Ohio Budget Sets Moratorium on New State Takeovers of School Districts, Fails to Resolve Lorain Crisis

State budgets outline what sort of public investment is possible within the revenue constraints of any state government. They also outline the spending priorities of the majority.  Sometimes, despite laws that prohibit logrolling, they also contain a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with fiscal matters.

Ohio’s new biennial budget reflects a priority for tax cutting.  Ohio’s legislators—despite the 17 day extension required because even the huge Republican majorities in both chambers couldn’t agree on a lot of things—reached consensus that taxes should be further reduced instead of investing in services needed by the must vulnerable Ohioans.  For example, the Legislature did not raise basic formula funding for 3 school districts already designated in Academic Distress or for the ten additional public school districts teetering on the edge of that categorization.

The Ohio budget conference committee, mercifully, did not insert into the state budget the Senate Education Committee’s long and detailed amendment prescribing a new state takeover plan for the 10 districts threatened with state takeover in the next two years. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky reports that Senate President Larry Obhof, “said the conference committee… agreed to a one-year moratorium on a controversial law allowing state takeover of academically failing school districts while lawmakers continue work on a solution in separate legislation.”

The Ohio House had repealed the state takeovers of school districts in its version of the budget. The Senate Education Committee had inserted into the Senate’s budget a cumbersome plan that featured a new state School Transformation Board, private takeover consultants approved by the state to conduct “root-cause” analyses, state-approved school district “improvement director czars,” and if insufficient improvement did not follow, the old top-down state takeovers. It is a very good thing that the conference committee left the Senate’s plan out of the budget.

Let’s remind ourselves about the serious, unresolved issues that the new one-year moratorium on state school district takeovers fails to address:

  • A one-year moratorium on new state takeovers grants at least a temporary reprieve from state takeover to Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill. These school districts have been branded as failures by Ohio for their low aggregate standardized test scores, and their fate remains unresolved. These school districts serve concentrations of very poor children, many of them children of color.
  • The moratorium on new state school district takeovers does nothing about the current disastrous state takeovers in Youngstown and Lorain, and the newest takeover in East Cleveland. Two months ago, by an extraordinary, bipartisan margin of 83-12, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal HB 70 (the state school district takeover law fast-tracked through the Ohio Legislature in 2015). The Senate has refused to consider HB 154.  The overwhelming bipartisan House support for eliminating state takeovers reflects the seriousness with which members of the Ohio House view the chaos into which state takeover has pushed Lorain and the dysfunction in Youngstown.

In the new budget, the Legislature not only neglected to address the state school takeover disaster, but also neglected to support the state’s poorest school districts threatened by state takeover—big cities with concentrated family poverty, towns where manufacturing has collapsed, and inner-ring suburbs— with additional operating funds. The Legislature did, however, adopt and expand Governor Mike DeWine’s proposal to add funding for wraparound social and medical services to help school districts better serve the needs of students and their families. The funding is weighted to provide extra dollars for districts serving the largest numbers of poor children. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explains: “The governor had proposed giving schools across the state $550 million over the next two school years for so-called wraparound services, like medical and mental health care, family supports and mentoring.  The ‘student wellness and success’ plan, as it is called, is aimed at helping students in every school in Ohio with issues that interfere with learning and with helping them succeed in school and in life. The version passed by legislators added $125 million more than DeWine proposed based on poverty levels of districts. In 2020-21, for example, DeWine had proposed giving the poorest 20 percent of school districts $300 per student, while giving the richest 20 percent of districts $25 per student.  The new plan, which came out of the House, raises all payments for 2020-21.  That means $460 per student for the poorest districts and $30 for the richest… The minimum that any district could receive also was raised from $25,000 to $30,000.”

Governor DeWine vetoed one section of the education budget. The Columbus Dispatch reports that about three dozen Ohio school districts have so much property wealth that they receive less from the state than private schools in their districts receive for auxiliary services.  In a later article Catherine Candisky, and Randy Ludlow explain that DeWine vetoed a provision of the budget to ensure that wealthy school districts would not receive less state aid than private schools in their districts receive.  DeWine explains his veto (see p. 10, Item 16): “This item would guarantee a base amount of per-pupil funding to all public school districts. Ohio’s school funding system was designed to offer the most support to the districts that are least able to provide adequate services to their students. The districts that would benefit the most from this item are among the wealthiest in Ohio. Carving out a special exemption to provide additional resources to the districts most capable of providing resources for their students is not a responsible use of the limited funding available to Ohio’s school districts. Therefore, this veto is in the public interest.”

