Ohio Legislature Has Created a Path to End State School District Takeovers: Will It Ever Be Fully Implemented?

This post is about bad public policy and how, once bad policy has been passed by a state legislature, it is hard to ever get rid of it.

Specifically the subject is Ohio House Bill 70, a failed law that has, over time, proven the failure of state takeovers of public-school districts as a strategy for raising students’ aggregate standardized test scores.  Ohio HB 70 is a relic of the kind of thinking Arne Duncan thrust upon our nation’s school districts.

In an October 2021 context, however, we can consider the story of Ohio’s six year experiment with state school district takeovers as a cautionary tale today when groups like FreedomWorks, No Left Turn in Education, Parents Defending Education, and Moms for Liberty are demanding that legislatures give oversight of their children’s history and government classes to parents and when a Utah legislator introduces a bill providing that “all materials for social science classes in K-12 (schools) be vetted and posted online for parents to review in advance.” Once state legislators pass ideological legislation, however unworkable it proves to be, it is very often difficult to amass enough bipartisan support for repeal.

Back in 2007, a think tank called Mass Insight, published The Turnaround Challenge, paid for with a big grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Turnaround Challenge prescribed rapid turnarounds of so-called “failing” public schools: “Despite steadily increasing urgency about the nation’s lowest-performing schools—those in the bottom five percent—efforts to turn these schools around have largely failed. Marginal change has led to marginal (or no) improvement. These schools, the systems supporting them, and our management of the change process require fundamental rethinking, not more tinkering.” Here is what Mass Insight proposed as the solution: “Require failing schools and their districts to either pursue more proactive turnaround strategies or lose control over the school. Make fundamental changes in the conditions under which those schools operate. Develop a local marketplace of partner/providers skilled in this discipline.”  The Turnaround Challenge became the bible for two of Arne Duncan’s most notorious programs: Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, both of which set out to condition federal grants to states on their rapid turnaround of public schools as a cure for low aggregate test scores. State takeovers or closing schools altogether were The Turnaround Challenge‘s ultimate penalty for public schools where scores did not quickly rise.

The consultants at Mass Insight assumed that schools alone could be quickly transformed to raise the scores of masses of children living in concentrated poverty, despite that research correlates standardized test scores with family and neighborhood income. The consultants blamed teachers and school administrators and assumed, in the case of state takeover, that a governance change would quickly create equal opportunity for the children and that achievement gaps would close despite that alarming opportunity gaps persisted.

In Ohio, the state did not try to turnaround schools by state takeover until the summer of 2015.  In a very important article this week, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reminds readers of this history: “The words ‘academic distress commission’ didn’t exist when Ohio House Bill 70 was introduced in 2015.  The 10-page bill was to allow schools to partner with local organizations and offer health care and social services. Then came the 67-page amendment—added into the bill, then passed by the full Ohio Senate and House on the same day, June 24, 2015. The amendment required academic distress commissions… to appoint a CEO to replace superintendents if the school district had prolonged ‘F’ grades on the state report card. The amendment gave the CEOs more control than the district superintendents ever had. CEOs can replace principals, close a school, reopen it as a charter school, and find a nonprofit or company to run a school.  If that doesn’t improve report cards, CEOs can suspend or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement with unions, except for reducing insurance benefits or the base hourly pay rate… CEOs took over schools in Youngstown in 2016, in Lorain in 2017, and in East Cleveland in 2018.”

Under HB 70, each of the three school districts was taken over by a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO. The elected local school board continued to be elected and to meet, but it had no power.  Hancock reports that in “the three Ohio districts taken over by the state due to low standardized test scores, district report card grades have largely stayed the same.” For much of the ensuing six years, Youngstown and Lorain have endured bitter school board meetings, conflict between the elected board and the Academic Distress Commission, and widespread community outrage (See here, here, here and here.)

Hancock quotes Mark Ballard, President of Lorain’s elected Board of Education: “When people are appointed out of Columbus, and they don’t live in this community and don’t understand the dynamics of the community, it’s very frustrating… When people bring concerns to a locally elected member, there’s nothing they can do because there’s people out of Columbus really calling the shots.”

Hancock reports that in Ohio’s new FY 22-23 state budget, passed at the end of June, the Ohio Legislature created a possible path out of state takeover for the three school districts: “The new way out requires the districts to propose, and the Ohio Department of Education to approve, three-year improvement plans… If the district(s) (meet) a majority of the benchmarks after three years, they can return to normal operations…. However, the distress commissions will remain on as advisors to the district and don’t completely go away until after the district successfully hits most of the benchmarks in the three-year plan. If the districts fail to hit most of the benchmarks in their plan, they get two one-year extensions. If they can’t improve in that time, they will return to the control of the distress commissions. The districts (will) be run by superintendents during the transition.”

Here is a hopeful development: “Each district submitted its plan at the beginning of October. The Department of Education has until the end of the month to review them. It can request revisions, and the districts would have 15 days to respond.”

Everyone hopes that the three districts’ plans will be approved and that the state will work with the districts to return them to the control of their local school boards. Of course, with Ohio’s still underfunded school finance formula, there will not be a massive infusion of funding to support the needs of each district’s families and children. All three communities remain among Ohio’s poorest.  Hancock reports that state representative Michele Lepore-Hagan, a Democrat representing Youngstown, “questions whether the plans and revisions will ever be good enough to transition out of state control. ‘I hope seriously that this administration and the Ohio Department of Education are acting in good faith… We are concerned it might be a facade.'”

Ohio’s failed state takeover “turnaround” plan was a piece of ideological legislation passed in the middle of the night and based on what, at the time, was extremely popular, neoliberal corporate-style education policy. The children, families, and elected boards of education in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland continue to struggle under this plan which has proven to churn community upheaval and outrage in Youngstown and Lorain while it failed to raise aggregate standardized test scores. The current legislative reform plan does not even fully eliminate HB 70; its phase out, assuming it is finally completed, will take three more years.

State legislators ought to look what happened in Ohio with the last decade’s wave of ideological school reform and take heed. Today’s far right advocates—demanding freedom for parents to shape the school curriculum according to their personal beliefs—are proposing dangerous policies which, if they are enacted, will prove difficult to eliminate.

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