Senator Joe Schiavoni, Ohio’s Senate Minority Leader, and State Representative Michele Lepore-Hagan spent the summer holding community meetings throughout Youngstown, Ohio to develop strategies to amend the Ohio legislature’s autocratically imposed Youngstown school takeover. Their goal: develop political will in Youngstown to demand that the Youngstown plan be bent to support the needs of Youngstown’s children and families. I had the privilege of talking with these two community leaders last week.
The new Youngstown takeover, which expands what has for 10 years been state involvement in the Youngstown City Schools, prescribes that the district be managed by an appointed Distress Commission instead of the local school board. The takeover was sprung on an unsuspecting public at an afternoon hearing in late June when Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner introduced a 66-page amendment to a bill with widespread popular support—to expand Community Learning Centers in Ohio. (“Community Learning Center” is Ohio’s term for what the rest of the country calls full-service, wraparound “Community Schools” that locate health and dental clinics, social service coordination, afterschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, and summer enrichment programs right in school buildings. Cincinnati has been experimenting very successfully with expanding the number of these schools. The Children’s Aid Society in New York City has been developing this model for 20 years now.) When Senator Lehner introduced to the Community Learning Center bill her amendment for the Youngstown takeover—along with the state takeover in the future of any school district with three years of “F” school ratings—the amendment had been written and polished for several months by staff in Governor John Kasich’s office and the Ohio Department of Education, working secretly with a handful of carefully selected community “leaders” from Youngstown.
The goal of the takeover was always to turn the district or particular schools over to a charter management organization. Not coincidentally, the Youngstown takeover was the centerpiece of a charter school expansion grant proposal submitted by the Ohio Department of Education in July to the U.S. Department of Education and subsequently funded. The Youngstown takeover amendment states that an Academic Distress Commission, in consultation with the State Superintendent, may create an entity to act as a “high-quality school accelerator” to promote new charter schools. The CEO of the Distress Commission may abrogate or renegotiate any contracts and collective bargaining agreements.
State takeovers always happen in very poor, often desperate communities—New Orleans, post Katrina—Detroit—Newark, New Jersey. In his 2013 book The Unwinding, George Packer traces the story of Tammy Thomas, a proud Youngstown resident who describes what has happened to Youngstown during her lifetime: “I grew up in a place where you could sit on my front porch and you could smell the sulfur in the air… And everybody in that community was working. We were a hundred fifty thousand people at that time… One day, the jobs left. September of ’77, the mills stopped working. We lost over fifty thousand jobs within a ten-year time frame. I was fortunate enough as an adult that I was able to get a job at Packard (Electric). Eleven thousand jobs in its heyday, down to three thousand jobs, and when we all left it had less than six hundred jobs. I just want to let you know that story of Youngstown is the epitome of any older industrial city across the United States.” (p. 412)
In the most recent 2010 data I could locate, 86.68 percent of the students in Youngstown’s public schools qualify for the federal free lunch program. To qualify for free lunch, a child’s family must have annual earnings under 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,250 in 2015 for a family of four), less than $31,525. The percentage of Youngstown’s school children qualifying for free-or-reduced-price lunch, 90.38 percent, is only slightly higher. The fact that so many children fall into the free-lunch category means that Youngstown’s schools serve a student population living in highly concentrated poverty. Last week Senator Schiavoni explained that Youngstown already has an open enrollment program that permits children to transfer to surrounding school districts or charter schools and Youngstown’s children qualify for Ohio’s private school vouchers. He speculates that the Youngstown schools are serving approximately 50 percent of the children who live in Youngstown and that many of the children who have left are those whose parents are able to be most active advocates. The children enrolled in Youngstown’s public schools are the city’s most vulnerable.
Although many poor children can and do thrive at school, the aggregate test scores in our nation’s poorest cities are primarily a reflection of the concentrated poverty of the residents. In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112) State takeovers that impose privatized school governance in impoverished communities ignore the correlation of test scores and family poverty and blame the schools and their teachers.
After the legislature’s sudden seizing of the governance of Youngstown’s schools, Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan immediately set up a town hall to hear the community’s response to the state takeover and then scheduled meetings across the city during the remainder of the summer to listen to the needs of parents, students and residents of Youngstown. Senator Schiavoni reports that, “One of the most common critiques from the stakeholder meetings was the disconnect in communication between parents, the community and the schools. Parents want to be involved as partners as the plan moves forward.” Schavoni and Lepore-Hagan have introduced a bill (companion bills in the Ohio Senate and Ohio House) to amend and modify the plan. Their bill demands transparency from the members of the Distress Commission that has just been appointed and from the CEO the Distress Commission will appoint. Their proposed bill reflects parents’ wishes that promising existing practices not be thrown out as a new experiment is instituted—programs that pair Youngstown State University tutors with second graders, and model afterschool programming and community partnerships with churches, the United Way, the YMCA, and the university. Lepore-Hagan explains that the proposed amendment to improve the Youngstown Plan requires that the CEO meet personally each month with an eleven-member School Action Team from each of the city’s schools.
Schiavoni and Lepore-Hagan emphasize one provision of the takeover and the original bill to which it was amended—for wraparound Community Learning Centers. Their proposed bill insists that at least one Community Learning Center (what the rest of the country calls a Community School) be established in Youngstown. “The CEO should implement a CLC model in at least one of the school buildings in the district.” “The CEO should work to expand much-needed mental health, drug treatment, dental, and physician services and other community programs…. The CEO should employ a Resource Coordinator for the District to assist in the development and coordination of programs and services for the District Community Learning Centers.”
The flavor-of-the-day in school reform across so many statehouses is for autocratic takeover and charterization of the poorest school districts. State takeovers have not succeeded anywhere they have been tried. Ohio’s Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan are pushing back with a plan that models democratic engagement.