However, the Dispatch confirms that the Legislature also passed a budget provision to allocate a $38 million funding increase for Ohio’s quickest growing school districts, which, due to their local property taxing capacity, have had their state funding capped for several years.  DeWine chose not to veto this provision, which will reward the same wealthy districts—the rapidly expanding exurban school districts surrounding the state’s big cities.

Even though budgets are supposed to deal with fiscal matters, folded into this budget are new high school graduation requirements. Unfortunately, the new graduation requirements that appear in the budget are the ones that originated from a lobbying group, Ohio Excels, representing business interests.  Educators have complained that the plan they designed, which was eventually approved and presented by the Ohio State Board of Education, was ignored.  And just this week a member of the State Board of Education raised serious questions about whether the cut scores designating students as “accelerated” or “proficient” are set unreasonably high so that the state denies many students who really are proficient enough points to graduate from high school.

Now that Ohio has a FY 20-21 biennial budget, much of education policy remains unresolved, including the urgently important crisis in Lorain due to its current state takeover chaos and the fate of 10 districts the state has threatened to take over.  Surely there will be further debate about the graduation requirements logrolled into the state budget without sufficient debate.  And left out completely is the matter of the new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan which was not addressed in the budget. It has now been formally introduced as HB 305, and will likely be extensively debated in upcoming months.

This article was updated on 7/19/19.

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AFT Sues Betsy DeVos over Mismanaged, Deceptive Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program

The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has denied 99 percent of borrowers who—with the expectation their student loans would be forgiven after a decade—have worked for ten years in public service professions.

In May, Politico‘s Kimberly Hefling described  the depth of the problems in the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program: “The nation’s student loan forgiveness program for public servants is a disaster, it’s widely agreed. The numbers are mind-boggling. Only about 1 percent of the teachers, nurses, public defenders, military personnel and other public servants applying for student loan relief under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program are succeeding. That leaves tens of thousands of frustrated borrowers with student loans they thought would be forgiven after they worked a decade on the job… In fall 2017, after the first wave of borrowers hit the 10-year mark of service for eligibility in the program, the chaos started to publicly unfold.”

Hefling reports that the program has been politically divisive since its inception in 2007: “When the program was signed into law in 2007, Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. President George W. Bush threatened to veto the legislation, but ultimately signed it.”

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports that last Thursday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sued Education Secretary DeVos, “alleging gross mismanagement” of the program.

Earlier lawsuits have been filed against the companies with which the U.S. Department of Education contracts to manage the program—Navient, FedLoan Servicing and others. Douglas-Gabriel describes the lawsuit filed last week by the American Federation of Teachers, which, “claims the Education Department ignored borrower complaints about loan servicers providing inaccurate information and making administrative mistakes. The alleged mismanagement of the loan forgiveness program violates federal law and the Constitution according to the lawsuit.”

One problem, writes Douglas-Gabriel, is that the program’s tangled rules have evolved over the recent decade even while borrowers thought they were enrolled in a well-established program: “Because there are so many requirements, some of which were fully fleshed out only in later years, few people could reasonably be expected to qualify for forgiveness at this point.  Nearly three-quarters of processed applications were denied because borrowers did not meet at least one program requirement.”  “As of March (2019), more than 73,500 federal student loan borrowers had turned in nearly 86,006 applications to have their loans canceled under Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Only 864 of those applications have been approved, and 518 people have received debt forgiveness….”

Douglas-Gabriel continues: “The rules are complex. They require borrowers to have loans made directly by the federal government, but until 2010 most federal loans were originated by private lenders. Applicants must also be enrolled in certain repayment plans—primarily those that cap monthly loan payments to a percentage of borrowers’ income. But most of those plans emerged only in recent years. A recent Government Accountability Office audit said the Education Department never provided a written instruction manual to FedLoan, the company managing the program. The company has had to interpret guidance that was contradictory or poorly explained… Investigators said poor communication between FedLoan and other servicing companies about borrowers’ accounts results in miscounting payments eligible for the program.”

AFT filed the lawsuit last week with several co-plaintiffs who have been misled by the program. One plaintiff, a ten-year New York public school teacher, expected that her debt would be forgiven. Today she finds herself $88,000 in debt after being rejected by the program.

It would appear that staff in the U.S. Department of Education have made little effort to accommodate borrowers who were misled.  Douglas-Gabriel quotes another of the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit: “When I asked why I was denied, I heard all kinds of reasons… I was told I pulled down the wrong application from the official website… one of my forms had the wrong date… They claimed they couldn’t read the forms. All told, I turned in 10 different applications. Denied. Denied. Denied was all I heard.”

