The Guts to be BOLD: The Option of School Choice

It was bitter cold as I gazed across the windswept snowy tundra of several suburban Mason yards to the towering mass of the Big One’s radio tower looming in the distance. The evening sun preparing to drop over the horizon at only 5 pm lit the tower in a majestic way. It made me wonder if Doc Thompson of 700 WLW would actually show up at the School Choice event culminating School Choice Week at the Liberty Bible Academy. He said he would, and announced the event over the station’s 50,000 watts, so my hopes were high.

“Is this a religious event?” My wife asked me as we stepped up to knock on the door to Jennifer Miller’s house. Jennifer is a former Mason School Board member and firebrand for School Choice. She was hosting a dinner for the “key” people in Southern Ohio behind education reform and she wanted me to personally meet Jeff Reed, who was the featured speaker at the event that started at 7 pm.

“Why, because it’s being held at a bible academy?” I knew what she was thinking. “No. But people firm in religion tend to be support choices in education, so that’s probably why the academy is donating the space for the event. “

Our conversation didn’t have time to advance as the small frame of Jennifer greeted us with an open door. Jennifer is a “small” woman, but she had a reputation for being very “LOUD” when she set her mind to a fight.

She led my wife and me to the dinner table and a reunion with Sharon Poe and her husband. Sharon led the anti-Mason Levy effort and worked closely with me while I did the same for Lakota. Sandra Tugrul was putting bread from the lasagna dinner on her husband Yil’s plate as she enthusiastically said hello to me. Sandy is a former Board of Education member for Lakota and is very active in education reform. She along with Jennifer had realized long ago that the system was irreparably broken, and School Choice was the best option on the horizon. The two of them were the architects of tonight’s event. As Jennifer took a seat placing a bowl of salad in the center of the table, Vicky Roarke, a former teacher helped her out from her seat at the head of the table.

My wife, Wendy sat down next to Doug, Jennifer’s husband, a man we had come to know already and I sat down directly across from Jeff Reed who was speaking so rapidly that he held the same piece of lasagna on his fork for exactly 7 minutes. “Good to meet you, I’ve heard a lot,” he said taking my hand. “Glad to see so many people around here taking an active position on this. It’s a great program. Jeb Bush has made great strides in Florida…….the teachers union tried everything they could to defeat him…..Indiana is moving in this direction…..and Ohio is further along than you might think……….” He went on like that until we reminded him to eat his food. His passion was evident!

“How many states are doing this,” I asked. I first heard about School Choice from Jennifer only a few months back as I was looking for options. My role in defeating the Lakota Levy with the NoLakotaLevy Group was noted, but I felt responsible to offer a solution to the district instead of just saying “No” to school levies.

Jeff gobbled up a few more bites of his food then said, “I’m glad you asked that! So far, Arizona, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Now they’re not what our goal is which 100% eligibility for every student in those states. Right now for instance, Ohio only has 3% eligibility, but it’s a start.”

My wife and I looked surprised at each other, and then I said to Jeff, “I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of this before.”

Jeff was still a young man with a well-groomed beard not yet 40, and fit looking. He smiled knowingly. “You probably wouldn’t. People are still attached to brick and mortar schools. And teachers unions have spent a lot of money to paint school vouchers in a bad way. For them, it’s protective business. School Choice brings competition to education, and that is something they don’t want.”

From that moment I liked Jeff Reed, he was speaking my language.

But Jeff wasn’t done. “Albert Shanker, who founded the teachers union, said it best regarding the union philosophy regarding education, ‘when school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.’ That is the behavior that we are all dealing with, and why they hate school vouchers.”

Jeff was reflecting an opinion that I had formulated during the Lakota Levy campaign which is modern education is basically being run like a flashy casino in Vegas. When you go to Vegas, or any casino for that matter, they use flashy lights, alcohol, sexy imagery, and exotic buffets to draw human beings like insects to a trap. The goal of the casino is to get you to spend money so the house makes money. They’re not in the business of giving away money, even though they sell their service that way. Brick and mortar schools use sports, local patriotism, luxurious accommodations, and convenience of transportation to get local residents “addicted” to their services. I’ve met many people who display addictive behavior toward alcohol, and gambling, and the look of a parent that has built their professional lives around their children’s schedule at school, and the promise of sports scholarships as a kind of “jackpot” is the same basic human frailty.

