• from The Columbus Dispatch - "Why Schools Have Hard Time Staying Atop Political Agenda."

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Why Schools Have Hard Time Staying Atop Political Agenda.

October 14, 2002

By William L. Bainbridge

Why is it so difficult to keep programs for children among the top of priorities of the public-policy agenda?

That significant question was asked earlier this month of a panel of founders of the new nonprofit KidsOhio.org, a child advocacy group, during a Columbus briefing on children’s issues. One of the founders, philanthropist-attorney Abigail Wexner , made a good deal of sense when she answered, "Kids can't vote."

This brought to mind a similar inquiry I posed many years ago to politically skilled, long-term Ohio State Senator Oakley Collins, who simultaneously served as a county school district superintendent. The question had to do with why the state’s new income tax could not be earmarked for education. Collins looked me in the eye and said, "Regretfully, there is simply no patronage in education." He made clear that, in addition to the lack of clout of a non-voting group, such as children, there is a much larger problem in appropriating funds to education, designed to be the "fourth branch of government." Once state money is distributed to school districts, politicians know they lose control over the pursestrings. When funds are kept within the beauracracy of state government, the elected officials can use them for leverage on a daily basis.

Legislators often ask the appointed heads of various state departments for political favors. Such requests would be considered inappropriate by school officials.

It is this system of paying off supporters with jobs and contracts that child advocacy groups, such as KidsOhio.org, find as their competition for state funds. Such partisan political practices rarely occur in the public school districts.

Certainly, there have been cases when politicians have leaned on school administrators or school board members to hire their supporters. Compared with the standard practices in some state agencies, however, such as those specializing in development and human services, the routine use of patronage in hiring and awarding of contracts is frowned upon by those who manage schools' human resource and business enterprises.

Our taxpayers, parents and students have been blessed in the main with effective and strong-willed school personnel administrators, who frequently operate independently from their own superintendents and school boards when judging credentials of those applying for jobs. Likewise, the cases of school business officials awarding contracts to unqualified, politically well-connected companies are few and far between, as documented by court challenges and auditors’ findings. While school administrators may be far from angelic, public records indicate far less abuse than is found in their federal, state, county and local government counterparts.

Motivating politicians to champion issues that are not directly connected to their personal political futures is often difficult. KidsOhio.org has the noble and daunting task of supporting public policies and investments that "...provide practical solutions to the real challenges facing Ohio’s nearly three million children, especially disadvantaged youngsters."

The KidsOhio's agenda includes promoting investment in early child health, child care and pre-school education; building incentives into programs and policies that strengthen families; measuring and monitoring progress; and sustaining effective, vital public-private partnerships for children’s programs.

These initiatives hit the mark. In the vital area of early childcare and education, the organization is focused on access to educational pre-school and quality affordable childcare. Health care initiatives include improved access to health insurance and dental care and improved immunization rates. In the public education arena, this group understands the importance of improving early literacy and academic achievement and the need to modernize school buildings and classrooms.

KidsOhio is a powerful coalition of child advocates that include Toledo-based pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth S. Ruppert, attorney Frederick L. Ransier, III and attorney Mark Real, the organization's president. Such a coalition could be an important answer to leveraging influence for children's issues as well as their education. The cast of astute board members, staff, contributors and supporters assembled by KidsOhio.org is impressive. Real long has been regarded as one of the most powerful lobbyists in the Buckeye State on youth issues and has served as a representative of the Children’s Defense Fund.

This organization may have the right horsepower and formula for success to overcome the self-serving motives that tend to creep into the actions of too many politicians.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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