Despite Cruel Conditions at the Border and Threatened ICE Raids, Educators Across U.S. Strive to Serve Immigrant Children

There is a disconnect between the education policy debates and what is really happening in public schools.  In Wednesday’s NY Times, Miriam Jordan captured that reality.  Jordon’s story describes public school educators’ work across the country to serve the needs of children whose schooling has been delayed and interrupted by the journeys they and their families have undertaken.

While legislators have been haggling over the state budgets that generally underfund our public schools, and while our U.S. Secretary of Education and her fellow advocates promote various kinds of school vouchers and privately operated charter schools, Jordan describes the hard work of school district professionals trying to serve the needs of immigrant students who may worry about threatened ICE raids, who may have survived harrowing border crossings, or who may have endured long stays in the detention centers where children are being warehoused.

The 1982, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe protects the right of every child living in the United States to a free and accessible public education. Jordan writes: “Under a 1982 Supreme Court decision, all children, regardless of immigration status, are entitled to a K through 12 education. With hundreds of thousands of new parents and children crossing the border in recent months, districts across the country are having to transfer teachers to affected schools, expand bilingual training for staff and prepare for students who may be traumatized.”

Most of us are satisfied not to think too much about what happens to immigrant children at school.  Maybe we just assume that public schools will somehow take care of the needs of these children; many of us are willing to criticize schools when the children fail to learn English or catch up with their studies in a mere matter of months.  Few of us try to imagine the challenges for the school district professionals attempting to ensure the availability of appropriate services.  Neither do we imagine the efforts of school principals and teachers trying to make their institutions welcoming for students who bring enormous needs and challenges.

In Jordan’s story we read about far flung school districts trying to adjust their curricula and teaching staffs. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, “The school district of 50,000 people enrolled 1,000 new Central American students last year, prompting a hiring spree of bilingual teachers and front office staff, and in the fall the district will roll out 15 dual-language schools and ‘newcomer centers’ to cater to Spanish speakers.  Nearly half of the books at the library in the Munger Mountain Elementary school in Jackson, Wyo., are in Spanish, where the immigrant population has ballooned in recent years. The school has recently begun offering all instruction in both English and Spanish. Scott Eastman, the principal, said that students do not just arrive with learning deficiencies. One child had been separated from his family, and was so traumatized he didn’t speak for weeks. ‘He constantly cried, worrying that his grandmother was going to be killed back in El Salvador and that he would never see his parents again.’ Mr. Eastman said.”

Jordan’s focus, however, is Palm Beach County, Florida: “Last year, the Palm Beach County school district enrolled 4,555 Guatemalan students in K through 12, nearly 50 percent more than two years earlier. Many of the students come from the country’s remote highlands and speak neither Spanish nor English. The number of elementary school students in K through 5 more than doubled to 2,119 in that same period.”

In Lake Worth, one Palm Beach County school community, we follow the work of an elementary school principal: “Ana Arce-Gonzalez, the principal at South Grade Elementary School in the heart of Lake Worth’s immigrant enclave, said that in 25 years as an educator she had never experienced anything like it. The school saw its enrollment rise from 820 at the beginning of the last school year to 910 in the spring, pushing it over capacity… A Cuban-American who is entering her third year at the school, Ms. Arce-Gonzalez said she has wrestled with ways to connect with families, and began making home visits. ‘It takes a lot of hand-holding.'”

Here are some of the challenges Ms. Arce-Gonzalez describes: “There are children like 8-year-old Sherly Perez, who crossed the border with her father and lives in a room in her aunt’s house. One child lives with 10 other people in a house with just one bathroom. Some fourth and fifth graders have become suicidal and depressed…. A quarter of the children last year who enrolled at the school in third grade, the grade during which the state tests student progress in reading and math, were newcomers. Only 11 percent of kindergartners were assessed as ‘kindergarten-ready’ when they started school… This summer, South Grade has an intensive pre-K section and supplemental kindergarten, first-and second-grade classes funded by a combination of district and nonprofit money. In the fall, the school will offer four dual-language kindergarten classes.”

This is a story of public school educators striving to realize one of our traditional ideals— that as a society we share the responsibility for making opportunity accessible for every child, whatever the child’s race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. It is a generous vision. Despite the cruelty of today’s American’s political leadership—holding children in unsanitary, unsafe and inhumane conditions in border detention centers—it is heartening to read about educators figuring out ways to ensure an education for children who so desperately need a welcome.

Jordon’s report is also a story of the strength of public institutions. We learn about every day public officials—school administrators and teachers—fulfilling their obligation to uphold our nation’s legal promise to protect—for every child living in our country—the right to an education.

