Mom & Dad vs. 'The State'
School-to-Work meeting sheds little light, causes lots of heat

By George Wuerthele (Sunday May 25, 1997)
Coschocton Tribune Staff Writer

BERLIN - An American flag waved over Highland High School May 16, one edge tattered as that of an old battle flag.  It flew above a confrontation between two groups of people who see the world in very different ways, each antagonistic to the other.  One side represented the state. It consisted of state legislators and educators turned politicians. The other side represented those residents of the state who are concerned about what the state is doing, or is about to do, or may someday want to do, with their children.    

The issue which separated them was a thing called School-to-Work (School-to-Work), an approach to education which has been variously described as a program, an initiative, a philosophy and a bad idea.  The side representing the state believes it to be a lovely innovation, which will provide every child in Ohio with new opportunities.   The opposition sees it as a thing simple-minded at best, and sinister at worst.  Between these two poles sat a large body of people who could have gone either way. Neither side believed it could win the argument by converting the opposition. But each knew it could walk away victorious by winning the sympathy and support of spectators who arrived uncommitted.

Produced and Directed
   The event was put together by state Rep. Joy Padgett, at the request of Gary Sterret, superintendent of the East Holmes school district.  Sterret believed the meeting to be necessary because one Melanie Elsey, a member of a grass-roots conservative group, appeared in Holmes County several weeks ago to speak out against School to Work.     Her message was graphic, intense and crafted to deliver the kiss of death. It frightened a good many Holmes County residents, including a significant number of Amish, whose relationship with public education has at times been strained, and at other times stormy.  School to Work supporters staged the May 16 meeting to repair the damage. They believed it would reassure the apprehensive, and convince the uncommitted. they thought it could be done in an hour.

    They were wrong.

    The event produced by the state was, from the first question and answer, directed by the people. Sitting on the dais with Sen. Jim Carnes and Padgett were Arlene Smith, a member of the state Board of Education, and Robert Radway, the state director of School to Work. Carnes and Padgett announced they knew little about School-to-Work and were on the premises to learn more.  Smith assured the crowd she would never do anything to harm Holmes County kids.

Blatant Untruths
     Radway, a Hardin County school teacher before assuming his present position, told the gathering that School to Work does no more than "what a good parent and a good teacher does - prepare young people to be successful."   He also said, "School to Work is built upon people in the local communities designing and implementing - starting - partnerships, working together to meet the needs of that community."  The truth, he said, should be a source of comfort to all.   "I think the point of this evening is simply to tell the facts," he said at a briefing which preceded the meeting. "I don't know why people would be telling these blatant mistruths (about School-to-Work) . . .That's why I'm here, to simply tell the facts as they exist."

    The first "mistruth" Radway attempted to disprove has been a source of concern to a great many of his Amish listeners.   "One of the things that I've heard from phone calls and from letters, is that School to Work is not going to allow the Amish community to let their children to leave school at the end of the eighth grade," he said. "My comment is, where did this come from? I have never heard of this, ever, in my entire life . . . So, number one, I've never heard of that, it doesn't exist, it's simply not a fact." Yet, as the evening wore on, it became apparent there were many things about School-to-Work which Radway had yet to encounter, but appeared to be true nonetheless.

    Radway's strategy that evening seemed to be based upon the assumption that his audience would be similar to those sometimes encountered at week-day luncheon meetings - i.e. eager to hear any pleasant generality which follows dessert.  But many of those assembled o hear him that night were lugging around a blue and while booklet issued by the state Department of Education, entitled Implementation Guide for School to Work. Most were dog-eared from hours of careful study, and open to pages where significant passages had been underscored or highlighted.  Some of those who questioned Radway knew the text far better than he did, and that was to cause him some difficulty before the evening ended.  For a while the questions put to the panel were often informed and thoughtful, many of the answers were political shoe polish.

Any Job You Want
     Most questions concerned the matter of parental control, and how much of it must be surrendered to the state.  Many asked if a vocational education will be required of all Ohio students.  Some questions were posed time and time again, because no substantial answer was made to them. Asked what the intent of a "Career Passport" might be, and of what significance, Radway said, "Id like to tell you the facts: Career Passports are not required of any student in the state of Ohio, by law."  Furthermore, he said, they are not part of School-to-Work. 

    Why then, asked a subsequent questioner, are Career Passports mentioned on page 36 of the Partnership Resource Directory of School to Work? And why has it become so important to people seeking employment in other states?   "In Pennsylvania," she said, "where they started using career passports, (help wanted ads) say they wouldn't accept people without (them)." 

    Smith fielded that one, "The career passport," she said, "was in effect before School to Work ever started in Ohio. . .It does not have to be done. It's up to the parents and the student . . . and it's a document which is very beneficial for a student to take along when applying for a job. It has no connection whatsoever (to School-to-Work)."

    Radway helped by saying, "I'm, glad you said that you recognized School to Work being mentioned in that document . . . it is mentioned, and many things are mentioned. . ."

    "this is a School to work document," interrupted the questioner.

    "Right," said Radway

    "It is a document that exists," he further clarified. "It is voluntary . . . it is up to the student."

    "That's on paper," said the questioner, "we talking about practice. For our children to get a job."

    "Where?" asked Radway.

    "Well, once School to Work is in our culture," said the questioner, "most companies will be using a Career Passport."

