The Multi-Layered Attack on Public Schooling and Why We are Obligated to Fight Back

The culture war attacks on local public school boards and the school curricula are part of a long campaign paid for by very powerful groups to push for school privatization via universal vouchers.  To understand how this strategy has worked, we can look back at some recent history and some political theory.

In his 2017, book, The One Percent Solution, economist Gordon Lafer describes the attack on public education which was part of the 2010, Tea Party wave across the 50 state governments: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation for Independent Business, 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… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda… The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all coalesce around the school system… There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 128-129)

In their book about about the era of Donald Trump, Let Them Eat Tweets, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson trace the expansion of far-right plutocrats’ appeal to fear, racism, and xenophobia by stoking the culture wars as a strategy for moving their much broader agenda: “Race was always front and center, but the GOP strategy was adaptable: division on cultural or social issues was the consistent goal; the specific issues and the enemy ‘other’ at the heart of this divide… were designed to be consistent with the party’s plutocratic turn… What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies… is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize… This fateful turn toward tribalism, with its reliance on racial animus and continual ratcheting up of fear, greatly expanded the opportunities to serve the plutocrats.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 109-117)

This background from experts prepares us to recognize today that Moms for Liberty and similar groups disturbing local school boards with racist and homophobic attacks are part of a conscious strategy of funders like the Heritage Foundation and the Goldwater and Manhattan Institutes to grow school privatization and undermine public support for our society’s largest and most universal civic institution.  In my state, Ohio, House Bill 290, the universal, Education Savings Account school voucher bill, which will be hashed out this month in a lame-duck session of our gerrymandered, supermajority Republican state legislature, is intimately connected with the mass of culture war bills that have been introduced in the same legislature—bills that would ban books and ban any discussion that touches on race, gender, and sexuality. The culture war bills are there to make us define some of our children as “other” or deviant, to generate fear and unease, and to destroy commitment to a public system of education that has been made more inclusive over the decades in accordance with its declared mission of serving each and every child.

Whose responsibility is it to push back against today’s attack on public education?  In his 2021, book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen assigns the obligation for protecting a democracy to its citizens: “In a democratic society, public goods…. should be defined by the public and its values. Just because some people can be excluded from having a public good does not mean we should allow that to happen. In fact, after we the people define something as a public good, we must use our democratic power to make certain that exclusions do not happen… no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine), even if it’s possible to do so. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all. That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods… What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them. That’s how democracy should and often does work. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good.  Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 6-8)

Today’s attacks on local school districts and their elected school boards undermine confidence in  teachers, in other local school officials, and in the school curricula. The attacks also marginalize some students while affirming others—denying the reality of the children and adolescents from the minority groups whose history is being erased and stigmatizing the children who identify as gay or lesbian, or whose families include two dads or two moms.

In the powerful final essay in the new, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, describes the ideal of public education we citizens are responsible for protecting: “In a free society education must focus on the production—not of things, but—of free people capable of developing minds of their own even as they recognize the importance of learning to live with others. It’s based, then, on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being, constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all.”

Ayers adds that public schools are the product of the society in which they are set: “Schools don’t exist outside of history or culture: they are, rather, at the heart of each. Schools serve societies; societies shape schools. Schools, then, are both mirror and window—they tell us who we are and who we want to become, and they show us what we value and what we ignore, what is precious and what is venal.”  (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 315)

It is our ongoing challenge as citizens to ensure that our public schools do not merely capitulate to the injustices that are part of our culture. As citizens, we are obligated to push back against today’s attack on public school boards, on teachers, and on public education itself. We must not give up.

Ohio Teachers Help Elect Candidates Who Will Fight to End Culture War Quagmire in the State School Board

In an article published early last Wednesday afternoon as election returns were being reported, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock published (or see here) a story about a race that had sadly been under-reported during the lead up to the election:

“Voters elected three candidates to the Ohio State Board of Education on Tuesday who oppose fights over LGBTQ students in bathrooms and attempts to control how American racism is discussed in social studies classes. The Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Ohio Education Association contributed tens of thousands of dollars to help the campaigns of former state senator Teresa Fedor of Toledo, Tom Jackson of Solon and Katie Hofmann of Cincinnati, who each won their races against more conservative candidates… The unions were involved in recruiting the three candidates. Fedor and Hofmann are each former teachers and members of OFT. Jackson, a businessman, is a volunteer coach at Solon High School and serves on the Solon City Schools Strategic Planning Team… ”

In the context of today’s big money politics, the unions made a modest financial investment. Hancock adds: “They also gave their candidates a big fundraising boost. In addition to writing checks for each candidate’s campaign—OEA gave $13,700 to each candidate’s campaign and the OFT gave $12,000 to Fedor and Jackson and $13,700 to Hofmann—the unions spent at least $100,000 to get them elected through an independent super PAC called Educators for Ohio… ‘The super PAC spent money only on the three state school board candidates, said Scott DiMauro, president of the OEA. ‘The three individuals who won those contested races are all strong advocates of public education… I would anticipate they would work closely with other members of the state board who have been pushing back on some of those (culture wars) attacks.'”

