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Retired Journal Gazette editor continues fight for public schools

Karen Francisco Anne Duff
Fort Wayne Community Schools Board President Anne Duff presents Karen Francisco with the district's first Friend of Public Education Award at the school board meeting on February 19, 2022.

So just to start, you retired from the position of Editorial Page Editor at The Journal Gazette in December. Can you take me through how you got started as a journalist and what led you to becoming such an advocate for public education?

Well, I'm a second generation newspaper editor. My father was in the business his entire career. And he actually retired as an editorial page editor. Grew up in Muncie went to (Indiana University) and Ball State and started working while I was still at Ball State for the Muncie Evening Press. And my first assignment actually was covering schools and Ball State in, in Muncie. I did that later became the editorial page editor of the Muncie New Press, and came to Fort Wayne in 2000 as an editorial writer, because I love doing that job and was eager to get back into opinion writing.

When I came here, because of my experience, writing about schools, I sort of gravitated to those topics. And that kind of became my niches and editorial writer. And it sort of coincided with a time in Indiana when the so called "school reform" effort was starting, I say so called because reform is a subjective term, whether or not the schools needed to be reformed or not.

It turned out to be the start of a tremendous school choice push in Indiana, to the detriment of Indiana's public schools. And I just felt rather fortunate to be in a position where I could speak out against that sometimes I felt like I was the only person speaking out about that. But the more I learned about the effort to privatize schools, to advance school choice, the more I felt it was necessary to step up as an advocate.

Recently, you received an award from Fort Wayne Community Schools for being a Friend of the Schools. But you don't seem to shy away from calling out elected officials on social media, even if it leads to a little bit of backlash from them or their base. So especially while you were still with the journal, did you ever feel any sort of fear or hesitancy at receiving that public scrutiny?

I found it surprising and sad that elected officials were catering to a very small vocal minority. Indiana public schools serve 88 percent of Indiana students, the vast majority of our kids go to public schools. And within that group, a very small vocal group began speaking up on certain topics, and a handful of public officials suddenly took up their cause.

And I think that's really unfortunate. Over the last couple of years, we've lost some really talented administrative officials, some top ranked superintendents in the State of Indiana have decided it's just not worth it. They've been run out or decided they'll go elsewhere. It's not unique to Indiana, but it has been pretty strong here.

And I was hesitant while I was still working to be too vocal because I didn't want to appear to be the face of the Journal Gazette. That said, I was fortunate to work for a publisher, Julie Inskeep, who herself was a strong advocate for public schools. In that respect, I felt emboldened I guess, to speak truth to power, when some public officials were misrepresenting, actually what's going on in public schools.

The legislative session ended earlier this month. And there were a few controversial bills affecting education that were being tossed around, namely House Bill 1134, which did die at the Senate. Why do you think that that bill specifically caused such a loud outcry from educators and advocates?

Probably because it did seem to be such an incursion into classroom matters. And, that was the result of this canard of critical race theory being taught in our schools, which is so far from the truth, just the suggestion that that was happening.

But then I think teachers began to become concerned about how far exactly could go and I think we've seen it happen in some other states there have been some appalling stories about teachers and administrators being challenged for things they've been doing for years. And these are, these are the experts and why people are willing to allow perhaps a disgruntled parent to carry on some sort of vendetta against a teacher or administrator and always trust that parent over educated, trained, experienced educators makes no sense.

I have been surprised that Indiana teachers in particular, don't start to see the pattern of having to fight every year against these kinds of efforts or for adequate funding in their classrooms. They really rally in the spring or winter and the spring to fight against these bills and then come November and election time they reelect the same people.

I keep wondering when there's going to be an effort to say we need to elect officials who support public schools.

So now that House Bill 1134 is dead, what do you think is perhaps the biggest issue facing public education in the state of Indiana?

There's so much and I sometimes worry that it's too late. I don't think Indiana voters Indiana residents understand how far Indiana has gone down this privatization path. Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, just this past week, voted down another attempt to pass vouchers. School policies that have long been in place in Indiana have never caught on in some other states that they they recognize that that is bad public policy, to give taxpayer money to private schools.

They know that there's a set amount of money and any money that's going to unaccountable private schools is money that's not going to our public schools, our neighborhood schools.

So I think there are going to be concerns along the way as we see some of these policies, the effects of these policies come to fruition. So that may be the next thing.

Since your retirement, how have you been continuing to advocate for public education? And how do you expect to continue in the future?

Well, I guess on social media, I am still fairly active and trying to keep an eye on, during the session, for example, what was going on and given 40 years in Indiana journalism, I feel that I have somewhat of a perspective that others don't have. I also keep a pretty close eye on what's happening nationally. So I know what other states are doing in terms of school policy, and I try to share that.

I continue to support my public schools. I'm an active classroom volunteer each year through Junior Achievement. I started doing it because it was a good way to get into the schools and actually find out what's going on.

So many people, they haven't stepped foot in a school since they were in school or since their children left school. Schools have changed so much over the years. And it's really amazing what our teachers do today. And what they've done over the last two years during COVID to support families, to support children is really inspiring. And I think people would be surprised if they did spend some time in classrooms.

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.