In Ohio, school districts are on the ballot with local property tax levies in this turbulent November election season. Here are the conditions under which our school districts—including the Cleveland school district this fall—find themselves on the ballot:
- Ohio has a statewide tax rollback embedded in the state constitution. When property values appreciate, the state effectively rolls back the local millage to keep the district’s revenue collection from any levy equal to the amount generated on the date the levy first passed. Even in these times when values are not appreciating significantly, our tax freeze ensures that school districts have to be on the ballot every few years just to stay even.
- The state has also imposed a test-based accountability system that generates school district grades—the state report cards that copy Jeb Bush’s plan in Florida and that award letter grades to school districts based on standardized test scores.
- These grades essentially force school superintendents to promise that test scores will rise—a sort of quid pro quo for citizens’ willingness to invest in the levies. While some voters will always support school taxes as a public obligation, the school districts that cannot quickly raise scores are perceived as reneging on these promises—encouraging some voters to vote against school levies as a punishment for superintendents, principals and teachers who can’t seem to raise the test scores.
- There are also the state tax cuts—to business taxes and estate taxes and income taxes over the past decade—that increase every school district’s reliance on local property taxes.
- And finally, in Cleveland, the public schools—individually graded by the state with the same letter grades—compete actively with charter schools that now receive some of the local levy dollars under a so-called “portfolio school reform” plan. The stakes are high because the closure of so-called “failing” schools hangs as a looming threat.
It is in this context that in Sunday’s Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell reported extensively on Sean Reardon’s recent research that correlates standardized test scores with the aggregate family income of the students in a school district. (See Reardon’s papers here and here.) O’Donnell summarizes Reardon’s findings: “Students in the affluent Aurora and Bay Village schools are typically two years ahead of students from across the country. Meanwhile, students in the Cleveland and East Cleveland schools are about two years behind. Just don’t pat yourself on the back for high scores or hurl insults at the struggling urban districts. You’re all just fitting, almost exactly, a national pattern.” O’Donnell continues: “Just within Cuyahoga County, there is a 5.1-grade learning gap in between the lowest-scoring district for the years studied, Warrensville Heights (-2.4), and the highest, Solon (+2.7)… Across all of Ohio, the largest gap is more than six years of learning between the top-scoring Wyoming schools north of Cincinnati and the lowest-scoring Buckeye United schools 25 miles south of Columbus.” O’Donnell includes a searchable graphic by which you can find out how your own and other school districts score among the more than 11,000 school districts that are part of Reardon’s enormous data base.
Reardon is the Stanford University sociologist who has set out to study the impact of growing economic inequality among families on children’s school achievement, and O’Donnell quotes Reardon extensively: “Students in many of the most advantaged school districts have test scores that are more than four grade levels above those of students in the most disadvantaged districts… The socioeconomic context of a school district is a very powerful predictor of students’ academic performance.” That is, of course, in the aggregate. We all know wealthy students who have fallen far behind in school and the press regularly shares the warm stories of homeless students who have triumphed and made their way to Harvard.
O’Donnell continues, quoting Reardon: “We have little evidence that we know how to provide adequate educational opportunities for children growing up in low-income communities… Average test scores in a district should not be interpreted as a measure of school quality… Test scores and academic performance more generally are shaped by many factors other than schools. They are shaped by children’s families, their home environments, their neighborhood contexts, their child care and pre-school experiences, after school experiences, and by their schools… Average test scores are more appropriately interpreted as a measure of the educational opportunities available to children living within a district.” In one of his academic papers, Reardon warns that the conclusions raise many further questions: “Our findings should not be taken as causal estimates; as we argue here, the forces producing racial/ethnic inequality in educational outcomes are complex, interactive, and self-reinforcing, meaning that correlational analyses may not be predictive of the effects of changing social or educational conditions.”
Reardon and colleagues authored a third paper this year that explores some of the ways rising economic inequality may be driving an increase in income segregation across school districts—a trend that school accountability plans with their ranking and rating of school districts may be exacerbating: “Income segregation between schools and school districts increased from 1990 to 2010… The increase between 1990 and 2010 was driven not by increasing segregation of the poorest families from all others but by the lower-middle class becoming more segregated from the upper-middle class and the affluent. That said, between-district segregation of FLE (Free Lunch Eligible) and non-FLE students did increase from 1990-2010… One driver of the growth in income segregation between districts and schools is rising income inequality… Parents have become increasingly concerned about ensuring their children’s success in a more competitive labor market, and as district and school information has become more readily available, parents can more easily make fine-grained distinctions to identify their preferred schools. Rising income inequality provides high-income families with the resources to realize this preference, resulting in increased sorting by income across school districts, schools, and neighborhoods.”
As Ohio grades its schools and school districts with “As” and “Bs” and “Cs” and “Ds” and “Fs,” it is pretty clear that the ratings create the distinctions—whether fine-grained or not—used by parents to find the highest rated place they can afford. Real estate websites like Zillow brand whole neighborhoods and communities with the state’s school district grades. The school district rating systems are redlining the school districts that serve the poorest students and driving out-migration and exurban growth. Reardon further describes the likely political implications—especially in a state like Ohio, that brags about “no unvoted taxes” and where all school districts must be on the ballot every few years—of such school district rating systems to undermine the very school districts that accountability-driven school “reform” promised to improve: “(H)igh levels of income segregation may affect political support for public education. High-income families generally have more political influence than low-income families, and high-income families in highly segregated metropolitan areas have little incentive to advocate for increases in metropolitan-or state-wide school funding if their own high-income district has substantial resources. Future research should directly test whether the growth in income segregation documented here accounts for the growing income achievement gap.”