With Tony Evers’ New Budget, Wisconsin Begins Long Journey to Shed Scott Walker’s Legacy

In Gordon Lafer’s 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, in the first chapter entitled  “Wisconsin and Beyond: Dismantling the Government,” Lafer makes Wisconsin the emblem of what happened in the 2010 election, as corporate lobbies, the Tea Party, and the collapse of state revenue following the Great Recession converged to fuel a Red-state wave that took over state governments:

“Critically, this new territory included a string of states, running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds… Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions, or, where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain.  At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced in both union and nonunion jurisdictions. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states.  All of this—deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensation and the dramatic rollback of public services—was forcefully championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-45)

In his fine book, Lafer describes a wave of tax cuts that followed the 2010 election, plus anti-teachers’ union battles and efforts to expand school privatization through enabling charter schools or adding state voucher (and neo-voucher tuition tax credits or education savings accounts).  Lafer points to public schools as one of the institutions targeted by the corporate reformers from state to state:  “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority. As a result, in recent years there has been more legislation adopted related to education than to any other area of social or economic activity. From 2011 to 2015, at least eight states passed laws limiting the union rights of schoolteachers; nine states increased the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation; seventeen expanded online instruction; and twenty-nine passed laws encouraging the privatization of education through vouchers or charter schools. This unprecedented rush of legislation is not a response to (a) sudden educational crisis; American students’ reading and math scores have remained largely unchanged for forty years. Rather, it represents long-held ambitions that became politically possible following Citizens United, project RedMap, and the Great Recession-induced fiscal crisis.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

For Gordon Lafer, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin epitomized the corporate takeover of state government. As we enter July of 2019, almost a decade later, Wisconsin has been swept by a significant pushback against the corporate agenda. Walker is now gone, and Wisconsin’s new governor, Tony Evers just signed his first budget. Evers, who served Wisconsin as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction from 2011 until he was elected governor in November, 2018, promised to undo Scott Walker’s record on public education.

It is becoming clear in Wisconsin and many other states, however, that overcoming the corporate takeover of state government and the attack on public education will be neither quick nor easy. Wisconsin’s new Governor Evers is a Democrat, but both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature are dominated by large Republican majorities.  At the end of June, the members of Wisconsin’s legislature presented Evers with a budget reflecting Governor Walker’s—not Governor Evers’—priorities.

Eventually, Evers signed the budget presented to him last week by the Wisconsin Legislature, but he said he had considered vetoing the whole thing.  Finally he used what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel identifies as, “the strongest veto powers in the country. This stems from a 1930 state constitutional amendment granting Wisconsin governors partial veto authority that allows the governor to strike individual words and numbers from legislation that appropriates money. That lets governors surgically remove words here and there to get results that are at odds with what legislators wanted.”

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Laurel White explains: “Gov. Tony Evers used his veto pen Wednesday to boost K-12 education funding in Wisconsin by about $65 million in the next two-year state budget. The change was one of 78 partial vetoes Evers made to the $82 billion budget approved last week by Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature… The boost to education funding means the state will increase K-12 education spending by about $570 million over the next two years.  The budget approved by the Legislature had already slated a roughly $500 million increase. Evers accomplished the spending bump by increasing per-pupil aid in Wisconsin by $64 per student in each of the next two years… However, the governor also eliminated an $18 million technology grant program within the K-12 budget.  In his veto message, the governor said the funds ‘could more effectively be spent on programs that close achievement gaps.’  His increase and cut combined result in a net increase of about $65 million to K-12 schools from his veto pen.  Even with that $65 million boost, the $570 million schools spending increase is still dramatically less than the $1.4 billion bump he proposed earlier this year.”

For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Annysa Johnson quotes Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, expressing disappointment in the budget Evers signed into law: “The increases are appreciated.  But they’re modest at best…  And they do nothing to move the needle on the radical revisioning of our education crisis that the (Legislature’s) Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding called for a year ago.”  Bourenane represents an encouraging statewide push by parents, teachers, and community advocates for the rejection of Walker’s education policies.

In his 2017 book, Gordon Lafer reminds us just how deeply Scott Walker cut taxes and, subsequently education funding: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

Evers has persisted throughout the budget debate, however, in working to change the narrative—to define again and again what sort of state investments will provide essential support for the most vulnerable children and their schools. He did so again in his explanation of his use of Wisconsin’s veto powers to adjust the Legislature’s budgetary priorities. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s, Johnson quotes Evers describing his reason for signing the budget, which even after his vetoes fails to fulfill his goals for the state’s public schools: “This is only a down payment on the progress we must make in the next biennial budget… There’s still more that we need to do. I will not stop fighting for our kids, meaningful investment in our schools and school finance reform.”

