By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
My feeling about column writing has changed over the last 24 years. Still in awe of newspaper columnists who produce several pieces each week, I’ve learned different challenges in writing a monthly discourse focused on communications for school leaders. Commentaries published within hours of creation are certain to be fresh. Essays written weeks before anyone reads them can’t be tightly tied to current events. I’ve dumped many a column when the subject changed or a better idea came along.
Two January talks led to just such a switch this month.
In remarks to kick off KSBA’s Legislative Education Advocacy Day in Frankfort, Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt spoke of the need to tell people about the positive things happening in Kentucky schools.
“I can’t be Eeyore, and none of you can afford to be Eeyore,” Pruitt told an audience of nearly 90 school board members and superintendents. “We need to get out there and be positive. We need to be honest about things that are going well and things that are not going well.”
Winnie the Pooh fans know Eeyore is the always-gloomy donkey from the mind of A. A. Milne. The website just-poo.com says Eeyore “doesn’t expect too much of himself, remains quiet for most of the time, is quite knowledgeable yet he confines his knowledge to himself.”
Pruitt’s words came rushing back to me less than 72 hours later at mass in St. Agnes Church in Louisville. Father David Colhour’s sermon for Epiphany Sunday – when Christianity marks the Biblical revelation of the newborn Christ child as God’s son – encouraged listeners to create personal “epiphanies” by helping people understand a broad array of everyday issues he laid out.
Consider these everyday issues noneducator Kentuckians are trying to grasp: charter schools, teacher pensions, core academic standards, test scores. It’s fair to say public education here is undergoing its greatest period of finger-pointing and second-guessing since the eve of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.
As the 2017 General Assembly resumes rewriting state law – with those aforementioned subjects under consideration – local and state education leaders need to put aside Eeyore-esque habits and increase epiphany-like comprehension of both the good and the challenging taking place in Kentucky schools.
New audiences in Frankfort and elsewhere
As noted in the December magazine, there are 104 school boards with 146 new members in 2017. That’s a crop of education leaders who must get up to speed on a) success stories and unmet needs and b) effective ways to share facts about both. This month’s KSBA conference will help on both points.
Each new school board member has personal circles of influence that in all likelihood include voters/taxpayers who have little factual knowledge about what’s happening in our schools. If those board members tell 10 or more friends a great story about their schools, that’s nearly 1,500 more people who understand that the critiques being hurled at public education paint a skewed picture of learning in the classrooms of the Commonwealth.
Meanwhile, district leaders also are constituents of the 30 new members of the state House and Senate. While a few bring education backgrounds and knowledge with them, most don’t. But their votes carry the same weight as those of legislators who have spent years working on public school issues. District leaders must help these new decision makers understand, as Commissioner Pruitt said, not just a plea for more funding but real examples of where underfunding is undercutting the education process.
From media coverage of board meeting presentations to speaking up at the weekend sit-and-chat sessions many legislators host, there are plenty of opportunities to share the good and the great right along with the tough and the dramatic. If you’re short on ideas, suggestions are here for the asking.
The Last Word
Eeyore always expected the worst and his character reflected that point of view. Lawmakers and constituents fed a constant diet of half-truths about public education in Kentucky may not know the whole story unless someone serving up facts brings about an epiphany of reality.
And that’s a message worth getting out.