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Monday, December 11, 2006

Epitaph for a Great Educator Who Despised Charter Schools

COLUMBUS (TDB) -- I wish I had written this. But it came from Mrs. Bellwether, who knew Tom Mooney for years as a source back in the days when she covered schools for the Cincinnati Post in his hometown.

"Tom Mooney didn’t come from money. He came from left field — way left field — Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

The free-thinking Antioch nurtured his for-the-people, strengthen-the-union mentality which emerged soon after he started teaching government in the Cincinnati Public Schools in the late 1970s. Back then, teachers’ wages were peanuts, and the union was nascent and weak. Mooney saw the problem and stepped forward to find a solution. He never looked back.

Over 30 years, Mooney single-handedly raised the respect—and the salaries—he believed teachers deserve. It took clever posturing, some angry rhetoric and even some strike votes. Today the average teacher salary in Cincinnati schools is approaching the $50,000 range, and those with master’s and doctorate degrees—and I know several—earn substantially more. He believed they deserve every penny. After all, they’re the ones having the most influence on our kids’ education and the life decisions they will make. But he also led the union on a path of self improvement by instilling within the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, in collaboration with district administrators, policies that set high standards of performance and demand more accountability of its members. Teachers are rewarded for earning additional degrees in their field and for advancing through the Career in Teaching program, and hundreds have successfully completed the grueling process to attain National Board Certification status. Wisened veterans mentor and evaluate new teachers and monitor and work with teachers who are struggling.

It is no longer true the district can’t fire a bad teacher. It is still difficult, but the mechanism exists to terminate those who are no longer effective. Which all goes to explain why Mooney became such a passionate advocate against charter schools.

Mooney believed in the public school system, that it wasn’t perfect but could be made better. And it has, much to his involvement. But charter schools, he said from their introduction to Ohio in the early 1990s, would be a disaster—not for the handful of business people who are getting rich from these autonomous, poorly regulated institutions—but for the children, for many of whom school is a revolving door of next options every time they fail. A charter school is just another place to jump, and when that fails, too, back they come to the public schools, another year older and another year behind. Teachers say it happens every year.

Yes there are a few exceptions of “successful” charter schools. But for the majority of students, the Ohio experiment has been a failure documented by poor test scores, inadequate facilities and unprepared teachers.

Mooney would argue that charter schools drain money and students away from public schools, resources they desperately need to continue improvement strategies already in place. He would say charter schools are merely an invitation to unscrupulous people to line up at yet another public trough where no one is looking. Sadly, he was right. An example is one of the best charter schools in the state—a highly successful extended-day, extended-year program in Cincinnati’s low-income West End neighborhood—is under state scrutiny after its founder was indicted this fall for stealing tax dollars from the school for his personal use.

Mooney’s untimely death last week at age 52 comes at the cusp of his career. He was serving as president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, always promoting his mission to improve education and teacher performance nationwide. He was one who lived by his commitments—both his children attended Cincinnati Public Schools. He was renowned for his patience and willingness to explain his perspective on education issues. Strident? Yes. Irrational? Never.

And now, suddenly, the question becomes: Is there anyone out there with the same compassion and ability to finish the job he started? To work to make public education respectable? To work for teachers but also demand more of them? To fight the charter school movement and return public education dollars to the districts and the children where they belong? Who out there will pick up that torch?"

Well said, Mrs. Bellwether. Tom is going to be missed. He was a union man, but he was a teacher first.

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