Johnson describes additional comments from Evers’ signing statement: “Despite its shortcomings, Evers touted the education budget as significant. In addition to the per-pupil aid, he said it: increases state special education funding by $95 million, the first increase since 2008-09; includes the first substantial increase in revenue limit authority in a decade, meaning districts can raise more money from state and local taxpayers; doubles state support for… mental health programs in schools; and provides nearly $330 million, the largest nominal dollar increase in state general aid since the 2005-07 biennium.”

Wisconsin’s army of public school supporters are justified in their disappointment that Evers was unable to undo Scott Walker’s damage this year. The most recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Wisconsin’s combined state and local funding for K-12 public schools remains 4 percent below what was being spent in 2008 before the Great Recession. But while Evers has persistently worked to frame a new narrative about the public’s responsibility to lift educational opportunity for the state’s most vulnerable children, Evers and his supporters will have to keep up the pressure for considerably longer than this year.

Michigan State Policy—Not School Governance—Dooms State’s Poor, Segregated School Districts

Through the month of June, Michigan’s new governor, Gretchen Whitmer threatened to close Benton Harbor’s high school due to falling enrollment, low test scores and the school district’s indebtedness. Benton Harbor is among Michigan’s extremely poor, majority-African American school districts on which, under former governor Rick Snyder, the state imposed emergency fiscal managers. Benton Harbor is a little different—managed by the state under a court order that ran out last week on June 30.  Governor Whitmer had threatened to close the district’s high school on June 30, but then, at the last minute, it seemed there was a deal to keep Benton Harbor’s high school from being shut down.

Then, on July 2, it was reported that the local school board said it had never agreed to the deal. And what a deal it was. The Detroit News quotes Patricia Rush, a physician and member of Benton Harbor’s local school board, who commented on why the members of the school board felt they couldn’t accept Whitmer’s deal: “Rush said the board wouldn’t agree to even a tentative deal unless the state agreed to increase funding by a minimum of $1.3 million a year so the school system could fill all its teaching positions at salaries comparable to neighboring districts… The proposal said that if the district failed to meet certain goals after a year, the board would agree to suspend operations at the high school… Residents also were angry by what they saw as the short time frame of the proposal. The pact sets benchmarks that would show whether progress is made academically and financially after a year…. But several residents said one year wasn’t enough time to show progress in a school system that has struggled for a long time… The first step of the proposed accord called for the district to meet this month with national experts who have experience turning around troubled school systems.”

In her personal blog on Wednesday of last week, Diane Ravitch published a description by Thomas Pedroni of Wayne State University of four organizations the state has approved to serve as possible consultants: the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which has managed specific schools for the Chicago Public Schools; the New Teacher Project founded by Michelle Rhee and Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp; Turnaround for Children, funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation, KIPP, and America’s Promise; and Education Resource Strategies, funded by the Gates and Walton Foundations, the New Teacher Project and the New Schools Venture Fund.  Pedroni comments specifically on AUSL’s record in Chicago: “AUSL… has consistently failed to reach its promised benchmarks in the schools it’s taken over in Chicago and, remarkably, has underperformed non-AUSL Chicago schools despite receiving large resource infusions from the Gates Foundation.” Pedroni adds that, according to a recent study: “the largest impact of AUSL takeover may be on the racial composition and experience level of the teaching workforce—fired teachers were disproportionately more experienced and of color.”

Pedroni does not believe any of these organizations is likely to help the district: “How Governor Whitmer’s staff came up with this short list of corporate education reform organizations for Benton Harbor Schools is unclear; but one thing is clear—the Governor is passing over the insights and recommendations she might garner from the Benton Harbor community; from educational researchers and teacher educators; from officials and researchers at the Michigan Department of Education; from rank and file teachers and their unions. Instead she is laser-focused on whoever it is from the corporate education reform world who is whispering in her ear.”

Knowing how much damage has been done to Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts under former Governor Rick Snyder’s emergency fiscal managers, I have found myself puzzled that Michigan’s new Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer has chosen to pick this fight with the long-troubled Benton Harbor School District.  But I am far more deeply troubled now that I have read Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider’s extraordinary expose of Michigan’s school funding history as it has worked in sync with a quarter-century-old, inter-district open enrollment program called “Schools of Choice” to undermine communities like Benton Harbor.  In her Washington Post column last Wednesday, Valerie Strauss published a link to a recent “Have You Heard?” podcast with Berkshire and Schneider, an expert on educational history and policy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  Strauss includes a transcript of the program in her column.

