Op-ed: Let's get politics out of public schools and focus on children again

Melanie Bates is vice president of the Cincinnati Board of Education and a past member of the Ohio Board of Education.

After two decades of “education governors,” State Auditor David Yost is now declaring the Ohio Department of Education “among the worst, if not the worst-run state agency in state government.”

When has a political takeover of public schools resulted in change benefitting students? The result in Ohio has been confusion, corruption, and chaos.

Melanie Bates

Strong words, perhaps. Yet, words that are warranted from my perspective of more than 30 years of observing the vicissitudes of public education as a mother of three children who attended and graduated from public schools, an Ohio Board of Education member, and a current Cincinnati Board of Education member.

No doubt, the preschool to 12th grade education system in Ohio required an overhaul. Model curriculum, quality academic standards, and educator licensure standards needed revision. An accountability system was developed to monitor the progress of these reforms: district and school report cards.

Concurrently, private charter school operators convinced the legislature and the governor that charter schools had the capacity to outperform public schools, particularly in urban districts. Public schools lost their voice and their advocacy within ODE due to this special-interest influence, which included hefty campaign contributions to state elected officials. All of this was occurring on the heels of an Ohio Supreme Court decision declaring the funding of Ohio schools unconstitutional.

Fast forward. We now have:

  • Confusion: New standards with no reliable way to measure student learning (three different sets of state tests over the past three years).
  • Corruption: ODE suffering the fallout from the recent data tampering and financial scandal intended to cover up the dismal results of private charter schools, resulting in the resignation of top ODE administrators including the state superintendent.
  • Chaos: school districts unable to access in a timely manner current state financial and academic data needed to fulfill state reporting mandates.

ODE was, no doubt, set up to fail. Removing the role of advocacy and putting the department in a position to be the “hammer” when districts did not perform to expectations on the states tests or were financially spiraling down due to inadequate funding, created adversarial relationships. The legislators and the governor set the rules and ODE took the hit.

Let’s talk about the students now. Students are real people, not just “repositories of information.” What has been lost in the political tug of war is the notion that to be successful, students require not just academic training, but development of the whole child.

When parents are asked what they want for their children, they consistently say they want them to be happy and good people, not simply good test takers. Quality education has to embody both the academic and the social/emotional development of the child, in partnership with the family, to get the desired end result -- good people, happy people, on a path to be educated and productive citizens.

One thing is certain, the current politically driven system of education is not effective, and it is time to focus constructively on Ohio’s greatest resource -- our children – and what is best for them.

We now have a new state superintendent and ODE is tasked with revamping a major federal funding and accountability act with greater state and local flexibility. It's an opportunity for a fresh start for those who care about supporting our public education system in ways that prepare students for success in life. Let’s put politics aside and take advantage of it.

 

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