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The Reluctant Troublemaker (Part 2)

This article series is part of a Special
Section on “Volunteerism and Civic Engagement” that is currently running
in the January/February 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor
Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on
the print issue.

This is Part 2 of a three part series. Watch for Part 3 next Monday, February 14, 2011. To see Part 1, click the link in the ‘Related Articles’ box at the bottom of this page.

Jill Tao

Discretion is the better of valor. It is good to be brave, but it is also good to be careful; if you are careful, you will not get into situations that require you to be brave.–Proverb

Faced with growing budget shortfalls, then-governor Linda Lingle, serving in her last two years of a “lame duck” term, decided to make across-the-board cuts. The justification offered was that everyone should share the burden “equally”.

But of course, this hit the agencies with the most vulnerable populations the hardest, and it was no surprise when advocacy groups for those populations protested the cuts and pushed back against the proposal. However, the public schools issue was different, partly because of the size of the DoE, and perhaps more importantly, because the teachers’ union was seen as a powerful ally for public schools. Surely they would make decisions that were in the best interests of the teachers AND the students, or so the thinking went.

The governor was in no mood to negotiate, especially as she eyed the potential of future public office in the state. She presented the budget as a dire document, with no room for leniency, and her hands as tied. The union stuck to its guns in making sure class sizes remained reasonable and teachers retained their jobs. The only weak link was the question of furloughs. And so, after months of negotiations, a decision was made in September 2009 to begin furloughs for teachers in October. The outcry started when the calendar highlighting the furlough days was published: every single Friday, 34 days in all, over a two-year period, would be furloughed. Rather than place the days at the ends of the calendar so that instruction would be continuous, the agreement brokered scattered them throughout the year in order to retain benefits for the teachers. It was a nightmarish example of a political compromise that shoved the brunt of the decision onto the backs of those who could do nothing about it–public school students.

As is so often the case in calls to public action, the difficult decisions are not the big ones–should I throw in my lot with this group of enraged parents or should I sit by and see how things unfold? That decision was easy–of course, I was going to get involved. To do nothing would be tantamount to agreeing that this was acceptable policy, and as an instructor of policy and procedure, that would have been the height of hypocrisy. The more difficult decisions are the daily ones– How will we be effective? How might my expertise be put to the best use? Will I face a conflict of interests if I’m walking around the state Capitol, talking to elected officials about how to roll back this hideous decision?

It became clear fairly early on that those involved in the decision considered this a done deal, and any attempt to end furloughs was going to be an uphill battle. After a rally held at the state Capitol on October 23, and visits to legislative leadership failed to get any movement, our group (Save Our Schools Hawaii) decided to start planning strategies for garnering support. Early on, we utilized technology to try and gather more like-minded parents. We established a website using the tools widely available to many grassroots organizations, and created a listserv, adding members who signed up at rallies and events that were held around the state. We also emphasized our role as parents of public school children. Our professions were never mentioned, and for those of us with ties to the university, we were careful to make sure we engaged with different parties as members of the public and as parents and students, not as academics. We did not hide these affiliations, but almost no one ever asked. In the multiple interviews held with the press and television media, our roles as parents were the roles that defined us.

We tried to partner with other groups with a similar goal, and found that this was useful for large events that required warm bodies, but organizationally draining. In the interest of maintaining a presence in the minds of decision-makers, we learned how to write press releases, talk to reporters, and how to post our own videos of events on-line. As the campaign to end Furlough Fridays, a name coined by the press, wore on, we added a Facebook page and Twitter accounts, and ended up with followers in the halls of government, as well as the general public. Use of these tools allowed our group the opportunity to present our own evidence to the larger public of our mission (end the furloughs–get the kids back in school, and support the teachers in the process), even when there were political powerhouses putting out their own version of events. (see “Save Our Schools Hawaii: Tactical Media in a Digital Age”) It also meant that we gathered followers well beyond the borders of the state. The Associated Press began showing up at our events, and soon there were calls from the New York Times—The Huffington Post began to follow the story. Through all this, the group managed to keep its presence public and the pressure on. We gave testimony at the legislature, set up meetings with all the key decision-makers in the process, and seemed to slowly be making progress. Public opinion seemed to be turning in our favor by the time the legislative session was underway in late January, and politicians tend to pay attention when this happens. There was one exception: the Governor’s Office.

Jill
Tao is an associate professor of public administration at the
University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She is also a founding member of
SaveOurSchools (SOS) Hawaii, a grassroots organization created in
October 2009 to oppose and force a repeal of the state’s decision to
furlough public school teachers for 34 days. Email: [email protected]

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