Phyllis Bush, champion of public schools

Public schools lost a true champion with the death this week of Phyllis Bush, a retired Fort Wayne teacher and tireless activist who inspired us all with her with her truth-telling and optimism.

Phyllis Bush, right, and Donna Roof

Phyllis Bush, right, and Donna Roof at the 2018 Network for Public Education conference.

Her passion for public schools was in no way abstract or ideological. It came from experience and relationships. She taught school for 32 years, including 24 years at Fort Wayne South Side High School. And she radiated love and loyalty for her fellow teachers and former students.

When she spoke out against school vouchers and charter schools, it was because she hated what they were doing to her beloved public schools and the 90 percent of students who attend them.

She died Tuesday after a lengthy battle against cancer, which she chronicled in a blog that she referred to, with characteristic humor, as “Cancer Schmantzer.”

A longtime advocate for Indiana public schools, she took her work nationwide five years ago when she became a founding board member of the Network for Public Education. Co-founder Diane Ravitch said she immediately realized she was in the presence of “a force of nature” when she met Phyllis.

“She was loved and respected by everyone with whom she came into contact,” Ravitch wrote this week. “We will miss her. I will miss her.”

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, called her “a lifelong teacher” who captivated people and kept them close with her deep sense of caring. She related stories of Phyllis’ influence on students and colleagues and recalled the joy that friends shared when Phyllis married her longtime companion Donna Roof in December.

I met Phyllis and Donna several years ago when they came to Bloomington for a discussion program sponsored by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County. We stayed in touch via Facebook and Twitter, and when Phyllis shared a School Matters post with her followers … well, that was inspiration to keep writing.

I’m grateful that I got to see her again last fall in Indianapolis at the national meeting of the Network for Public Education. And that I got to see her beam with pride as the inaugural Phyllis Bush Award for Grassroots Organizing was presented to the activists from Save Our Schools Arizona.

I was going to write that we can honor Phyllis’ legacy by contributing to the award fund. Or by redoubling our efforts to support public schools and pro-education policies. And it’s true, we can, and should. But Phyllis’ vision of doing good in the world wasn’t limited to causes or issues. Her final posts, written with death drawing near, are filled with faith, love and gratitude.

“As I think about those whom I love,” she wrote, “I want them to know that everything will be okay. I may not be present physically, but I will be nudging you to do better, to be better, to be kind, to be joyful, and to laugh at yourself and the world around you.”

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