Berkshire, Schneider, and their guests explain that Michigan public policy has been a primary cause of fiscal problems in school districts like Benton Harbor. Michigan encourages families to leave their home school districts to choose a school in another school district through inter-district open enrollment, but at the same time, the school funding system sends all the student’s state and local school funding along with the student when he or she leaves. Berkshire and Schneider and their guests explain that Benton Harbor is only the latest of a number of Michigan districts which have lost enough money to undermine their solvency. You will have to listen to the podcast or read the transcript to learn how all this has affected Detroit, Clintondale, Ypsilanti, Saginaw, and Saginaw’s neighbor, tiny Buena Vista: “Just a few miles down the road is a town called Buena Vista. It’s a lot like Saginaw, majority African American, majority low income. But there’s one big difference: Buena Vista no longer has public schools. A few years ago, the state took over the district and dissolved it.”

Berkshire and Schneider interview David Arnsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, who explains how inter-district public school choice bankrupts the state’s poorest and most racially segregated school districts: “In Michigan, all the money moves with the students. So it doesn’t take account of the impact on the districts and the students who are not active choosers… (W)hen the child leaves, all the state and local funding moves with that student.  The revenue moves immediately and that drops faster than the costs. And so that means for the students left behind, that means that the districts losing students to Schools of Choice and… charter schools have to either cut back their services for those students left behind or draw down their fund balances. Usually they do both.”

Berkshire adds: “And the state imposed that new framework on top of a system where students were deeply segregated by race and income.”

Arnsen responds: “In every case they (the districts that lose students to Schools of Choice) are districts that are predominantly African American and poor children, and they suffered terrific losses of enrollment and revenue to both inter-district choice (public school open enrollment) and charter schools.”

Early in the podcast Schneider explains how inter-district open enrollment works: “(T)his is students and families in one district enrolling in schools in another district.  Now, this may sound totally innocuous on its surface… But there are also some things to be really concerned about here, you know.  I think first and foremost is the fact that some families are going to have better access to resources like transportation as well as information and are going to be the first to opt out of their existing districts, which is going to leave their previous districts poorer and probably more segregated, as a result, potentially trapping the most vulnerable students in those districts.”

Kathy Stewart, an intermediate school district superintendent in Saginaw County explains: “The state promotes and markets it as Schools of Choice for all families, all children, all parents.  One of the dynamics of Schools of Choice, though, is that districts do not offer transportation into their district.  So it is those families that have the transportation that wished to access another school district that had the means to get their children there every year, every day.”

But the problem is deeper. Berkshire explains that our society’s use of test scores as the sole yardstick for measuring the quality of a school district further complicates inter-district school choice: “Michigan’s education marketplace relies on test scores as its currency… So in order to sell its success, Saginaw also has to overcome perceptions about the city and its schools.”

Ramont Roberts, Saginaw Superintendent, explains the problem further: “Generally speaking, parents make choices about schools based on class.  And so when you add those elements to it, parents are left trying to choose not their local school district, but what they perceived to be a better education, which is not always the case.  And so when you ignore factors that impact achievement in certain school districts and you don’t want to account for those, and then you highlight achievement as being a measure of how a school district is doing and you use that to base choice policies on or highlight choice policies to parents, then it’s a recipe for disaster.”

One of the guests, Naisha Clark Young calls the Schools of Choice cross-district open enrollment program “a dead-end cycle.”  Jack Schneider calls it “a race to the bottom” for vulnerable school districts which fall farther and farther behind.

And so we return to Benton Harbor and a quick review of the conditions causing Governor Whitmer to propose the closure of its high school. In mid-June, the Detroit NewsJennifer Chambers reviewed the problems: “The district came under the eye of the state in 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the findings of a state financial review team that said a financial emergency existed in Benton Harbor. In September 2014, the state of Michigan and Benton Harbor Area Schools entered into a consent agreement to address the fiscal emergency.  After the district failed to make any progress on its goals in a 2017 partnership agreement, Michigan education officials threatened to close the high school.”  Currently, the school district, like many of the districts taken over by emergency managers under Snyder, is paying off an enormous long-term debt, which cuts its operating funds significantly. The debt is over $18 million and expected to rise to $21.5 million by 2020.

Chambers explains that many parents in Benton Harbor have moved their children to surrounding districts under inter-district open enrollment; enrollment has collapsed from 10,000 in the 1970s to 2,000 today, The loss of state per-pupil dollars has exacerbated the district’s fiscal crisis: “The district’s difficulty attracting talent is something many people agree is a contributing problem. Salary levels for teachers are below the state average, Herrera said, and many leave Benton Harbor to get paid $7,000-$9,000 more a year. The starting salary in the district is $34,000 with an average of $47,000. Many point to the district’s high percentage of long-term substitute teachers who are not certified—40 percent fall into this category—as a contributor to low academic performance. These teachers can only stay in their positions for one school year before they must be reassigned.”

