By Donovan A. Fornwalt
I can hear my grandmother’s voice now, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Meaning, you have to try it, to taste the food, to know if you like it and to know it’s nature. The nature of the compromise offered by the state interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis is not truly known, until you try it.
JCPS has failed children with disabilities. Our students have suffered indignities, pathetic academic outcomes and horrific neglect and abuse. We should be embarrassed that it took 80 auditors many months to reach that conclusion. The last superintendent was a poster child for what I call the tyranny of low expectations.
So, let’s tell the truth.
JCPS has a recent shameful past. The state did the right thing by demanding accountability. The media was right to highlight the neglect and abuse of our most vulnerable children at the hands of educators. How long does it take to fire a teacher aide who nearly kills a student with autism by crushing his femur? Real leaders accept and demand transparency and principled action. After years of BS and delay, Marty Pollio handled the situation promptly.
I’ll share one more example from that shameful past. JCPS failed to report incidents when students were restrained or secluded. If your child is physically confined (read: manhandled) or placed in isolation at school, then you’d want to know about it. Right away. Yet, the central office failed to report thousands of such cases.
So, truth be told. JCPS got what it deserved. That was then. So what are we going to do about it?
If we are quick to criticize, then we must also be quick to praise. We give credit to the bold, decisive and insightful leadership of Pollio. How he has managed to jump aboard the Titanic and keep it from sinking is astounding. The man knows what he’s doing and he’s a man of action. The era of handwringing and excuses is over, I believe.
We must also give credit to the bold, decisive and pragmatic leadership coming from the state, namely our Commissioner Lewis. He too jumped into a baptism by fire and refused to flinch. Critics claim that he may be a puppet or (worse) a political hack, but don’t underestimate this ragin’ Cajun.
His quiet and thoughtful demeanor has surprised many naysayers. And his offer of compromise in the moment when (frankly) the state has the ultimate authority (moral and legal), well… that pragmatism and humility is refreshing.
Yep, there’s lots of noise. And mountains of cynicism and political preening. We’ve seen that before. However, I see two leaders exercising restraint, humility and a sense of mission.
We can take a breath and stop trying to win. We can work together to honestly do our best to improve the lives of kids with disabilities. And to do right by all our students and our teachers.
I urge the JCPS and state board to forge a compromise. This moment in time is a real test of your leadership as well. The proof’s in the pudding. Please invest in our kids, not legal briefs.
Donovan A. Fornwalt is chief executive of The Council on Developmental Disabilities.