In what was probably the last event held at Veteran's Memorial Auditorium, located along the Scioto River in downtown Columbus, Ohio's capital city, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald addressed educators from across the state at the Ohio Education Association's Spring Representative Assembly.
Speaking to a crowd of about 1,200 OEA attendees who scattered themselves across the main floor of a 1955-auditorium that will be raised to make way for a modern encore to be completed by the fall of 2016, FitzGerald, who won the Democratic primary with 83-percent of the vote this past Tuesday, discussed the challenges Ohio's schools have faced under first-term Republican Gov. John Kasich, and offered an alternative approach the 45-year old running for his first statewide race would take to ensure educators have the resources and support they need to educate children.
Although far behind in campaign cash and name recognition compared to Gov. Kasich, who spent 18 years representing central Ohio's 12 District in the U.S House of Representatives before winning a narrow victory in 2010, FitzGerald, running his first statewide campaign, outlined six principles that will guide his education policy if he's elected Ohio's next governor in November.
Speaking for little over twenty minutes, the former FBI agent, attorney and small city mayor said he would include educators in decision-making and policy formulation at the state and local level as a top initiative. "Educators are the experts on education," he said, promising a friendly crowd that in his administration education policies will be shaped by someone who is actually in the classroom every day. "It's long past time we stopped blaming educators, and started including them," he said to applause.
In January of 2013, OEA President Patricia Frost-Brooks sent a letter to Gov. Kasich saying it is essential to open up the process of the state education budget and accompanying reform proposals to all education stakeholders. In that letter she said, "...policy processes that exclude key stakeholders have resulted in extreme cuts to Ohio’s public schools, the diversion of public school funding to for-profit charter schools, online schools and voucher-supported private schools." Her concern has been that a narrowed curriculum due to budget cuts increases class sizes and shifts school funding burdens from the state to local districts.
Citing the $2 billion hit schools took at the hands of Gov. Kasich and a GOP-led legislature two budgets ago, the Executive for Cuyahoga County spoke strongly about more state investment in Ohio's public education system. "Ohio's working families shouldn't face higher local taxes every year because the state is funding tax breaks for the wealthy, rather than our schools," he said, hammering on what has and will continue to be an attack on Gov. Kasich's long-held Republican belief that tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, create jobs. "Tax cuts for the top one percent are not going to educate Ohio's children," he said.
Testing and the costs of testing are among the top concerns of Democrats. Mr. FitzGerald will end what he called an "unhealthy obsession with standardized testing that's bad for students and teachers, including placing a moratorium on the third grade guarantee." He called Gov. Kasich's efforts to privatize the state's public education system a "race to the bottom," pledging to reform the current funding system that many say only benefits for-profit institutions regardless of performance, by refocusing on creating quality public schools.
Should the so-called "Ohio miracle," that Gov. Kasich once used to describe job creation on his watch, turn out to be a stunning come from behind victory for FitzGerald this fall, Gov. FitzGerald said he will treat "children as human beings, not numbers," adding that a complete education should include art, music, physical education, foreign language, and business education. "Stripping our schools of everything but high-stakes testing is a recipe for increasing the dropout rate," he said.
Investing in early childhood education is a policy many have stressed, including Hillary Clinton, the wife of former President Bill Clinton who served four years as President Obama's Secretary of State and who is the odds makers favorite to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. He noted that states across the country have implemented successful early childhood education initiatives, while Buckeye State children are falling behind. "Students that do not start kindergarten prepared to learn are at risk for falling behind and staying behind for the rest of their education."
Gov. Kasich will be toasted tomorrow night at the Ohio Republican Party's annual dinner and fundraiser. Former chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Reagan years, Haley Barbour, a former Gov. of Mississippi, will be the keynote politician at Saturday night's GOP dinner and fundraiser.
In a session with media following his presentation Friday, FitzGerald, when asked about the 17-percent turnout of registered voters for the primary election last Tuesday and what that says about motivating his base to turnout to vote for him, FitzGerald said there are lots of compelling issues that speak to voters' interest. Polls have shown he's more unknown than known by Ohio voters, but he says he has six months to convince people it's in their best interest to vote in November, and for him. "Voters turnout for elections where people have something at stake," he said, rattling off some like cuts to education, cuts to local governments, raising the sales tax, all reminders that, as he said, "half the state still lives paycheck to paycheck."
It may seem odd that an underdog candidate like FitzGerald wouldn't take a few minutes to watch what his challenger is selling, but he told CGE that he has not viewed any of the three TV campaign spots about Kasich now showing across Ohio.
Questions about Common Core were raised, and FitzGerald said that while he's not calling for the concept to be abandoned, he didn't spare the rod when it came to flogging Gov. Kasich and his administration over their approach to it. The governor's team, he said, didn't do their homework and didn't lay a foundation for what he called a unfunded mandate. Moreover, he called on the governor to institute a moratorium, because it's not fair now to students and parents. Giving an ultimatum to a child and pulling that student out of class, and out of his peer group, he said, is very unwise. Proper resources and support are needed, he said, noting that teachers are feeling very stressed these days, due in large part to high-stakes testing, and should not be blamed for failure, or seen as the enemy.
He accused Gov. Kasich of underfunding education and pushed back on one reporter over state funding. FitzGerald said funding under Gov. Kasich is still $500 less than it was before Kasich's first budget, and that adding $1.5 billion back, as the governor did, claiming he's increased the state share of school funding, is political sleight-of-hand intended to direct attention away from the original $2 billion in cuts. "He's trying to make us forget the first two billion cut," he said.
A multiple disabilities unit intervention specialist for 12 years at Wait Primary in Streetsboro, located in northeast Ohio in Portage County, Sandy Smith Fischer said Ohio needs a governor who will support the students of tomorrow. Smith-Fischer, a mother of three and stepmother to two, began her work as a teenager working in a home for children with mental and physical disabilities in Euclid. A teacher who tutors students in the evenings when needed, she went back to school to earn her Educational Specialist degree. From being a Brownie leader to baseball score keeper to coach for Girls on the Run, she says she loves teaching and working with students from all ability levels.
Why does Ohio need FitzGerald? According to Smith-Fisher, who self-identified as a Republican, said it's because FitzGerald believes in public education and believes in the power of teachers in public education. She wants a governor who will both fund public education and work together with vested parties, and collaborate to develop new ideas that benefit all parties. She has worked for HELP Foundation in Cleveland over the past several years during the summer months.
OEA represents more than 121,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals who work in Ohio's schools, colleges and universities to help improve public education and the lives of Ohio's children. OEA members provide a wide range of professional education services in communities throughout the state.