Today I want to introduce you to one of the most amazing people I know, not just because of how extraordinary she is but because she’s involved in something very important that you should know about. I’ve been working with Lisa Vahey for more than twenty years, ever since we were involved in a group called The New Teacher Network. NTN provided support for beginning teachers committed to working in Chicago Public Schools; Lisa was in the group’s founding cohort. Based on that experience she considers me one of her mentors, which may be true technically, but over these decades I have learned so much from her and have been buoyed by her seemingly bondless energy. She once said, “Doug (her husband) says I only have two speeds – fifth gear and asleep.”
Some years ago, she returned to her native Cleveland, but she visits Chicago often to offer professional development on many aspects of literacy instruction. Even though I’m a recovering YA book reviewer, Lisa has turned me on to more great children’s books than I can keep up with. There’s no one who has influenced and inspired the practice of more teachers locally. The energy generated in her workshops and college courses keeps teachers fighting the good instructional fight.
Earlier this week, she stopped by my place for a morning of coffee and conversation that happens all too rarely because of her packed schedule. She offered to pick up pastries which I declined because my celiac-afflicted body forbids them. Instead, she brought a gift bag stuffed with an array of gluten free goodies, the likes of which you’ve never seen, as our former president is fond of saying – everything from polenta, chickpea pasta and corn tortillas to York peppermint patties, one of which I’m munching on as I write.
There was a lot to catch up on, from stories about her two wonderful children to gossip about the doings of people in our common educational world. But there’s one part of our conversation which lies at the heart of this posting. Lisa is the co-founder of a group called Honesty for Ohio Education, a coalition of more than thirty Ohio organizations which have banded together to push back against the draconian legislation the Ohio legislature has dropped on students, teachers, parents, schools and local school boards. The content looks very similar to what state legislatures across the country have locked in – anti-CRT, anti-transgender, anti-everything that might cast a shadow on the fiction of our nation’s perfect history.
The groups in the coalition include the Ohio Student Association, the Ohio PTA, the Ohio Education Association, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the NAACP, the ACLU and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. You can find a complete list of the coalition members at the group’s website HonestyforOhioEducation.org. What impressed me in Lisa’s account was the fact that although the organization included both supporters and opponents on issues like charter schools and vouchers, they have found common ground around protecting the right to teach with honestyabout the strengths and shortcomings represented in our country’s story.
Here’s how they describe what they stand for:
“Every child deserves an honest, high-quality education grounded in truth, facts and diverse perspectives regardless of background, race or zip code.
Education must affirm, celebrate and reflect student identities, experiences and cultures to maximize engagement and achievement.
Dismissing racism and discrimination, or minimizing its trauma and impact, harms individuals and communities and prevents pathways to reconciliation and healing.”
Toward these ends HOE monitors the work of the state legislature on issues of education and lobbies to support its mission and does the same at the local school board level.”
The reason I’m sharing all this is that it seems as if this kind of organizing pushback against the well-funded efforts across the country to place a chokehold on teachers and students needs to be happening in more places. Individual organizations in other states like teachers’ unions and the ACLU may be raising their voices, but it’s going to take a much more broad-based coalition of groups to prevail against the voices of bigotry that are currently in the ascendance.
People living in blue states like Illinois, New York and California act as if they are insulated from the forces that could reach into their classrooms. That is certainly the case for the teachers I’m close to in Chicago, but none of these states escapes the urban/rural divide that creates a red vs. blue dynamic even in these “safe” states. Well-funded shadow organizations have the capacity to support policing of instruction even in big cities and blue and purple suburban communities.
People everywhere need to know about the work of dedicated educators like Lisa Vahey and groups like Honesty for Ohio Education which can serve as a model for building resistance to the censorship that is being enacted across the country. There’s a discussion that needs to be had about whether this work should be done primarily on the state level because that’s the place where most educational policy resides or whether there’s room and a need for a national organization. The argument for going national recognizes that even blue states will ultimately be affected by the choking off of dissent in places like Ohio. After all, groups like the ACLU and the teachers’ unions have a strong national presenceand a history of successful political action.
I think the answer is both… and. This is a battle that needs to be waged on many fronts simultaneously.