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A Bitter Twitter Fight for Vouchers

An increasingly nasty fight over private school vouchers in Oklahoma is playing out in the courts—and via social media.

The furor stems from a lawsuit filed by a pair of Oklahoma school districts that challenges a state law that provides private-school aid to students with disabilities, a measure the districts say violates the Oklahoma Constitution.

Those districts’ stance drew a harsh response from Jennifer Carter, the chief of staff at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, who labeled them “dirtbags” on Twitter.

Her tweet—first reported by the Tulsa World—appeared to be directed at the Jenks and Union school districts’ decision to sue the individual families receiving private school vouchers.

The superintendent of the Union district, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago, told me that the districts did not want to sue the families but had no other legal option in trying to block the law.

In their view, the law violates provisions in the state constitution that prevent public tax dollars from flowing to religious institutions.

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi said her aide had used a “poor choice of words,” but she also took the opportunity to criticize the school districts for their lawsuit.

“[I]t is morally wrong for superintendents of school districts to sue parents who want nothing more than what’s best for their children,” Barresi said in a statement. “I think Oklahomans are concerned and shocked that any school district would vindictively target the parents of special-needs children with a groundless lawsuit.”

Sean Cavanagh


What Great Educators Do Differently

When I became a principal, my predecessor handed me a book, What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things That Matter Most, by Todd Whitaker, and said it may be one of the most important books I could read as a principal.

I connected with Whitaker’s words, and recently talked with him for Finding Common Ground. Here’s part of that conversation:

Peter DeWitt: One of your quotes that I have used as the core of my practice as a principal is, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold.” How do we get administrators to buy into this?

Todd Whitaker: In general, principals know that they set the tone in the school, but they do not always know how to do that correctly. ... They need to increase their knowledge and skills.

If I have any advice for principals, it’s to make decisions based on their best teachers because they have a worldly view. They do not look at how changes affect them personally; they are looking at how changes affect the school.

PD: How do we get all of the adults in a school to understand that their words contribute to positive or negative morale?

TW: First and foremost, adults need to understand that their words contribute positively or negatively to morale. That is new knowledge to people. Intuitive teachers know that their words are important to the building climate. Average teachers do not.

People in education become negative because they tend to look for the one answer that is going to change everything in a school system for the positive. Intuitive educators know that there is not one answer. Teaching is hard, and it takes hard work.

PD: In schools, we always seem to focus on programs that can change our schools. You believe it’s people, not programs. Why?

TW: I use the phrase “poor lecturer’s classroom” all the time. I have 1,000 educators in front of me and ask which one of those words is the problem? 950 educators will say “lecturers.” “Poor” is the problem. Lectures are not an issue if the educator is engaging. Our best teachers need to be replicated, not programs.

PD: Why do you think teachers send misbehaving students to the principal’s office? What are their expectations of the principal?

TW: The positive tool that the office has is the fear of the unknown. Ninety-five percent of students have not been sent to the office because they are afraid to go there. There are other students who have been there 10 or 11 times, and the main office has run out of tricks.

The most important thing that principals need to remember is that a student gets sent to the main office because it is a big deal to that teacher. That teacher needs the help of the administrator in order to change the behavior of the misbehaving student.

However, it’s easier to treat it like a big deal if it is a big deal. In most schools, people can predict which teachers will send students to the office. Great teachers don’t send students to the office often. When they do, it is a big deal.

As an administrator, it is very important to be visible and get into classrooms. The relationship between administrators and teachers has an impact on student behavior.

Peter DeWitt

Vol. 31, Issue 07, Page 11

Published in Print: October 12, 2011, as Blogs of the Week
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