"In Search of a Socrates." By William L. Bainbridge. School Planning and Management. December 1995.

IN SEARCH OF SOCRATES

By William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.

With the heat public education has been taking in recent years, it’s probably good to do some soul-searching and reflect upon the larger picture. Most often, however, educators tend to confide principally in each other. The problem is that such sharing carries the burden of the institution’s orientation. Consequently, many ideas which school administrators consider revolutionary are looked upon by the outside world as mere tinkering with the existing system.

Another way to move school programs ahead is to turn our attention to business and government leaders. Many of them have strong opinions about how to reform schools. The problem is that most of these "instant prophets" do not have enough information about the operations and history of the current system to be helpful.

We set out looking for an educational Socrates a person of seasoned judgement with a high knowledge level and a mind that naturally makes complex problems simple to understand. We wanted to talk with someone with years of involvement in educational policy-making, but with no vested interest as an educator or school employee. We were looking for a policy leader who knew the details of school issues and at the same time could focus on the big picture.

We were fortunate enough to find such a person right in our own backyard. Senator H. Cooper Snyder chairs the education committee of Ohio’s upper chamber. Since early 1979, he has made it his principal business to be knowledgeable and focused on the key issues plaguing our schools. His philosophies are in tune with the new majority both here and on the Potomac. He has been consistently recognized as the "Watchdog of the Treasury" and has been honored for outstanding legislative service by many groups. He is the only two-time recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s "Outstanding State Legislator" award and the only Ohio legislator to be twice honored by the National Federation of Independent Business as the "Guardian of Small Business." We recently had the opportunity to pose a few questions to this articulate and thoughtful educational statesman.

SchoolMatch: The last few years have brought a lot of attention to the issue of school choice. What do you think of the concept?

Sen. Snyder: Parents, not the government, should choose where their children go to school. It’s that simple. People will feel better about the programs and services provided if they have ownership in school selection. Our schools should be depending on market choice, individual responsibility, and entrepreneurship—not on the bureaucracies.

SchoolMatch: Why are so many business and government leaders skeptical about the efforts of educators to reform schools?

Sen. Snyder: Schools need to be part of the real world. There should only be one outcome in focus—student achievement. Many proposals that come from educators focus on process rather than on whether Sally or Johnny is learning anything or has increased opportunities for a productive and happy life.

SchoolMatch: You have been an advocate of school finance reform. Is it really that important?

Sen. Snyder: For the past several years, our method of school funding has come under increasing attention. A tremendous amount of time and energy have gone into studies, hearings, and investigations. There’s no doubt that education finance restructuring will be the key agenda item for school reform for the remainder of the decade. There are so many reasons for this, including the changing demographics of our population, the exploding number of services required in our schools, the over-reliance on property taxes, the changing definitions of equity and equal opportunity, and court intervention. The real issue over dollars is equality of opportunity. School district boundaries should not be a limiting issue—equal protection is the issue. Distribution of dollars per pupil is very important in the equality equation.

SchoolMatch: Since the mid-1960s, the major teacher unions have had great influence in state and federal education legislation. Do you see any change?

Sen. Snyder: In my travels and discussions with many teachers I find that very few support union agendas. Most teachers want to improve education for youngsters and joined the profession with an earnest desire to serve. The union agendas are frequently narrowly focused on the viewpoints of their paid executives and elected leaders. Regretfully, there seems to be a mismatch between the official agendas and the desires of the rank and file. I don’t believe most teachers want the unions spending the kind of money they do protecting the few incompetent teachers and administrators who impede progress in our schools.

SchoolMatch: There’s been considerable focus in the 1990s on the role of technology in education. Do you believe there’s an answer here?

Sen. Snyder: For certain, technology should not be viewed as a cure-all in and of itself; technology will not make bad teachers good. Its mere presence will not inherently motivate children or teachers, and it cannot revamp an educational system with serious organizational problems. What technology does is allow the many good teachers to do more and remove some of the sense of isolation from the teaching professional. We need to find ways to put technology for learning basic skills in the hands of all youngsters. This will give them the motivation and independence to learn. There are many legislators and school board members throughout the country whose principal interest is to see that the schools better serve our students, businesses, and communities. We need to make it our business to listen to their thoughts and questions.

Thanks, Senator Snyder!

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Dr. Bainbridge is President of SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH based national educational consulting firm assisting corporations and schools.