For a long time the state of Ohio has used its school report cards, derived primarily from the aggregate standardized test scores from particular schools and school districts, as the measure of educational quality. Ohio follows up with punitive measures for the low scoring schools and districts. Next school year, Ohio is likely to crack down and impose punishments on far more school districts.
In last Sunday’s Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell reported that after imposing tougher tests based on the Common Core Standards in 2015, Ohio created a “safe harbor” for school districts to adjust to the new tests. As the 2019-2020 school year begins, however, that safe harbor will expire. O’Donnell warns about a radical expansion of school choice as the number of schools and school districts with low test scores jumps:
“Ohio has long made school choice options like charter schools and vouchers… dependent on how well a student’s home school district scores on state tests. When the local public school scores poorly, Ohio law allows charter schools to start in the area and gives vouchers to kids to attend private, mostly religious, schools. Now, Ohio’s attempts to hold students and schools to tougher academic standards are making tax-funded school choice much more available.”
The number of so called “failing” schools and school districts which will be affected is startling: “Over the last few years, students in 218 schools in Ohio (along with all Cleveland students who are eligible for a separate voucher program) could receive up to $5,000 a year in tuition aid to private schools because their regular public school was considered ineffective. Next school year, that list of ineffective schools balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”
What if test scores are not really an accurate yardstick by which to measure school quality? What if the whole high-stakes testing regime is misconceptualized? What if it merely rewards school districts whose student populations are homogeneously wealthy and punishes districts whose students are poor and working class?
Last week in the Washington Post, the director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explained:
“Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities.
“Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important—and can certainly be crucial in the lives of some students—policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….
“But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.
“We need to acknowledge these two realities—seemingly in tension: (1) that education reforms can be very helpful, if they’re the right ones and if we’re patient and committed; but (2) we as a society are deceiving ourselves if we think we’ll transform educational outcomes without addressing economic inequality.”
Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz agrees with Welner and Daniel: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)
When Ohio ranks and rates school districts with the state report cards, the problem isn’t merely the inaccurate “A” or “F” branding of school districts. O’Donnell explains: “Local districts pay the voucher amount or state-mandated charter funding when students choose other schools.” Voucher programs and privately operated charter schools are parasites, sucking away essential funds needed to serve students in the public schools.
In a May 2018 report, political economist Gordon Lafer shows how, when students leave a public school district and carry away state and local tax dollars, the local school district is left with overwhelming stranded costs: “(S)chool funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”
Lafer adds: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”
Finally, in a report for the Economic Policy Institute, the Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker warns that rapidly expanding marketplace school choice is destabilizing urban public school districts: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available… Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light.”
Expansion of school choice has been an ideological priority in Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature for years. It is time to recognize that redirecting funding out of the school districts which serve Ohio’s neediest children—instead of helping these public schools—is not a good idea.