Drawing on Diversity, Ohio Coalition Seeks Common Ground

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Columbus, Ohio

In Cleveland, people are at loggerheads over a plan to give the mayor control over the schools. Meanwhile, Ohio's Republican governor, George V. Voinovich, wants to expand a private-school-voucher program that is bitterly opposed by the public education community. And last week, Ohioans were anxiously awaiting a decision from the state supreme court on whether the state's system for financing its schools is constitutional.

Welcome to another front in the education wars.

But here in the Buckeye State, at least one coalition is attempting to find common ground across these diverse interests and call a temporary truce.

BEST--for Building Excellent Schools for Today & the 21st Century--was formed in 1994 by Ted Sanders, then the state schools superintendent, and Robert Wehling, a senior vice president of the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. Its goal is to create the most inclusive coalition possible on behalf of Ohio schoolchildren by working at the state and grassroots levels simultaneously.

"The magic of BEST for us," said Robert A. Stoff, the president of the Ohio Business Roundtable, "is that it is the broadest and the deepest coalition of its kind in Ohio, and may well be the broadest and deepest coalition of its kind in the country."

Forging Consensus

The 100-plus organizations involved in BEST cover the spectrum of the state's business, education, labor, philanthropic, and civic communities. They include the state chamber of commerce and the business roundtable; large employers such as The Limited and the J.M. Smucker Co.; the Cincinnati and Columbus urban leagues, the Catholic Conference of Ohio, and other community-based groups; and virtually every statewide education organization.

Over the past three years, the group has raised nearly $2 million to increase public awareness about education in the state, about two-thirds of it from the business community.

Gaining trust--and hammering out a common agenda--among such diverse groups has not been easy. BEST has taken pains to establish itself as an independent, nonpartisan group dedicated to making education the state's No. 1 priority.

"Early on, people were at the table as much to keep an eye on what other people were up to as to participate," recalled Bill Sundermeyer, the executive director of the Ohio Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

Organizations in BEST are expected to leave their individual agendas at the door and work toward consensus. But not everyone agrees with those ground rules.

"I'm not going to make any bones about it," said Samuel Gresham Jr., the president of the Columbus Urban League. "I'm not here to make sure all the students are taken care of. I'm here to make sure black students are taken care of."

But BEST, he maintained, holds out the greatest prospect for achieving that goal. "It is the strongest coalition that has ever invited me to the table."

Its first policy statement, issued in November 1994, "Making the Grade With a New Generation of Schools," went through 37 drafts, although no formal vote was ever taken. Among other objectives, it called for the adoption of academic and skills standards for students, performance evaluations for teachers, all-day kindergarten in high-poverty areas, and an increased state role in school facilities.

"There isn't anything on our agenda that any individual member would go right down the list and say, 'I enthusiastically endorse every one of those points,'" Mr. Wehling said. "But it's fair to say that the bulk of our people support the bulk of our agenda."

Yet there is at least one issue that the group has taken off the table. "We almost have an unwritten policy that we won't discuss vouchers," said Sue M. Gatton, the immediate past president of the Ohio Congress of Parents and Teachers, the state parent-teacher association. "Why bog down all that we've done because of one issue?"

A fiercely debated voucher program in Cleveland, currently under challenge in the courts, provides state tuition aid that can be used in private and religious schools. ("Battle Waged Over Vouchers in Cleveland," Feb. 19, 1997.)

'Motivation To Do More'

One of BEST's most visible accomplishments has been a statewide awards program that recognizes and promotes education practices that work. School, district, and community programs that apply for the award are evaluated by a team of trained reviewers. The winners receive a statue commissioned by BEST.

"It's amazing the response that teachers have to that trophy," said Mr. Sundermeyer of the OEA. "It is one of the most significant yet very small things we did."

Last year, 56 exemplary programs from 23 counties won the award. This year, some 400 nominations were submitted, up from 167 when the program began two years ago.

One winner is the Infant Mortality Project, a joint venture between Grant Medical Center and the Columbus public schools.

Every Wednesday morning, an 18-ton tractor-trailer pulls up outside South High School in downtown Columbus to provide prenatal care to pregnant teenagers.

The trailer, which rotates between five high schools, is equipped with examination and counseling rooms and is staffed by a team that includes a nurse, a midwife, a dietitian, and a social worker.

A bulletin board displays the photographs of some of the 144 babies who have been born to young women in the program. Only five of those infants had low birth weights, and three-fourths of the mothers have gone back to school after giving birth, said Rae Arnold, the program's director.

The recognition from BEST was a great morale boost for the staff members, she said, and for the participants, too.

"When the students see this award, they have confidence in what we're doing," Ms. Arnold said. "It gives you motivation to do more."

Making Schools Relevant

The coalition's other major initiative has been BEST Communities, a designation given school districts across the state that meet 10 criteria for building a strong school-community partnership.

"I don't care if the state or the feds have the greatest idea in history," Mr. Wehling said. "If anything constructive is going to happen, it has to have buy-in at the local level."

The Westerville school district, a 13,000-student system in a middle-class community outside Columbus, was one of the first BEST Communities. Because of the area's aging population, only a fourth of the families who live in the district have children in the public schools.

"Our challenge is to make the public school system relevant to the rest of the community," said Nancy S. Nestor-Baker, a member of the school board.

The process of becoming a BEST Community ''has been one of the best things that we've done as a confidence measure," she said. A year ago, the district was the only one in Franklin County to pass a bond issue.

But the community-recognition program has not been universally popular. Some superintendents complain that the requirements for becoming a BEST Community are too rigid.

"It's done in so many steps," Shaker Heights Superintendent Mark Freeman said. "And it doesn't necessarily match what may be going on in school districts."

About 70 of Ohio's 611 districts are in the process of becoming BEST Communities or have already done so. But the initiative is still in its infancy.

Critical Juncture

The same could be said of BEST as a whole. "I think we've made a lot of positive starts," Mr. Wehling of Procter & Gamble said. "At the same time, I believe that if you look at BEST objectively, if its potential is 100, we're still somewhere in the 20s."

Many of the groups that participate in BEST admit that individual teachers, parents, and community members still know little or nothing about the coalition or its agenda.

"This is fragile," said Mark Real, the director of the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio. "There are many reasons for people to pull out of the coalition. On the other hand, I think there's a consensus that education is the most urgent issue in the state."

The organization may be at a crucial juncture. The state supreme court is expected to rule soon on whether Ohio's system for financing its schools is constitutional. The ruling could provide a pivotal opportunity to change public education in the state. And best would clearly like to influence that debate.

''We have the potential through BEST to shift the debate from funding without results to funding with results," said Mr. Stoff of the Business Roundtable. "But only to the extent that BEST can set forth an intelligent and coherent reform agenda."

This spring, the organization plans to release its second public-policy agenda, which will focus on the years from preschool through grade 3 in an effort to raise student performance.

It has provoked heated discussions. Late last month, the BEST board took one of the few formal votes in its history to ensure that most people were ready to move forward with the proposal.

Reaching consensus is a tough job, said Ronald E. Marec, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. "The old saying is the devil is in the details. The question is, can we agree on the details so the devil doesn't split us apart?"

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