“So is School Choice just another name for school vouchers?” my wife asked.

Jeff took a few more bites and wanted to answer, but Jennifer did it for him. “No, not at all, school choice can be that of course, but the money comes from the state and goes directly to the parent for homeschooling, which has grown from 15,000 students in 1970 to over 1.5 million now, the money can go to virtual schools of online schooling, it can go to charter schools, or it can go to your public school. The key is that if the parent has options, it will force all schools to do like all businesses do and that’s be competitive, and that will bring responsibility to what education costs.”

Then Sandy chimed in, “and that’s how we can break up these monopolies that the unions have over public education. It’s just not fair to the students, and it’s really not fair to the parents to have to endure the outrageous costs of maintaining these monopolies.”

Sharon had been pretty quiet listening attentively, “the cost in Mason per pupil is now almost $10,000. And most of the cost of that is tied up in salaries and that’s what’s driving up the cost and forcing these levies.“

“Because they have monopoly statues that is protected by government.” I added.

Jeff finished chewing quickly so he could answer me, “exactly, do you know that schools in New Jersey are spending over $15,000 per student! And they aren’t getting any better results with those students than schools in say, Alabama, or Mississippi which are among the lowest per pupil.”

Sandy looked passionate, “That’s why Chris Christie is fighting the unions there so aggressively. I can say from experience that the unions put their own interests first and that’s what is driving up these school budgets so aggressively.”

Up till this point Vicky, the former teacher, at the head of the table had been quiet. “Back when I was a teacher, when a levy was passed, we saw money. That was the talk in the teacher’s lounge and that was our primary worry, it was about the pay day.”

I looked at her, “how did you end up with this group?”

She looked back at me with sincerity. “I want to help make it right.”

Jeff was all smiles, “may I say that I LOVE THIS GROUP. Man, I wish everyone had this much enthusiasm.”

I looked at my wife, then at Sharon, Jennifer, Sandy, then at Jeff. “We’re very serious about this. Something is going to be done and that seed is planted here in Southern Ohio. We’re here to fight and move forward.“

The conversation went on for another hour going into more detail over those same topics, much of it revealed in Jeff’s speech at the Academy which you can see below.

As 7 pm approached we left Jennifer’s house and headed over to the Liberty Bible Academy where Sharon, Vicky and Jennifer had to get everything set up. I had to find a good spot to set up the camera, whether or not to use a tripod, and figure out how to get good sound to my camera. I elected not to use a tripod because the room filled quickly with over 60 people and I wanted the freedom to move the camera around for different angles. This gave me some rough video moments, but the effort was worth it in the end.

At just before 7 pm I met Doc Thompson out in the lobby. I was glad to see him, a guy of his reputation and talent could have done half a million things on a cold Thursday night on the last of January. I recognized his tall, lanky form instantly and grabbed his hand to shake it.

“Hey, good to see you. “

“Is this the place? I just had dinner at Bravo’s right over there recently,” Doc’s voice boomed. His voice was magnificent, belonging on the radio which is theater of the mind.

“Yes, you’re at the right place. This is Sharon who was on with you yesterday, and this little woman here is Jennifer who was on with you on Monday, the day you had on Kyle Olson of School Choice.”

Doc took their hands and was genuinely happy to meet them. He stood what looked like well over 6’,3” and towered over Jennifer. After his greeting he returned to me. “So, is this it in here,” looking into the crowded room behind us.

“Yeah, I think we’re about to get started.”

“Yeah, yeah, OK.” His long legs took him to the front where Jeff Reed sat, who had been on his show the day before as well. Doc took Jeff’s hand and shook it sincerely. I noticed shaking hands and looking people in the eye was important to Doc, which is an admirable trait. He took a seat in the front so he could be engaged with the speakers. I found I respected Doc even more than I had before. He had just completed a 12 hour day working between 700 WLW in Cincinnati, and WRVA in Richmond Virginia. And here he was as promised looking at education options like the rest of us. He was far more than just another “radio shock jock.” He cared about the issues he covered on the radio.

