Featured Journal Article

Conference speakers offer rich mix of perspectives

by Gary Motz, OSBA editorial manager

An inspiring story of an orphan’s struggle to succeed, a call to action in defense of public education and musical political satire marked the three General Sessions at the 2012 OSBA Capital Conference.

Stephen Pemberton, Diane Ravitch and The Capitol Steps each brought unique messages to the thousands attending the sessions. After their presentations, each spent time signing books and talking with attendees.

A chance in the world: Stephen Pemberton

At first glance, Stephen Pemberton looks every bit the extraordinary corporate executive that he is. Articulate, confident, fit and handsome, he appears to have been groomed for success.

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But his piercing blue eyes and voice filled with compassion and empathy tell a much different story, one that he shared during his Nov. 12 General Session appearance.

Now chief diversity officer and divisional vice president for Walgreens, Pemberton is known as a national leader on diversity and inclusion issues and one of the most influential African-Americans in corporate America. He also has been recognized for his work with The Home for Little Wanderers and UCAN, where he provides guidance to youth in need and children aging out of the foster care system.

However, there was a time — a very long time — when nothing about him was recognized, not even his existence.

Abandoned by his mother at the age of 3, Pemberton grew up in a series of abusive foster homes. His autobiography — A Chance In The World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past and How He Found a Place Called Home — chronicles his struggle to triumph over the mental and physical anguish of his childhood.

“I’m African-American, I have blue eyes, and as a young boy I had a blond Afro and a Polish last name of Klakowicz,” Pemberton said. “People would ask me, ‘What are you? Where do you come from? Who do you belong to?’ And the answer throughout my entire childhood was, ‘I don’t know.’ Because the fact was, I really did not know. I was this collision of labels.”

Pemberton bounced from one foster home to another, enduring constant abuse, humiliation and pain. Whenever he was injured bad enough to visit an emergency room, he had to lie about how he had gotten hurt or face even more violence later.

One home, in New Bedford, Mass., was much worse than the others. To those foster parents, he was nothing more than a monthly check from the state. He had to ask permission to eat. He was not allowed to read in the house or own books. He was told never to talk to adults outside the home lest his maltreatment be revealed.

“And that is where I would spend my childhood: over 11 years,” Pemberton said. “They looked at me like I was broken. They said I was beyond hope, that I was ugly and dumb. But I fancied myself as a fighter, and I learned to fight.”

His one refuge — and inspiration — was reading. Despite the book ban, he found a way to read. He stole books from his school library because his foster parents would not sign for a library card. He would find ways to sneak away and read. His sanctuary was a rock wall across from his foster home, in the protective shade of a massive oak tree.

One day a woman walked by and he prayed she wouldn’t stop and talk to him. But she did, and asked what he was reading.

“I held up my book, almost in defense,” Pemberton said. “She asked me, ‘Weren’t you reading that last week?’ I told her I was and she asked, ‘Well, don’t you have any more books?’ I said, ‘No, I just go back to the beginning when I finish.’”

Later that day Pemberton heard a knock at the door and there was the woman, with a box of books. He found a way to conceal them, and in the ensuing years the woman kept bringing more.

“And as I got older, the books stayed age appropriate,” Pemberton said. “I went from Winnie the Pooh to the great classic Watership Down. Moments in those books so exemplified what I was going through that I would latch onto those characters who kept fighting for something they believed in.

“That became my childhood mission, to fight and endure and learn and to believe that there was, indeed, goodness in the land. Those books gave me vision and courage and direction. So, it was just a matter of time; I was going to defeat this family. That’s how I thought.”

Inspiration also came to the boy from another source: a school board member named Ruby. He met her when she was judging a spelling bee that the 10-year-old boy won. He said she turned out to be the single biggest influence in his life.

“She looked at me differently than anyone had ever done in my life,” Pemberton said. “And when I won, she didn’t say anything, she just smiled, and I could see how proud she was.”

Ruby, who also was the director of an Upward Bound program, later helped him get into college, over the stiff resistance of his foster parents. And, although Pemberton was a fighter, he came to realize he also needed others to fight for him.

“All these small engagements and interactions changed the arc of my life,” he said. “Those people saw not the circumstances of my life, they saw the possibilities, which is what any great educator does.

“And that makes all the difference in the world. Please don’t underestimate the power of what you do, the lives that you change. … It absolutely does make a difference. And, it does a little bit more — it makes the difference.”

The Walmartization of education: Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch got right to the point.

“This is a very critical time for American education. Public education is at risk, and Ohio is on the front lines of the battle, either to save it or lose it. Those who will save it are in this room today: board members, administrators, people who care about public education, children and the future of this state.”

Ravitch, the keynote speaker at the Nov. 13 General Session, is a research professor of education at New York University. She taught at Columbia University’s Teachers College and served as an assistant undersecretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. A prolific writer, her most recent book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

A staunch defender of public education, she once strongly supported the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). But after witnessing NCLB’s true impact, she now speaks out strongly against the largely discredited reform plan and its standardized testing, support for charter schools, unfunded mandates and punitive measures.

Public education is under attack across the nation by so-called reformers, Ravitch said. She cited ballot issues that recently authorized charter schools in Georgia and Washington state. In local races, school board members were up against candidates supported by an unprecedented infusion of outside campaign funds from groups supporting charters, vouchers and virtual schools.

“We just saw an astonishing amount of money directed at statewide initiatives and state and local school board races to influence education policy,” Ravitch said. “Millions of dollars were spent to elect candidates who support the privatization of public education. This money came from Wall Street hedge fund managers, equity investors and charter school operators.”

