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. Just how long should anyone be required to connect through a screen? Some children will suffer from it in ways that will be hard to undo, and we will have to find a way to close the gaps created by circumstances we cannot control.
The absence of full access to the education process underlines the value of a strong system of public schools, and, yet, we must fight for them to remain strong. Too many state lawmakers don’t value this beautiful building and its public purpose. Our community is not only struggling to serve its children in the face of a pandemic. It is also faced with a financial crisis. The legislature’s preoccupation with cutting taxes and shifting the cost of its addiction to private education to local communities has put our public schools in a financial bind, requiring cuts to education opportunities and higher local taxes. This is not good for anyone.
Over the years the legislature has normalized its unconventional and inappropriate use of public funds to pay for private education, while ignoring its constitutional responsibility to provide for high-quality public education. Schools are relevant to healthy communities, but the legislature seems willing to sacrifice communities to its ideology.
Thirty years of building a well-orchestrated and well-funded narrative that public schools are second rate is making it harder to muster support for public-school children and to embrace every child as valuable. I worry that generations of voters have been attracted to school choice without thinking about how it threatens the common good.
Stress brought on by COVID-19 and by legislative indifference is wearing me down, but there is one glimmer of hope. State Rep. Robert Cupp (R-Lima), the new speaker of the house, is ready to bring before the legislature the long-awaited H.B. 305, which would tackle Ohio’s broken school-funding system. Passage of the bill would not end public funding for private education, but it would shift the cost to the state general fund and take the burden off local property taxes. Given the legislature’s resistance to any limits on privatization, passage of H.B. 305 is a long shot, but we still must fight for it, and right now!
Our democracy is limping, torn by state and federal leadership intent on dismantling government and our public institutions. I don’t know how to revive our sense of common purpose and our interconnection, but we must.
The November election is our best option for protecting public schools and equal opportunity for all children. There are real choices at all levels that will make a difference in assuring the long-term viability of our public institutions.
Vote! Equal opportunity and democracy are on the line.
Susie Kaeser is a 40-year resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She is active in the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.