People fluttered in and took their seats as Jeff took the podium and gave his speech.

Pete Beck was the next speaker. Pete was mayor of Mason from 2007 to 2009 where he became a member of the Ohio House representing the 67th house district of Warren County. Pete before that was a member of Mason City Council from 1995 to 2007.

Contact Pete here:
http://www.house.state.oh.us/index.php?option=com_displaymembers&task=detail&district=67

The next speaker was Bill Coley, whom I know because he represents me in Butler County. Bill did a good thing under the Strickland Administration. He managed to put Ohio on the doorstep to “true innovation” with digital technological learning. Under his plan, School Choice would be the ideal option to capitalize on the Ohio Revised Code that he’s already established, which is signed into law. In addition to being a Representative for the house 55th District he is an inaugural member with Governor Jeb Bush of the Digital Learning Council.

Here is the website Bill referred to.
http://www.oln.org/
Contact Bill here:
http://www.house.state.oh.us/index.php?option=com_displaymembers&task=detail&district=55

After the speakers there was a passionate Q & A session that went on for a couple of hours. The part that dealt with the Little Miami District I made into a section of its own, because the discussion was so constructive. But I put a good portion of that Q & A session here.

In this clip, Bill Coley is addressing State Senator Cates of District 4 who was in the back of the room sitting with my wife.

At the end, we all shook hands and went home. The event had the feeling of the “start” of something much larger. Doc spoke to Coley about putting him on his Richmond Radio show because this was the first Doc had heard about a digital learning bill that actually passed a state house anywhere and had a governor’s signature on it!

What I learned was this, that the money that the state would typically give the school district would go to the parent of the child instead, which sounds like a good idea. As far as who collects the property tax and where it goes is still something that will have to be debated in the state house. As discussed, the current method of collecting property tax was found unconstitutional. Currently the state of Ohio is spending about $4,100 on 13,000 students for a voucher program over 273 different schools. The program started in 2005 and began operation in 2006 and has increased steadily since then. That gives an idea how new the program is. The School Choice program would work much the same way. An amount of money determined by the state would go to the parent and depending on what school the parent wanted their child to go to, they’d cover the rest on their own. Either the parent would not pay the addition property tax and could afford to cover the difference in cost, or the property tax money would go into a savings account similar to the Flex accounts available in the insurance industry.

The reason School Choice as an option is important is the trend is for the cost of educating students in Ohio is hovering around $9,000 per student, communities all across the state must find a way to get those costs down, and only competition can do that.

About 6 months ago when my daughter went to the studio of WLW with me to photograph the experience for promotional reasons we had a long talk while driving there. She doesn’t live with me any longer, but we’ve always been really close, and father, daughter talks are hard to come by without spouses and other people always around. “Quality time” is something that is rare when kids grow up and move away. So we made my trip to The Big One studio a fun, father daughter day, which is why staring at that tower on the way to Jennifer’s house held so much reverence for me.

“Dad, don’t take this wrong,” as we pulled into the parking garage at The Death Star, where all the Clear Channel Stations are located. Scott Sloan was promoting my visit as we hit the garage and my daughter thought I was getting in over my head a bit. “You’re kind of a fist fight in the parking lot kind of guy. Why are you suddenly interested in school reform? I mean, you wear a cowboy hat, and you hate politics.”

I parked the car and we sat there a moment in silence. “Because it’s the right thing to do. I see that these unions are controlling the school districts and it’s bankrupting the community. I’ve worked around unions all my life. I’ve seen them destroy companies, and people making their minds lazy because through collective bargaining people forget how to fight for anything, even knowledge. I see kids your age looking blank and passionless, and I see senior citizens scared that property tax increases will push them out of their homes since they’re on a fixed income. I see parents addicted to the services schools provide with glee, that behaving like education is a right that must be provided to them, because their “drug pushers” have convinced them they’re entitled to a type of collectivism more at home in communist theory than in the guts of what America was built on, and it’s time to fight the drug pushers.”

