Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Oregon Reads: Left to Chance and Outsiders

 
by Joanne Yatvin

When wealthy individuals or foundations give grants to groups espousing new ideas in the public sector, no harm is done.  Even if those ideas fail miserably, the givers have plenty of money left to try again, and at least somebody got a job out of the venture.  But when a working person gambles his paycheck away, there’s nothing left to buy food for his family. Such is the case with Governor Kitzhaber’s Oregon Educational Investment Board (OEIB) bent on spending the money badly needed by Oregon’s schools on new bureaucracies, risky projects, and outside organizations.   

The latest iteration of this gambling obsession is the Oregon Reads proposal to offer grants to organizations and individuals to promote children’s reading.  No one claims that the goal is not worthy; it’s the means that are in question.  When so many of Oregon’s schools have outdated and diminished libraries that merely exist without trained librarians or ongoing programs to stimulate students’ interest in reading; when class sizes in many schools are so large that teachers cannot give individual attention to either struggling or advanced readers, and when qualified teachers are being laid off because school districts can’t afford to keep them, how can the OEIB even consider offering grants or contracts to outsiders on the chance that they will do something to improve children’s reading?

Let us be clear: Our opposition to this proposal is not based on OEIB’s perception of needs or goals.  We agree completely when it declares: “We must engage, empower and support families in culturally appropriate ways with the goal of providing every Oregon child, regardless of native language, with the foundational skills and experiences necessary to develop a life-long love of reading.” We also support its intention to partner with libraries, early learning providers, businesses, and local governments in this endeavor. As long as partnering means planning together, sharing expertise and facilities, and recruiting volunteers.  It is the act of handing over money through grants that do not involve participation or oversight that we find insupportable.

In its operation over the past year the Governor and the OEIB have consistently sought expertise and strategies from outside experts and organizations—at great cost-- while ignoring the vast knowledge and experience that exists within its own public schools throughout the state.  In doing so, it has also lessened the chances of any innovation or structural change being successful.  Teachers who feel dishonored and silenced in their professional work cannot give more than token compliance to top-down controllers and know-it-all experts who have never walked in their shoes.