Trial by Fire: Advocating for Opportunities for ALL Ohio Students

Kirsten Halling, OFLA Public Relations and Advocacy Chair
Professor, Wright State University

20516 Faculty Awards Winners 9-18-18, MODERN LANGUAGES Professor, Kirsten Halling

Advocacy comes naturally to language instructors, who are constantly faced with questions like, “What can you do with a language besides travel and teaching?” or, “Why learn a language when everyone speaks English?” As a veteran French professor at a public university, where my first task in 2000 was to grow a failing program, I learned to tout every victory, every opportunity that studying French would give the students, and every door that French opened for them, both professionally and personally. To this day, in all levels of classes, I make specific references to the cultural relativism they develop in my classes, to their heightened understanding of their own language, to their improved communication and presentational skills, to their critical thinking, and their quick reflexes – just to name a few of the life skills they cultivate through the study of a world language. Advocacy is an integral part of what we do as language instructors, and while we may feel frustrated about having to prove our worth, we understand implicitly that what we hold to be self-evident is not a universally shared conviction.

Given my long experience with advocacy, I thought I was prepared to assume the position as OFLA’s Chair of Public Relations and Advocacy on July 1st, when the admirable Angela Gardner stepped down and handed me the reins. I had been preparing for the role by reading through every bit of information that Angela had handed me and I had assembled an amazing team from different backgrounds and in a variety of language teaching positions. In a spring 2021 letter writing campaign and through public testimony, Angela had been strongly opposing OAC Item 3301-35-04, an amendment to the Ohio Administrative Code that would give public and non-public charter school districts the right to forego offering a world language, as well as other subjects such as technology, family and consumer sciences, and business education. Our opposition to this amendment was largely on the grounds that students affected by these cuts would hail from poor urban or rural districts, thus depriving them of equal opportunities in education and furthering the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Our task was to prove to the Board of Education that world language study does indeed provide opportunities for professional advancement and self-betterment.

Given the progress that Angela and her team had made, the many advisors I consulted believed that the item would simply die a slow death, never making it to the next step. However, the opposite was unfortunately true. The item was quietly slipped into the Ohio School Board’s meeting agenda for September 21, which I noticed when I performed a perfunctory monthly check of the agenda. With less than a week to prepare, the committee met and developed a strategy. Experienced language advocate Terri Marlow and I were to meet in Columbus to speak at the Board of Education meeting; our social media representative Sarah Shackelford plastered Facebook and Twitter with requests for letters; committee members Roger Anderson and Derek Petrey sent in written testimony; and Geri Atanassova prepared an Action Alert. In addition, all of us used our own social media to raise awareness and gather support. In oral testimony at the Board of Education Meeting, Terri insisted upon the difference between requiring schools to offer a language and requiring students study a language for high school graduation. We were simply protecting language ACCESS, not pushing for new graduation requirements. As a university professor, I insisted on the fact that in Ohio, students who study a world language in high school may obtain Prior Learning Assessment credit for their high school studies, thus reducing the number of classes they need for college graduation. 

Despite our best efforts and the fact that many school board members were clearly supportive of language study, the amendment disappointingly moved on to JCARR (Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review), a necessary step in amending the Ohio Administrative Code. Prior to the hearing, PR & Advocacy members contacted the Lieutenant Governor, head of the Common Sense Initiative, who had already shown opposition to this amendment to alert him and his team to the fact that it was on the docket, again. In addition, three  members began action alerts on a national level, and I asked for the highest level of help from our national language advocacy committee JNCL-NCLIS (Joint National Committee for Languages – National Council for Languages and International Studies).  Members Terri, Roger, and I attended a Zoom meeting with Jon Bernstein, Chief Lobbyist and Director of Government Relations; Howie Berman, Director of ACTFL; and Amanda Seewald, JNCL President. Among the many things we learned from this meeting was the very important fact that other than in 3301-35-04, the Ohio Code has no requirement for districts to provide world language instruction, and that it was possible that many lawmakers were not aware of this. This became our leitmotif and was a powerful tool in the JCARR oral and written testimony.

The JCARR Meeting was held on Tuesday, October 12, during which Terri Marlow gave factual and convincing testimony against changes to 3301-35-04. After her testimony, JCARR voted to invalidate the rule, then sent it on to the Ohio House of Representatives. On October 14, we learned that the House had unanimously invalidated the rule. The next step was the Ohio Senate, where OAS 3301-35-04 was fully invalidated by unanimous vote on October 20! Our battle, begun under the mandate of Angela Gardner and finished as I was just cutting my teeth, was finally over. All districts (including non-public charter schools) must continue to provide language instruction to their students. As such, world languages will remain accessible to Ohio students, who will continue to dream of life beyond their immediate horizons and delight in cultural differences, while learning to express themselves in new and exciting ways.

Despite this victory, it is clear that the battle for world language instruction is not over. Advocacy should not always involve defensive plays! The best advocacy is proactive, especially when it is centered upon our students’ journey with world languages, their progress, their enthusiasm, and their intellectual development as world citizens. For this reason, I urge you all, my fellow language instructors, to promote, promote, promote! Take pictures and write articles for your school or local newspaper, showing off your students’ work and success stories. Invite guest speakers and publicize the events. Interview your students about how languages have helped them do well on standardized tests or excel at Quiz Bowl or get into their dream college. Keep recruiting through your language clubs, and document your attendance and activities. Submit articles and your ideas for world language promotion to The Cardinal! Don’t let your victories go unnoticed. Our very existence depends on our ability to advocate for our discipline.

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