Public school inter-district open enrollment, exemplified by Michigan’s Schools of Choice program is supposed to give families more options.  But instead it launches a competition among school districts.  As Berkshire, Schneider and their guests explain, competitions always have losers as well as winners.  In Michigan, the poorest and most segregated school districts—places like the now-closed Buena Vista school district and Benton Harbor, which is currently under siege—are the losers. Justice cannot be achieved through competition.

Wayne State University’s Thomas Pedroni summarizes the structural racism at the heart of Michigan’s public education policy: “School districts in Michigan continue to be funded through the mechanisms established in 1994’s Proposal A, which monetized children.  Schools of choice and charter school legislation introduced a system in which surrounding districts and charter schools were given a strong financial incentive to draw students away from the mostly African American, low-income and under-resourced districts…  Whitmer… should recognize what predominantly African American communities across the state already know: That while one can always find examples of poor local management (in both rich and poor districts), it is state educational policies that will continue to grind down and destabilize even the best-managed low-income, predominantly African American districts across our state.”

“Classrooms and Hope” — Mike Rose’s Reflection for the Holiday Weekend

If you care about children, it is pretty easy to get discouraged in a country where state budgets are shorting schools, where we celebrated the 4th of July yesterday with tanks, and where children are being warehoused at the southern border in unsanitary, unsafe, and frightening conditions.

It is the holiday weekend when we celebrate who we want to be as a nation.  Where is there something hopeful we can focus on in 2019?  The UCLA education professor and wonderful writer, Mike Rose contemplates this question in a blog post earlier this week: “What in our lives acts as a counterforce to the dulling and blunting effects of evil, helps us see the good, hold to it, and work toward it?”

Rose, the educator who wrote a book about a four year trip across the United States—a journey in which he visited hundreds of classrooms and observed teachers—answers his own question: “I realized that for me a longstanding source of hope, of what might be, is the classroom, or more exactly, all that the classroom represents at its best: a sanctioned space for growth, learning, discovery, thinking and thinking together,”

In this post Rose describes what his visits to public schools helped him realize: “These trips to Calexico, to Baltimore, to Eastern Kentucky, to a nation within a nation in northern Arizona brought forth new cultural practices, new languages, new gestures.  I was fortunate to have been escorted into so many classrooms, so many homes, to have been guided into the everyday events of the communities I visited, for the invitation eased the unfamiliarity and discomfort that could have been present on all sides. What I experienced was a kind of awe at our variety, yet an intimate regard, a handshake on the corner, a sense of shared humanity.”

Rose continues: “The journey was odd for me in another way, considering my own teaching history.  My work in the classroom has mostly been with people whom our schools, public and private, have failed: working-class and immigrant students, students from nonmainstream linguistic and cultural backgrounds, students of all backgrounds who didn’t fit a curriculum or timetable or definition of achievement and were thereby categorized in some way as different or deficient…. And yet there were these rooms.  Vital, varied, they were providing a powerful education for the children in them, many of whom were members of the very groups defined as inferior in times past and, not infrequently, in our ungenerous present.  What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms, in addition to whatever else we may understand about them, represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society.  These rooms were embodiments of the democratic ideal. To be sure, this democratic impulse has been undercut and violated virtually since its first articulation… But it has been advanced, realized in daily classroom life by a long history of educators working both within the mainstream and outside it, challenging it through workingmen’s organizations, women’s groups, Black schools, appropriating the ideal, often against political and economic resistance, to their own emancipatory ends.”

“The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.  At a time of profound disillusionment with public institutional life, these people were, in their distinct ways, creating the conditions for children to develop lives of possibility.”

I urge you to read Rose’s new post this weekend.  His column is made up of passages from two of his books. You might want to read or reread these books—Possible Lives and Why School?this summer.

As Ohio Budget Negotiations Drag On, Conference Committee Should Leave State School Takeovers Out of the Budget

This morning, July 1, marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for Ohio. Yesterday was the deadline for passage of a new budget to pay for the functions of state government for the next biennium—fiscal years 2020 and 2021.  But instead over the weekend, members of the Legislature passed a 17 day budget extension to keep the state operating while members of the Senate/House conference committee wrangle.

One of the biggest conflicts between House and Senate is over the misguided state school district takeovers established in the 2015, House Bill 70, a bill which was fast tracked through the Legislature without open hearings.

HB 70 has proven a catastrophe.  You may remember that just two months ago, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers.  Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular, bipartisan fashion by a margin of 83/12. The House also included the repeal of HB 70 in HB 166, the House version of the FY 20-21 biennial budget.

