learning environment.

We need to latch on to these pieces of the bill and reclaim the promise of public education as was originally intended when this bill was drafted. We need to work with our community stakeholders to push for this to be the model chosen in our schools that are in academic distress rather than a model that will farm our children out to other systems. We need to bring this model to schools that are not yet in academic distress so we can start addressing some of our children’s needs that are preventing them from experiencing academic success.

Above all, we need to elect and support legislators, governors, school board members, and other government officials who will tackle the poverty issues our students are facing, not only in the schools but in the communities where they live, and find solutions to these problems. Instead of shuffling our children around from school to school to school, our state officials need to invest in neighborhoods and neighborhood schools. We, the people, must hold them accountable to doing so. Only then will we have a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

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