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Published in Print: December 4, 2002, as PEN Targets Public Concerns About Teaching

PEN Targets Public Concerns About Teaching

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A new Internet-based campaign will strive to mobilize Americans concerned about a lack of highly qualified teachers in public schools to lobby their governors to take action.

The Public Education Network was scheduled to launch GiveKidsGoodSchools.com on Dec. 3 in response, PEN leaders say, to recent polls consistently showing that a majority of Americans care about the quality of public schools but are unclear about how to channel their concerns into action. Backed by the Ford Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, among others, the Web site will give users a fast and hassle-free tool to get in touch with governors, the organizers say.

Wendy Puriefoy

"Citizens don't feel like they have enough of a voice," said Wendy Puriefoy, the president of the Washington-based network of local education funds nationwide. "This [Web site] gives them yet another avenue to express their opinions."

In an attempt to attach substance to elected officials' penchant for dubbing themselves "education candidates," the Web site—which observers said could be the first of its kind in education lobbying—will remind state leaders that teacher quality is a priority in the minds of voters, Ms. Puriefoy argued.

A 2002 PEN/Education Week poll found that 78 percent of those surveyed believed that all communities can and should have high-quality schools. The same poll showed that 53 percent of those surveyed wanted education shielded from budget cuts. ("Poll: Public Sees Schools as a Priority," April 24, 2002.)

Visitors to GiveKidsGood-Schools.com can add their names and contact information to a standardized letter urging the governors of their respective states to detail plans to ensure that all schools hire qualified teachers. The letter acknowledges the budget constraints most states are facing, but it also reminds government officials that well-qualified teachers are a key component of the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. Those who wish to write their own letters or personalize the PEN letter have that option as well.

With a click of a computer mouse, the writer will be able to send a letter to his or her governor.

Approach Debated

PEN decided to attempt to rally public interest around teacher quality because most citizens have an immediate connection to improving instruction, Ms. Puriefoy said. Describing the issue as largely nonpartisan, she added that citizens understand the value of an effective teacher in a classroom.

David W. Hornbeck

Former Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools David W. Hornbeck, the network's chairman, said he believes the Internet campaign will strike a chord with the public. Since he helped found the group Good Schools Pennsylvania in 2000, the nonprofit community coalition has set off a groundswell of support for public schools, he said. The Pennsylvania coalition, for which Mr. Hornbeck serves as a council member, spawned numerous college chapters and sponsored 15 interfaith vigils.

GiveKidsGoodSchools.com "will serve to augment the broad and deep public sentiment for public schools in a coordinated and structured fashion," Mr. Hornbeck said.

But the growth of the school choice and standards movements in recent years show that the public's voice is already being heard, suggested Kathy Christie, a vice president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. She said many of those efforts have been community-driven.

And although the PEN campaign has the potential to reach many people by computer, it could be perceived as an "engineered" initiative, which could deaden its influence on state leaders, added Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that promotes educational quality for disadvantaged students.

Ms. Haycock said that the key to the Web-based campaign's success would be to reach people to persuade them to act in the best interest of all children, not just their own. That's a challenge that Ms. Haycock believes can be more effectively met through conversation and education.

"Frankly, affluent and white people already have more than their fair share of quality teachers," she said, referring to the people she considers are the base of PEN's support.

Lobbying for high-quality teachers appears to be a slam-dunk issue on the surface, said Paul E. Peterson, the director of Harvard University's program on education policy and governance and a prominent researcher on private school vouchers. But precisely defining and measuring the quality of teaching will prove more difficult, he said, and thus complicate lobbying on the issue.

"The range of options are going to divide the state legislatures all over the place," Mr. Peterson said.

While acknowledging that Give-KidsGoodSchools.com is something of an experiment, Ms. Puriefoy said the Web site would give the Public Education Network a quick way to reach a large number of people across generations who use the Internet.

Still, the "virtual" campaign intends to extend its reach beyond the computer screen by tapping into communities through the network's 77 local education funds across 30 states and the District of Columbia, the organizers say.

John S. Gomperts, PEN's chief operating officer, said "bricks" will be added to the "clicks" in the form of print and broadcast advertising as interest in the campaign increases. Over time, he said, GiveKidsGoodSchools.com will evolve into an information resource for those interested in teacher quality, including suggestions on how to achieve that goal.

Mr. Gomperts noted: "The public patience level for talk without action is pretty low."

Vol. 22, Issue 14, Page 5

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