The Ohio Senate has also been considering state school district takeovers. Distrusting teachers, school administrators, and locally elected school boards in Ohio’s poorest school districts where test scores lag, members of the Ohio Senate removed from the budget bill the House language to repeal the state school takeovers.  Senator Peggy Lehner and the Senate Education Committee she chairs convened a working group to create a complicated amendment to replace the current HB 70 state takeovers with another form of state control called the Ohio School Transformation Plan. Lehner’s committee is dominated by members of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Lobbyists from the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute and the business lobby, Ohio Excels, have also been pressing for the Senate’s School Transformation Plan.

As of this morning, we do not know whether the Senate will succeed in getting Lehner’s amendment for the Ohio School Transformation Plan inserted into the final Ohio budget.  Advocating that the Legislature eliminate state takeovers, the editorial board of the Toledo Blade reported on Friday that House Speaker Larry Householder “wants the conference committee to put a moratorium on school takeovers in the pending budget bill and later work out a resolution.”

Because the elimination of HB 70 state school takeovers is so urgently important, today’s blog post will review what this blog has—over the past two months—explained are alarming problems with the Ohio School Transformation amendment Lehner and her committee have tried to include in the Senate Budget.

Here is a bit of history.  In June of 2015, House Bill 70 was rushed through the Legislature to prescribe that, based on aggregate standardized test scores, the state would take over any school district with three years of “F” ratings on the state report card.  The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed Chief Executive Officers for four years.  East Cleveland is currently undergoing state takeover.  Academic Distress Commission-appointed CEOs In Youngstown and Lorain have proven autocratic in their disdain for the locally elected school boards who, under HB 70, continue to be elected but have no remaining power.  Both CEOs have refused to live in or educate their own children in communities where they oversee the public schools.  David Hardy, Lorain’s CEO, has managed to make enemies of the mayor, the city council, the locally elected school board, the teachers, the students at the high school, and even several members of the Academic Distress Commission who appointed him.

In addition to the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland, other Ohio school districts facing state takeover in the next two years are: Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill. What dominates every one of these school districts is the concentration of poverty.  Many of these communities are majority black and brown.

The School Transformation Plan—which the Ohio Senate hopes to include in the now-stalled state budget—pretends to leave the power for running the school district in local hands.  It pretends not to be a state takeover.  But in fact under the plan, while local people are still in place, their decisions will now be overseen by a new state agency.  Local school administrators will now also operate under the “guidance” of an outside consultant approved by the state agency.  Here are the details of the Senate’s plan:

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three consecutive years would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.”
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent; the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here the plan copies the school turnaround options in the now-discredited federal No Child Left Behind Act—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”

The Senate’s proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan’s rests on several mistaken assumptions. The plan assumes: first, that test scores are a pure and accurate measure of what a school district is accomplishing, and second, that school governance is the problem. The assumption is that a state approved School Improvement Director with support from consultants will know how to raise test scores quickly. Years of state takeovers in other states have failed to confirm that aggregate test scores can be rapidly raised. And nobody I know can tell me where there are consultants who actually know how to transform a school district’s aggregate standardized test scores in a year or two. There is also evidence that such an obsession with raising test scores narrows the curriculum and distorts schooling.

In an excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, examined essential supports that would be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago, the poorest schools in a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty. The families these school serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused… ” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 173)

The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e 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… 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.”

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the use of standardized testing, demonstrates that high-stakes standardized testing is a flawed way to measure the quality of a school.  Standardized test scores in the aggregate merely tell us that the so-called “failing school” is likely to be located in a neighborhood or community where the residents are struggling with poverty:

“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…. 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. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. 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)

The Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan is merely another top-down scheme to prescribe governance changes as the cure when a district’s test scores lag. It is a paternalistic plan that assumes school district administrators don’t know enough and teachers aren’t working hard enough. Like the federal law that didn’t work, the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Plan assumes that the legislators can snap their fingers and prescribe that school districts will leave no child behind. It assumes that school districts can cure our society’s failure to overcome the tragedy of concentrated family poverty.

Instead of inserting the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan into the 2020-2021 biennial state budget, the Ohio Legislature should consider carefully the needs of Ohio’s school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty. The Ohio Senate needs to pass HB 154 to eliminate the catastrophic HB 70 state takeovers. Then the Legislature needs to invest significantly in smaller classes, more counselors, more social workers, more nurses, more librarians, more wraparound social and medical services, and more school enrichment. The state needs to begin adequately supporting rather than punishing its very poorest school districts.