An education-reform group takes on the status quo

In Oregon, Chalkboard is trying to extend influence to Salem, where it counts. But politics make the pursuit of straightforward goals complicated.
In Oregon, Chalkboard is trying to extend influence to Salem, where it counts. But politics make the pursuit of straightforward goals complicated.

The main goal of Oregon's not-for-profit Chalkboard Project is hard to argue with: "The Chalkboard Project exists to inspire Oregonians to do what it takes to make our K-12 public schools among the nation's best." Curiously, among reams of data gathered by Chalkboard, just 80 percent of the Oregonians surveyed supported this goal. Wouldn't you love to hear from the other 20 percent? Do they like being the benchwarmers of the public-school Olympics? Yes, Chalkboard's platform (56K PDF) makes sense to most Oregonians, whether they are packing kids off to school each day or not. They agree that all schools in the state's 197 districts would benefit from smaller classes; that helping younger kids to read is wise; that motivated, mentored teachers are better teachers; and that taxpayers deserve to know how many nickels go to furnishing the chem lab and how many to paying for the metal detectors at the high school. Since its founding in 2004 with funding from five big-hitter foundations, Chalkboard's been seen more as a helpful hall monitor than a big, bad principal throwing weight around. But as the nonpartisan group moved from supporting statewide research efforts (with a ton of district-by-district stats) and into pushing an agenda in Salem (and ramped-up radio ads last month to draw attention to its platform), opponents, too, turned up the volume. A lobbyist for the Oregon School Employees Association (representing 20,000 drivers, secretaries, and other employees) gave blunt voice to the opposition when speaking to The Associated Press in late April: "They are setting themselves up as people coming in to whip those schools into shape. They think they don't need to learn how things work in schools; their methodology is better." But as a spot-on Medford Mail-Tribune editorial notes: "It's also worth pointing out that those inside a large bureaucracy may have difficulty seeing 'how things work' with fresh eyes. Outsiders, free of the pressure to conform to 'how things work,' may in fact have valuable suggestions to offer." Clearly Chalkboard is providing an excellent way for concerned organizations of educators, parents, and taxpayers to clarify stands using a common language. (One example: a concise set of responses by the Oregon School Boards Association posted earlier this year.) Happily, Chalkboard's call for mentoring and reading programs is embraced by most as they move through the legislative process. But its proposals that require uniform program funding priorities across districts, and such things as scheduled performance audits, stuck in too many throats. The Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, disagreed with what critics call the "one-size-fits-all" program approach, urging lawmakers, instead, to leave discretion with a district about what to fund. Not to say that Chalkboard's issues are dead in the water. Much of what the group pushes has been incorporated by lawmakers into measures of their own, or adopted by other education interest groups. The teacher's union and the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators (COSA) are on the same wave length as Chalkboard about programs offering professional development opportunities for teachers and the need to address taxpayers' rising concerns about achievement and funding issues. Stand for Children, among other Oregon-based child-advocacy groups, is on board with Chalkboard's teacher mentorship program. Significant players in the philanthropic world are watching Chalkboard closely. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation funds a monitoring project to track how this coalition is doing in bringing about change in public schools. (A prediction: Kellogg and other deep pockets will decide that Chalkboard's approach makes good sense. Watch for more support of similar public-school improvements by foundations across the country.) Chalkboard's own website now includes a section describing planned programs as "Non-Legislative Initiatives," a list which might more accurately be titled, "Memo to opponents: We're not going away!"


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