Whether we have school-aged children or not, a vibrant public education system should be as vital as water, to every one of us. When we read about recent developments at Ojai Unified School District we rightly feel a threat to our community’s future flourishing, and when we feel threatened it’s natural to brace ourselves and launch into fight or flight mode.
Consider another possible response: We take this opportunity, jarring as it is, to embrace collaboration and cultivate a new vision for public education in the Ojai Valley we love. Imagine a future where people move or return to the Valley because of our outstanding public school offerings and alliances, just like they come here now for our natural environment and culture. How might we do this?
First is to understand that it can and must be done. It is disgraceful that a community like Ojai, with eight high-end private schools, one third of the population college educated and beyond, an outsized proportion of wealthy and prominent citizens who claim highly developed levels of consciousness, sophistication of ideas, and social equity values, would at the same time offer its children a level of public education marked by mixed achievement, bankruptcy, and desperation.
It’s natural to think of this as ‘them’. “Oh our public school system is a mess, they don’t know what they are doing.” But it isn’t them, it’s us. We the public are the ones responsible for public education. And we are enabling unacceptable failure.
Second is to organize resources and develop a strategy. What have we got, why isn’t this working, what would make a difference, and how do we get there? We have a school board, city government, a group of elite private schools, non-profits who support education, financial resources, intelligent citizens who value public education, facilities, and teachers. What don’t we have?
In a nutshell we lack vision. Along with thinking it is they who are the problem we have fallen into a deep hole of complacent ignorance. We haven’t bothered to take an interest. What if 500 serious citizens of the Ojai Valley decided to take it on? Is the welfare of our children worth it? Are they important natural resources that should be nurtured and protected?
We outline here some of many alternatives for fulfilling our obligation to deliver thoughtful education to our children.
Providing the best possible choices to our students should be the goal of our collective public interest and spending in education. Collaboration with educational non-profits, such as Rock Tree Sky, The Ojai Educational Foundation, BRAVO, O-Higher Ed and many others is one way to increase the range of opportunity. Another vehicle to add energy, focus, and purpose in educational choice is to encourage the creation of charter schools in our valley. Charter schools are public schools, free to families, typically with some area of focus such as science, environmentalism, citizenship, as so on. Charter schools are generally formed by passionate groups of parents and teachers who want to build educational choices for families. Charter initiatives apply to a sponsoring agency, first their local district, who then evaluates the merits and readiness of the initiative. If approved, the school can begin, with the requirements for its staff being the same as for all public schools in California. There are many ways the charter school, the school district, private schools, and educational non-profts and businesses can collaborate.
The usual argument against charter schools is that funding is leaving the public school district and following the student to the charter school. But notice how entrenched this argument is. The smaller charter school, acting as an autonomous district, can be more supple, streamlined, and focused with the use of resources. Not all charter schools are good, just as not all educational non-profits are good, and just as not all public schools are good. However, when these smaller organizations are working well they can be fantastic. They work well when the leadership talent of the community take on the task.
Now is the moment for innovation. To our current OUSD board, and to the two additional board members soon to be appointed, we want to encourage a time of radical re-imagining and serious soul searching. There are energetic families hoping for alternatives, and groups of well-resourced community members ready to invest their time, wisdom, and money in dynamic prospects. Do we really want to become simply a tourism / retirement community where one third of the students in the Valley attend private schools and our public school system is beleaguered and apologetic?
We can do this. Our future needs us to do it.
“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” - John Dewey
“Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.” - James Garfield
Andy Gilman and Tom Krause of the Agora Foundation