“Reformers” also are attacking the quality of education, she said. They say American schools are falling behind the rest of the world because there are so many bad teachers. They discount the challenge of teaching low-income children by contending that anyone who talks about poverty’s effect on education is making excuses for bad teachers.

“Their solution is to open lots of charters, because charters are silver bullets that will fix education and eliminate poverty,” Ravitch said. “There absolutely is no evidence for any of these claims.”

The reformers also want to abolish local school boards, she said, because school boards spend too much time in debate and discussion. Reformers support strong governors, state superintendents and commissions who can override local decisions on charter schools. They favor national standards and tests so that the federal government can dictate education policy without any local input.

“This is their way of saying that they don’t like democratic control of public education,” Ravitch said. “They don’t want the public involved in public education. This is not a recipe for reform, this is a step-by-step recipe for the privatization of public education.”

She said reformers’ call to eliminate collective bargaining is another ploy to diminish local control and influence. By marginalizing unions and employees, there will be fewer stakeholders to object when legislatures and governors cut public education funding.

“By the way, thank you for repealing Senate Bill 5,” Ravitch said to loud applause. “When I speak around the country I say that what Ohio did was very important, and Ohio always gets a tremendous round of applause from educators.”

She said powerful groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council are working with state legislatures to perpetuate the myths that charter schools are a panacea, teachers unions are blocking reform and American schools are failing their students.

“None of these claims about public education is true,” Ravitch said. “The National Assessment of Educational Progress, our only long-running longitudinal test, shows U.S. scores are at the highest point in history across all races and groups. Graduation rates are at the highest point in history … (T)he dropout rate is the lowest in history.”

International assessments showing the U.S. lagging are not true performance indicators because they are based on standardized tests, she said. By some of the most important measures — creativity, economic growth, military strength, technological innovation and democratic institutions — America outshines all others. But, the current embrace of standardized testing is putting those successes at risk by crushing creativity.

“The test scores don’t predict anything about the future performance of our economy,” Ravitch said. “What matters most for our economy and society is not test scores, but creativity and ingenuity and risk-taking. This is what is encouraged by a free society. This is where America has always excelled and this is what standardized testing is crushing.”

She also shot down the contention that poverty does not impact student achievement. On the most recent Program for International Student Assessment, she said, Americans in schools with fewer than 10% of their students in poverty outscored Finland, Japan, Korea and other high-scoring nations, ranking that group of U.S. students first in the world. American students in schools with 25% or fewer in poverty had scores the same as the highest-scoring nations.

“As the poverty level rises in our schools, the test scores go down,” Ravitch said. “We have a low average because so many children are living in poverty. … More than any advanced nation in the world. Almost a quarter of our children live below the poverty line, as opposed to 5% in Finland. That has a huge impact on our test scores.

“The deck is stacked against the poor. Instead of closing the achievement gap, we need to close the opportunity gap. It is the civil rights issue of our time.”

Ravitch closed by saying the essential mission of public education is to develop citizens with the heart and character to make good decisions. That job, she said, belongs to the community and must not be outsourced to Wall Street.

“Work with your community leaders and your business leaders; they are your best allies,” she said. “They do not want to see the Walmartization of public education.”

The lighter side of politics: The Capitol Steps

Appearing just a week after the close of a hotly contested presidential campaign, The Capitol Steps had plenty of material to work with. The musical political satire group headlined the closing General Session on Nov. 14.

The Capitol Steps began as a group of Senate staffers that had planned to put on a traditional Nativity play for a December 1981 Capitol Hill Christmas party. But, as their creation myth has it, they could not find three wise men or a virgin in all of Washington. So, adopting the motto “We put the ‘mock’ in democracy,” they set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them.

Although some of the current members have not worked on Capitol Hill, the combined cast has served in 18 congressional offices and represents 62 years of collective House and Senate staff experience. They translate that experience into a show full of hilarious musical skits.

The equal-opportunity lampooners took aim at the full spectrum of election year politics. They opened by poking fun at Super PACs with the ditty, “SuperPACafragilisticespealidocious.” Next up were spot-on sendups of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Biden character shared the secret of his debate preparations: Red Bull, Mountain Dew and 5-Hour Energy drinks.

Moving to the other side of the aisle, The Steps portrayed former presidential candidate Mitt Romney as the “Plain White Rapper” grooving to the beat of his DJ, Roof Doggy Dogg.

Taking a stab at foreign affairs, the troupe spoofed the Greek fiscal crisis with “Greece,” a medley sung to the tunes of the musical “Grease.” Another skit featured a travel agent pushing Iraq as a wonderful vacation destination by singing “On the Sunny Side of Tikrit.”

To mark three decades of turning political scandals, gaffes and embarrassments into their own special brand of political humor, The Capitol Steps wrapped 30 years of performances into the musical skit “We Didn’t Start Satire.” Sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the song — accentuated by props, costumes and signs — covered political, cultural and historical happenings from the Reagan years on through to Obama. n

Editor’s note: The General Session sponsors were: Stephen Pemberton — Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff LLP; Pepple & Waggoner Ltd.; and Ross Sinclaire & Associates LLC; Diane Ravitch — Baird Public Finance and the law firms Peck Shaffer & Williams LLP; Scott, Scriven & Wahoff LLP; and Squire, Sanders (US) LLP; The Capitol Steps — CompManagement Inc. and Honeywell International Inc.