I had the privilege to speak to several hundred educators in Atlanta last week. I was there to talk about my experiences as a member of the Education Reform Commission but, as is my wont, I soon deviated off the purpose for which I had been invited to speak and into unchartered waters. Which raises a question: Why do I spend so much time preparing speeches if I am not going to use them? I must ask myself that sometime. I would be interested in the answer.
I told the group this was not my first education reform rodeo. Thirty-one years ago, I was privileged to be a part of an effort by then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris to establish a new funding formula for public schools known as Quality Basic Education, or QBE. The difference in that experience and this one was like butter and butterflies. Totally different.
Gov. Harris, one of Georgia’s most underrated governors and one of its most effective, made it clear to all that he wanted the Quality Basic Education Act passed. No exceptions. No excuses. My job was to help build the broadest statewide coalition possible and to keep any opposition on the defensive. We did. QBE passed without a dissenting vote.
Contrast that the Education Reform Commission. Other than an initial meeting with Gov. Deal at the beginning of our deliberation last February, we didn’t see him again until we turned in our recommendations in December. That event consisted of the commissioners gathering on the steps in the rotunda of the Capitol for a photo op while the governor came out of his office looking like he was late for the bus, saying a few words that no one on the second row and beyond could hear and leaving with the report, which included my name misspelled. (Note to Gov.’s office: If we can’t trust you with the little things, well, you know … )
The ERC’s recommendations have been delayed a year, which raises a question as to what will eventually happen to them. Will you be able to recognize them next year? One thing for sure: There is no groundswell of support for the work of the commission as there was with QBE. In fact, there was more misinformation than information floating around during our deliberations last year.
There is also nowhere near the respect for public education and for those in the classroom as was the case in 1985. That is not the schoolteacher’s fault. This one’s on us. We have watched our society degenerate into one-family or no-family homes, kids in poverty, drugs, child abuse, parental apathy and a general lack of respect for authority. Despite that, we expect our public schools to close the door on these problems and educate children as though nothing has happened.
For many of our politicians, the answer is to run away from the problems society has created — in some cases with their help — and send kids to private schools with public dollars and make our public schools the education source of last resort.
This is where I got on my diatribe with the educators. I told those assembled that public school detractors are better organized and better funded than public education proponents and do a better job of communicating their message.
Public education proponents are bifurcated. There are more groups representing more slices of public education than chiggers in a blackberry bush. And they don’t always speak with one voice.
I told the teachers and administrators that while they can’t match the deep pockets of the private-schools-with-public-money bunch, they are the most potent grassroots crowd in the state, witness the respect with which they are held during an election year. But they are letting the other side define the argument.
I finished by telling the educators that nothing I saw, said or did as a member of the Education Reform Commission has lessened my passion for public education and for those in the classroom trying to make a difference in young lives and that I hoped the ERC’s efforts would encourage our policy makers to fix the problems of public education, and not be used as an excuse to run away from them.
Public education is in an ideological war. The question is whether or not proponents can flex their political muscles sufficiently and tell their story well enough to guarantee the strong support of Georgia voters. Maybe somebody needs to go talk to Joe Frank Harris to see how it is done.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.