Thank you Ohio Education Association and Ohio Federation of Teachers!

When public school supporters saw Hancock’s article last Wednesday, many were grateful to learn that someone had made a strategic effort to turn the tide in the Ohio State Board of Education, a body which has for two years been trapped in a morass of culture war conflict. Eleven members of the 19 member Ohio State Board of Education are elected, with eight members appointed by the governor. In 2020, the Ohio State Board passed an anti-racism resolution, which was overturned by the conservative Board majority in 2021 and replaced with a resolution condemning any teachings that ‘seek to divide.’  Governor Mike DeWine  subsequently forced the resignation of his appointed members of the Board who had voted to keep the original anti-racism resolution, including Laura Kohler, the State Board’s elected president.

The culture wars have continued. Hancock explains: “More recently, conservatives on the board have been pushing a resolution that would urge local school districts to defy Title IX protections for LGBTQ students that are being proposed by President Joe Biden’s administration, potentially putting federal money for free and reduced lunch and special education in jeopardy. The resolution remains under consideration. Board members have spent 10 hours taking public testimony and discussing it since September.”  Yesterday, the State Board of Education’s executive committee voted to send a version of the resolution endorsing state-sponsored discrimination against LGBTQ+ students back for a final vote at today’s scheduled November meeting of the full Board.

On top of all this has been the gerrymandering mess. Again Hancock explains: “Every 10 years, the boundaries for the Ohio State Board of Education shift when Ohio Senate boundaries are redrawn. Gov. Mike DeWine changed state school board boundaries Jan. 31.” But, “DeWine didn’t change the school board map, even as state mapmakers shifted the Senate’s boundaries found to violate the Ohio Constitution, and on July 14, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose notified county boards of election to use the Jan. 31 changes DeWine made. Candidates for the state school board, which are nonpartisan, had to file to run for the seats Aug. 10, which left just a few months to campaign.” Added to these problems, DeWine’s new State School Board district map does not comply with Ohio law.  It also radically shifts the communities and school districts located in each candidate’s district, which meant that for the November election several candidates had to run in areas where they were not well known.

Hancock quotes Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers describing the challenge the teachers unions undertook at the last minute to encourage pro-public school candidates to run: “It really was a crunch in trying to get quality candidates to run… We had incumbents we know that were not pro-public education, who were in my opinion, pushing these culture war issues at the state board level. And it was just critical to us that we could get them out of there. So we definitely were looking for people who understand public education, who have been engaged in conversations about equity, social-emotional learning, the whole child approach, all that things that are really important to us.”

To understand the depth of concern many in Ohio share about the recent culture war imbroglio in the State Board, it is helpful to read a formal statement released last month by four dismayed elected members of the current State Board of Education—Christina Collins, Meryl Johnson, Michelle Newman, and Antoinette Miranda. They wrote in opposition to the proposed resolution the Board is currently considering which would urge school districts to oppose federal Title IX rules:

“In an unexpected, politically charged action, a member of the State Board of Education, Brendan Shea, introduced his ‘Resolution to Support Parents, Schools, and Districts in Rejecting Harmful, Coercive, and Burdensome Gender Identity Policies.’ The resolution not only advocates for state-endorsed lawlessness; it also works to codify the exact discrimination that Title IX was developed to prevent… Our entire educational system must be founded on respecting, nurturing, and supporting children. EVERY. SINGLE. CHILD. We are not and should never be in the business of selecting which child is worthy of protection and instruction. This resolution is a political grenade thrown into an arena that has already been overwhelmed with more politics and culture wars than actions that actually improve education. Beyond the moral reprehension of this particular resolution, the time spent on an issue that reflects the unrealized fears of adults will only harm our most vulnerable children while distracting us all from real issues of educational urgency.”

Did Children’s Economic Conditions During the COVID- 19 Pandemic Affect Overall NAEP Scores?