    That declaration reminded Radway of another conversation, so he changed the subject to an even more controversial topic, the School-to-Work Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM).those opposed to School to Work maintain the CIM will eventually replace the high school diploma. That, they say, would mean all jobs seekers wishing to appear credible will need one. that, they say, is wrong, because a CIM will present evidence of skills acquired rather than lessons learned.

    Radway again assured his listeners that no one need worry about the dreaded CIM - and he knew quite a few people were worried - because the document does not exist.

    "We don't even have them in the state of Ohio," he said. "There are no states that have them, there's not a single state that has then, as far as . . ."

    "Pennsylvania has them," said the questioner, "Oregon has them."

    "I've seen that," said Radway "but we don't have them in Ohio. And . . . give me an example of one place in this country where they are required to get jobs."

    "You're not addressing what I am saying," said the questioner. "No, (kids) are not required to have them. But in practice, what kind of job (will they be able) to get without them (in the future)."

    They don't exist," said Radway, "so you can get any job you want."

    Thus did the dialogue progress.

Popular Ballot
    The exchange continued, generating more heat than light, typical of the impasse which forced both sides to leave the meeting unhappy.  Representatives of the state were on the premises to provide reassurance there is nothing sinister in School to Work, that nothing bad will happen should it come to the district. But they were prepared to discuss matters in only the most general terms, unless some convenient detail offered shelter from the heat. At times, they seemed unable to grasp the fullest implications of the questions they heard.  They were obviously unaware that their audience put far more faith in what they read than in the credibility of a spoken promise, made hastily and under pressure.  But those who had come to question the state's intentions were on the scene to get direct, detailed answers to questions which were often as much philosophical as factual. They wanted to discuss all the implications of School-to-Work, many of which they believe to be threats to the way they live, and to the very foundation of what they believe.  Furthermore, they want it all in writing, and not the kind which lines out regulations subject to change at a bureaucrat's whim.  They want the permanent kind, which can be enforced by the courts, and altered only by majority vote of a Legislature elected by popular ballot.  They didn't get any of that Friday night, and there were consequences.

    Amy Guthrie, a parent in the audience, took Radway to task.

    "First off," she said, "You haven't convinced us that anything you've said is true . . . We've done our research. Don't treat us like we're stupid. We're concerned about our kids." (loud and prolonged applause)

    Her anger building as she spoke, Guthrie continued: "We have had our hands on everything (about STW) that we could get hold of, because we did not have kids for the government to take them from us." (more applause)

    And that is what the meeting was about. It is what drives the controversy which surrounds the notion of School to Work.  A good many people see School to Work as something malignant, an excuse to wrest the child-rearing process away from parents and hand it over to the state.  They see, within school health clinics, values clarification courses, and neglect of traditional academic skills, the methodology of a government eager to tell students what to think instead of how to think.  Their fear may be illogical. It may be pathological. It may be an eccentric conviction born of rumor, fed by lies and disseminated for the sake of crackpot political conviction.

    But it may not be any of those things.

    And those who share it believe they deserve something better than an ugly and unexplained gap between what the state says on paper and what it says through its spokesmen.

Who is the State?
    Perhaps the defining moment of the evening was Radway's observation that people are mistaken if they believe him to be the state.

    "I've been here since January, and I'm the state?" he asked with some measure of disbelief.

    But, like it or note, he was the state to the people assembled before him. and many felt he had not really addressed himself to the substance of their questions, had done little or nothing to explain what School to Work is all about, and what its function may be. 

    Before the meeting, an employee of the Tri-Valley Educational Service Center said she had come to "gather information, so I can formulate an informed opinion."  When it was over, she was asked what she had learned. "No comment," she said.

    An Amish man said he'd attended because he was afraid of what he'd heard about School to Work.  He left saying he was more afraid than he had been when he entered.

    Most of the spectators felt gladhands and glib answers weren't good enough.  Two weeks ago, convincing them their fears are groundless would have been difficult. This week it won't be that easy.   What things will look like next week is anybody's guess.

Brave New School
    The meeting fell victim to a deadlock which started long before the meeting began, long before the birth of School to work.  It began a century ago, when the word state started meaning very different things to parties in conflict.   When politicians, no matter what they may call themselves, hear that word they imagine the geographic and political boundaries which define the limits of their power over other people's lives.  When people who feel themselves to be losing control of every aspect of their lives hear it, they envision no limitation of any sort.   They see the ultimate state, the totalitarian state, the police state, the state described in futuristic works of faction like 1984 and Brave New World.  They see the state which exercises absolute control and demands absolute obedience.  They have witnessed a 20th century dominated by a "workers' state," which visited a cruel and universal poverty upon its residents, and called it paradise.  They fear a 21st century dominated by a global state, which distributes a formal misrepresentation of literacy, and calls it wisdom.

    Within the details of School to Work, which seems to stress conditioned behavior and limited occupational skills, they see a state which seeks to keep its residents docile by keeping them ill-informed and unprepared to resist the intrusive demands of the state.  Within the folders which hold Career Passports and Certificates of Mastery, they see de facto work permits, which could be withheld at the pleasure of the state.  Within the evasive answers of the state, they hear condescension, contempt and rhetorical nitrous oxide.  They are not unintelligent people, or uninformed. they are able to comprehend a thorough explanation, which is what they are after, and they will accept no less.  They are not about to sign on without it, no matter how many spin doctors tell them to ignore the fine print.


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