The headline in yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch, “Union leader to be Coleman’s education czar,” certainly got my attention. I suspect I’m not alone.
Given Mayor’s Coleman’s relentless (and praiseworthy) push for education reform over the past 18 months, the appointment of a long-time teacher union official was almost shocking. Teacher unions, after all, have been the primary power brokers in the development of the education system that we are now struggling to reform.
So what’s the mayor thinking?
First, he’s obviously got to respond to the stunning levy defeat in November and the school system’s breathtaking cheating scandal. Choosing a respected educator is a smart way to build bridges and public support.
Second, even in her official role as union president, Ms. Johnson has proven herself to be open to change. She appears to have played a significant role on the mayor’s education reform commission. For that, she deserves much credit. It would have been easy in those discussions for her to stymie any reform proposal that might negatively impact some of her members, but she didn’t. Instead, she helped the broad coalition of community stakeholders to reach a consensus. The result was a bold report that every commission member signed. It called for bold changes such as empowering school principals with the ability to choose the teachers assigned to their schools and evaluating teachers and principals based upon student success.
As the mayor’s agent in pushing those reforms forward, she is going to need all of the leadership and collaboration skills she can muster because it’s a difficult job.
Finally, the challenge to reform a big city school system is enormous. The people leading the charge need the trust of major stakeholders, but not by pandering. They also need to have credibility. Johnson’s service to the community and, more directly, to Columbus students should give her a healthy dose of each. In some ways, her appointment creates a “Nixon goes to China” opportunity. If the push for reform is going to continue and successfully transform our schools, there might be no one better to help lead the efforts than a previous insider with knowledge about how the system really works.
At the end of the day, too many kids in Columbus are not getting anywhere near the education that they need and deserve. We can’t stop the push to make our schools better. While we’ll be watching closely to see how Ms. Johnson will navigate such gnarly issues as charter schools, intradistrict choice, and a myriad of teacher-related complexities (LIFO, performance/differential pay, etc.), we’ll be rooting for her to succeed and eager to work with her. The stakes, the educational future of Columbus’ kids, are too important to let anything stand in the way.