Around the same time as the very low, COVID-driven, 2022 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released last week, Advocates for Children of New York published another shocking statistic: “The 2021-2022 school year marked the seventh consecutive year in which more than 100,000 New York City public school students experienced homelessness, a crisis which has now persisted through two Mayoral administrations and four school Chancellors. Even as total enrollment in City schools fell last year, the number of students identified as homeless increased by 3.3%, rising from 101,000 to 104,000.”

This blog will take a one-week fall break.  Look for a new post on November 10.

Last week’s NAEP scores showed that, across the United States, the most vulnerable and already low-achieving students experienced the biggest drops. Certainly that shouldn’t be surprising. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reported: “A survey conducted alongside the tests found that students with higher test scores had more access to supports while they were in remote learning. Top-performing eighth-graders were more likely than those at the bottom to have a desktop computer, laptop or tablet at all times; to have a quiet place to work at least some of the time; to have a teacher available every week to help; and to participate in real-time online lessons with their teacher every day or almost every day.”

New York’s statistics about student homelessness embody the most extreme case in the United States of school disruption during the pandemic, but what they expose is nonetheless significant more generally. Poverty impairs students’ access to schooling.

The NY TimesTroy Closson details the reality of student homelessness in NYC: “About 30,000 (students) lived in shelters. But about 69,000 were doubled up with other families and 5,500 other young people lived in cars, parks, or abandoned buildings, meaning they were likely to have less access to social services and other supports provided in the shelter system.” “The city is grappling with how to help its most vulnerable children recover from pandemic learning losses, while also integrating the more than 6,000 additional homeless (migrant) students who have enrolled in city schools over the past four months.”

In the case of New York City’s homeless children, school can be the most stabilizing institution in their lives, but the COVID disruption only compounded their problems. Closson explains: “Many students living in temporary housing struggled with staggering educational challenges during the pandemic, as they often could no longer rely on school buildings for crucial services like counseling. Some attended classes remotely from shelters that lacked reliable internet access. More than six in 10 homeless children living in shelters were defined as ‘chronically absent’ last year, which means they missed at least 10 percent of school days, more than double the rate of their peers in permanent housing. Even during more normal times, homeless students often face disruption, sometimes commuting long distances to their schools and transferring to new ones as they bounce between living situations, even though a federal law gives them the right to remain in the same school when they move. The regular upheaval hurts their academic performance. Only 60 percent of homeless high school students living in shelters graduate in four years. Their high school dropout rate is three times higher than that of students in stable housing.”

Of course, not all of the NAEP’s low-scoring students across the United States are homeless. The problem of student homelessness is acute in the nation’s biggest and most expensive metropolitan areas. Closson puts NYC’s vast student homelessness in some perspective: “While other large cities have similar rates of homelessness among students—in Los Angeles, for example, it is 11 percent—New York City’s vast size puts the problem on a different scale.”  First Focus on Children reports that, “In 2020, more than 1.2 million U.S. students were experiencing homelessness.”

The problems with digital access that faced NYC’s homeless children also affected a much larger and more broadly distributed group of children during the pandemic when most school systems shut town for periods of weeks or months or put students on hybrid in-person/remote schedules. Last April, after virtually all U.S. schools had reopened again full time, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss looked back at the stresses that had disrupted schooling.  She reported: (S)chool districts bought computers and other devices for families without them and arranged for low-cost internet service. But in 2021, a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults found the digital divide remained stubborn:  ‘The digital lives of Americans with lower and higher incomes remain markedly different…. In fact, the shares of Americans in each income tier who have home broadband or a smartphone have not significantly changed from 2019 to 2021.’  Forty-three percent of adults with lower incomes said they had no home broadband services, and 41 percent said they had no desktop or laptop computer. In households earning $100,000 or more a year, these were nearly universal. Low income families rely largely on smartphones to perform tasks ‘traditionally reserved for larger screens,’  the survey said. Students trying to do their schoolwork on a smartphone are certainly at a disadvantage to those who have larger screens.”

Last April, Strauss considered the lessons learned from the pandemic: “(F)or anybody paying the slightest bit of attention there is nothing on the list of pandemic school ‘lessons’ that we didn’t already know before COVID-19—and for a long, long time.  Ask any teacher—and there are at least 3 million full-time educators—and the vast majority will tell you that teaching and learning works better for most kids in person.”

