Michael S. Wotorson: Improving National Childhood Learning from Grassroots to the State House - Early Learning Nation

Michael S. Wotorson: Improving National Childhood Learning from Grassroots to the State House

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2023 National Black Child Development Institute’s annual conference in Charlotte, NC. We had rich and illuminating conversations with early learning researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners of all ages. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

The Schott Foundation gathered grassroots organizations from across the country for the Opportunity to Learn Federal Policy Commission. On the eve of their recommendations becoming public, the Commission’s Director, Michael S. Wotorson, discusses why they came together and how their ideas will influence school board actions, local municipal leadership and state policy.

Chris Riback: Michael, thank you for coming by the studio.

Michael S. Wotorson: Absolutely. Thank you for inviting me.

Chris Riback: So first tell me about the Schott Foundation. What’s its mission? What do you do?

Michael S. Wotorson: Absolutely. The Schott Foundation is a public philanthropic intermediary, which basically means we work with larger philanthropies to connect them to the field that we support and the field that we support is primarily the education justice field.

Chris Riback: And what is the Opportunity To Learn Federal Policy Commission? Who is it comprised of? Why did it come about?

Michael S. Wotorson: So the OTL Policy Commission is really an intentional collection of traditional civil rights organizations, large organizations that have a great deal of history interacting and representing the aspirations of community at the federal level. And we pulled those organizations together intentionally with a group of smaller grassroots organization. The goal of this effort really is to ensure that we can develop a set of policy recommendations that is intentionally and authentically community informed.

Chris Riback: And where do you pull these organizations from? Are they nationwide? Are they in just one region? Where do you find them?

Michael S. Wotorson: They are nationwide, particularly as it relates to the grassroots organizations that I mentioned earlier. They are all part of the opportunity to learn network. The OTL network is a coalition, if you will, or a combination of Schott Foundation grantee partners all across the country. So a number of those grassroots partners that we resource and work with.

Chris Riback: And how long has the commission been in existence?

Michael S. Wotorson: The commission has been together for about two years. We spent the first year of our time together really sort of building consensus around a set of values-based principles, recognizing that it was really important for us to do that prior to trying to work on shared policy recommendations. So we’re moving into our second year now.

Chris Riback: Is defining principles challenging because do groups not necessarily agree on the specific principles? Or is the challenge that there are so many topics and areas to potentially address that it’s about prioritization?

Michael S. Wotorson: It’s absolutely the latter. The organizations that we work with in the communities that we support, they all agree, they all fit in the same space as far as principles. But when you start talking about specific policy recommendations, that’s where you have to be a little more careful. And so the effort here was to first make sure that we all are aligned around principles, give us some awesome space to recognize what we share in common as far as principles, and use that as an intentional springboard to begin focusing on specific policy recommendations.

Chris Riback: And on those recommendations, as of this moment, you and me sitting here together, you have not yet publicly announced them. Can you give me some insight, some overview as to what perhaps those recommendations from the commission, what they might cover?

Michael S. Wotorson: Absolutely. I can tell you, which is extremely appropriate for our being here today at NBCDI. There is going to be specific policy recommendation language around early childhood education and early childcare. There will certainly be recommendation language around increasing the equitable distribution of public school resources, funds, and the like. But you’re right, I can’t speak specifically to their recommendations until we move into the actual launch in a couple of weeks.

Chris Riback: And so when people see this and it’s in the future, where do they go to see the actual recommendations?

Michael S. Wotorson: So the recommendations will be housed on the Schott Foundation website, which is schottfoundation.org. But I suspect they will also be available on websites of our various other organizations that’s form part of the commission.

Chris Riback: And who are the policymakers that these recommendations are meant to target? I mean, I think originally it’s the Opportunity To Learn Federal Policy Commission. Is it really at the federal level or do you also deal and hope to influence state and/or local actors?

Michael S. Wotorson: We absolutely hope to influence and shape state level conversations and even to some degree local conversations because in essence, what these recommendations cover, just to make it real for our current conversations, our variety of the kinds of issues that are being talked about today at the NBCDI conference, a lot of those have specifically to do with school board actions, local municipal leadership, and certainly state policy as well. So ultimately, while these are federal policy recommendations, we do believe and hope that the essence of what we’re talking about will have broad applicability for advocates, parents, communities, and family members also to raise at the local and state level.

Chris Riback: And so of course, what’s next? What’s next for the Schott Foundation?

Michael S. Wotorson: The Schott Foundation is really trying to lean into the federal policy space, but we’re also trying to lean into the research and analysis space as well. And here’s why that’s important. Advocates raise issues of concern to them, but very often without the benefit and the supporting background, if you will, of research. And very often there are research conversations that happen around the world, around the country that sometimes are divorced, unfortunately from local and state level advocacy conversations. And so The Schott Foundation is trying to build a bridge, if you will, between the two. And we’re certainly leaning into the space that we’ve really always leaned into, which is to be of assistance to the larger philanthropic community in terms of what it means to lean into support for a larger grassroots community of voices, trying to lift up key issues around education justice, whether it’s what’s happening in the schoolhouse, whether it’s happening with regard to public transportation, housing, any number of these quality of life issues that ultimately impact a young person’s opportunity to learn.

Chris Riback: Plenty of bridges to be built.

Michael S. Wotorson: Indeed, indeed.

Chris Riback: Michael, thank you for the work that you do. Thank you for coming by the studio.

Michael S. Wotorson: Absolutely. Thank you.


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