Ronald Sandlin was a 2016 Public Policy Fellow. During his time in the fellowship, Ronald worked in the Indiana Governor's Office, where he supported education-related legislation throughout the session.
Explain what led you to care deeply about educational equity.
I do not consider myself special or unique; however, data would suggest that I should not be where I am today. I check a lot of the boxes that experts like to designate as qualifiers for 'high needs' status: the son of a single mother, recipient of free/reduced price lunch, exposure to drugs and violence at a young age, etc.
Like many children who grow up under similar circumstances, I lived in the shadow of a "drop-out factory," a high school where less than 60% of the freshman class make it to graduation. Unlike many of these children, I never stepped foot on that campus. I was afforded the opportunity to attend a tuition-free public magnet school within my school district from grades 6 - 12 — and it changed the trajectory of my life.
Every day growing up, while I took a bus across town to one of the best high schools in the country, my friends walked into one of the worst. While I experienced a challenging curriculum and a welcoming environment, my friends experienced apathy and indifference. While I was encouraged to dream big, my friends were reminded of all the reasons not to.
I have come to realize that I am not special. Every one of my friends had the capacity to experience the successes I have experienced in my life, and some have. Afforded the same educational opportunity I received, I have no doubt more students like me would overcome the challenges they face to fulfill their full potential and lead a life of self-determination, free from the chains of poverty and desperation. I know because I lived it. I am a proof point, and over the years have met so many others just like me to believe any different.
How did the Public Policy Fellowship (PPF) help you in your mission to end educational inequity?
PPF provided me access to a position and agency that I otherwise would not have had. Since my fellowship, I have joined staff full-time and carved out a role that is near and dear to my heart.
I facilitate the board's work around chronically under-performing schools across the state. I am afforded the opportunity to challenge school and corporation leaders to dream big when thinking about school redesign, with the clear purpose of changing the way schools work in those communities where the current system no longer effectively serves students. My current role is directly tied to my values and mission as an educational leader, and I never could have gotten here without the opportunity afforded to me though PPF.
What role has your identity played in your leadership and success?
My external identity is largely defined as a college-educated white male; however, I grapple with what people can't see: the impact of my experiences growing up in a low-income community. My tone is sometimes considered brash or abrasive, and I lack a deference to authority which sometimes leads me to ask questions or make comments that others deem inappropriate given my audience.
Simultaneously, my identity is what sets me apart. The willingness to say the tough things and stand up to authority can often elevate one's leadership in the eyes of their peers. I have found that others look to me when things get tough because I am not only able, but willing to clearly articulate the issues at play and help everyone get to work resolving them.
As I mature and grow, organizations like LEE help me reflect on my identity and how it manifests itself in my work in an effort to capitalize on the strengths and harness areas where it may make me vulnerable. Trusted and authentic feedback is hard to come by, and I can always find it with LEE and my fellow LEE members.
What is your vision for ending educational inequity in the U.S.?
Ending educational inequity will require a multi-faceted approach where policymakers create an environment that fosters innovation, communities unite to invest in a shared system of public schools that is designed to address their unique needs, and bold leaders challenge biases, fostering a shared belief and responsibility in the success of every child.
What do you see as your role in achieving this vision?
I am currently focused on developing an environment that encourages and supports innovation. However, I never miss an opportunity to challenge others to contribute in different ways. Recently, a superintendent was expressing frustration that so many parents were taking their children to the surrounding school corporations. In his comments, he was inadvertently indicting these families for choosing the best option for their children. I suggested to him that he encourage parent choice, but challenge them not to abdicate their responsibility as a member of his school community.
While they may send their children to surrounding corporations, it is up to the leadership of this corporation to keep them engaged and encourage them to contribute their resources and capacity to their local schools. This is an example of the community building aspect of the work. The adults within the system are not going to eliminate inequity on their own. We all need to bring the resources we have to bear to the table, as we are all responsible for the success of our community.
What advice would you give to current Public Policy Fellows?
Listen and learn. Read the history of your work from multiple perspectives. We often frame issues from our own perspective. For example, school choice is typically framed as privatizing education or empowering parents. In reality, it is a nuanced issue that deserves rigorous thought and analysis. Contribute your efforts to that conversation. Study where the folks on the other side of the issue are coming from. You are likely to learn that their motivation and stance are understandable, although you may disagree.
Use this opportunity to be courageous (within reason). Ask leaders in the organization to meet for coffee, volunteer to take on responsibilities, and carve out space where you can be your authentic self within your placement. Basically, do not passively participate in your fellowship. Rather, proactively seek out opportunities and professional development, and make this experience valuable for you as much as you bring value to the organization. Consider the possibility that you may be wrong.
LEE members, myself included, are often driven by deep moral convictions derived from their values, lived experience, or other sources. This drive can unintentionally lead one to a feeling of self-righteousness or moral high ground. It is important to always keep in mind that you may be wrong. Not your values or beliefs, but how they manifest themselves into the solutions you see for the issues that plague our society. Be open to new ideas and to iterating on your own.