My daughter made a face. “You’re not going to say that on the air are you, sounds a bit extreme?”

“No, I’ll calm down before I say anything stupid, but between you and me, the kind of extortion these people are doing is worse than what the mob bosses in Las Vegas have been guilty of doing. These people use the children of our community to gain for themselves a level of selfishness that is evil, because they’d be willing to hurt countless families to secure their own livelihoods. And it has to stop somewhere. So we’re going up to the Scott Sloan show and we’re going to tell 500,000 people what the real problem is. And we’ll let the people figure out for themselves what to do. I’m only going to make them aware of what’s really behind the curtain.

And that’s what we did, and that fight is just getting started.

Back when I was in school, there weren’t any alternatives, because technology was evolving. But the guy that made Star Wars was using a lot of the money he made off those films to change the way kids learn much to my admiration.

A lot of people don’t know it, but George Lucas has been out in front of this whole issue for over twenty years. He founded a company called Lucas Learning which would be an ideal program for Bill Coley’s new legislation in Ohio.

Check out the website here http://www.lucaslearning.com/

Lucas has always been committed to helping improve education. Education was his primary reason for producing the very good Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which used a very popular character to teach his viewers a bit about history at the turn of the century.

George Lucas has done great things with his success and I learned to dare to think “outside” the education box by watching his work at Lucas Learning, and seeing the experiments he embarked on in popular forms of entertainment. I consider that Young Indy series to be a “pinnacle work.” Lucas’s method worked for me, and I used it on my own kids, and like I said, they spent their senior year’s touring Europe. If you want to do something great with your kids watch those films on DVD. They were released on DVD a few years ago and come with hundreds of hours of documentaries that were purchased by the History Channel. The work was for education to be taught in a fun way. The TV show was created as the computer industry was coming to its own, so it represents Lucas’s attempt to trying something different with the way kids learn.

But now that the computer is here to stay, education under the research started at places like Lucas Learning can greatly enhance our children’s lives. George is now involved in a company called Edutopia. Check it out:



When I finished my spot on WLW that day, my daughter and I went to the Kenwood Mall and had a Smoothie, just the two of us. She told me she was proud that I restrained my anger. She knew what I was talking about when I spoke about the thug mentality of teachers unions. She had spent thousands and thousands of hours watching movies that I showed her and her sister over the years, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles being most prominent and memorable among them. My wife and I had homeschooled our kids for a bit, and both kids finished their high school years online. So as a family we have experience in this issue and know what works and what doesn’t. My kids watched me and decided to push themselves into a lifelong education, not just a goal based education to secure employment.

Throwing money at public education just to meet the status quo isn’t the right thing to do. It doesn’t have any merit to me if a school has an “excellent” rating or not. Because the rating system comes from the same people that push the confusing and expensive legislation which are incentivized to support the whole current system that is producing mediocre results. If that’s what society wants, that’s fine with me. But I’m not going to endorse spending over $10,000 per kid to have it.

If mediocre results are what everyone wants, then I want a 50% reduction in cost.

Or we can embrace a program like School Choice to use competition to change the system not only for ourselves, but for the betterment of our children. If you still want your kids to go to Lakota, Mason, Little Miami, or wherever, that’s fine. But if those schools don’t give you good customer service, you could leave. And the threat of that will keep their costs in line.

It’s up to you. I have let you into my little circle of friends here, and introduced you to good people that have been working on education reform for decades. All you have to do is support their work and let them know you want options.

Let your state representatives know you want changes and will have their back if they extend themselves to the teeth of teachers unions and other lobbyist that will attempt to make life difficult for them. Let them know that you’re there for them with an email, or a letter. But before you do any of that have the courage in yourself to be “BOLD.”

Victory goes to those “Bold” enough to demand action. And our kids deserve to have “bold” members of the communities they are growing up in to give them better than a mediocre existence.

Rich Hoffman
http://twitter.com/#!/overmanwarrior
www.overmanwarrior.com