Again last week when the 2022 NAEP scores were released, Strauss reminded us about the lessons we should already have learned: “After several years of a pandemic that upended schooling for millions of children, standardized test scores are coming back and the results are—can you guess?—bad. In most places, really bad, meaning much lower than before the pandemic. That’s what we just learned from the newly released results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have sparked a tsunami of alarmed responses… A wake up call? Did we really need millions of dollars worth of standardized test scores to reveal that students were badly impacted by the pandemic? Ask most teachers and they can give you a clear picture of the achievement of their students without a standardized test. The thing is that in the United States, teachers don’t get asked much about education when key decisions are being made about teaching and learning.”

NAEP Scores Confirm that COVID Disrupted Schooling; They Do Not Reflect a Downward Trajectory in School Achievement

Are the new National Assessment of Educational Progress scores a catastrophic indication that the U.S. public schools have fallen into decline? I don’t think so.

Early this week, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a large data set from National Assessment of Educational Progress exams administered last spring to 4th and 8th grade students in U.S. public schools. Last month, NCES released scores from tests administered to a smaller group of 4th graders.  Both sets of scores show that the COVID pandemic seriously disrupted schooling for the nation’s children and adolescents.

Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum explains what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced nape) is a test administered by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It’s given periodically to a representative subset of American students in math and reading in grades four and eight. Scores are broken down by state and for a select handful of cities, too. The latest results are based on tests given between January and March 2022. The previous test was given in 2019, before the pandemic… Scores from a separate NAEP exam that has been given to 9-year-olds for many decades were previously released in September.”

The NAEP scores released this week were precipitously lower than scores on the NAEP when it was administered in 2019, before COVID—particularly in 8th grade math. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reports: “The portion of eighth-graders rated proficient or better in math fell to 27 percent, from 34 percent in 2019… the steepest decline in more than a half century of testing.”  (The fact that every year relatively few students reach NAEP’s proficient level overall is because the NAEP “proficient” cut score is set artificially high; it marks what most people would define as “advanced.”)

Some people assume that this year’s drop in NAEP scores signals a reversal of progress, the beginning of a downward spiral.  Others are using the scores as evidence for their particular reform or as evidence that their state had a better policy on school closures than other states. Meckler writes: “Partisans on all sides of the education debate seized on the results to advance competing ideas about the way ahead… The test results also offered fodder for those who argue bringing students back to campuses quickly was the right move… ‘We kept schools open in 2020, and today’s NAEP results once again prove we made the right decision,’ Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said on Twitter.  But the data did not establish a connection between back-to-school policies and academic performance. In California, for instance, many public schools were closed well into the 2020-21 school year and some students never saw a classroom that year. But the declines were similar to those in Texas and Florida, where schools were ordered to reopen much sooner.”

In a blog post last month when the first set of 4th grade NAEP scores was released, I shared my own assessment of what had happened. I think the scores released last month and the scores released this week show the same thing. Here is some of what I said in that post.

***

There is no cause for panic.  Schooling was utterly disrupted for the nation’s children and adolescents, just as all of our lives were interrupted in so many immeasurable ways. During COVID, while some of us have experienced the catastrophic death of loved ones, all of us have experienced less definable losses—things we cannot name.

I think this year’s NAEP scores—considerably lower than pre-pandemic scores—should be understood as a marker that helps us define the magnitude of the disruption for our children during this time of COVID. The losses are academic, emotional, and social, and they all make learning harder.

Schools shut down and began remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many stayed online through the first half of last school year. While most public schools were up and running by last spring, there have been a lot of problems—with more absences, fighting and disruption, and overwhelming stress for educators. It is clear from the disparities in the scores released last week among high and low achievers that the disruption meant very different things to different children. It is also evident that the pandemic was a jolting shock to our society’s largest civic institution. It should be no surprise, then, that the attempt to get school back on track was so rocky all through last spring…

While the NAEP is traditionally used to gauge the trajectory of overall educational achievement over time, and while the trajectory has been moderately positive over the decades, the results released last week cannot by any means be interpreted to mean a change of the overall direction of educational achievement.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz asked Stanford University professor Sean Reardon (whose research tracks the connection of poverty and race to educational achievement) whether “it will take another 20 years to raise scores once again.”  Reardon responded: “That’s the wrong question…. The question is: What’s going to happen for these (9-year-old) kids over the next years of their lives.” Schwartz describes more of Reardon’s response: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.”

Schwartz reports: “Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.”  The test does not in any way measure the factors that contributed to the drop in scores for students who were already struggling, but the results shouldn’t be surprising.  Some children live in families with internet access and enough computers that each of several children in the family could access online instruction simultaneously, while other children’s parents had to drive them to public library or fast food outlet parking lots to find any internet access at all. Some parents had sufficient time at home to supervise children and provide assistance during online instruction, while in other families, older siblings supervised younger siblings while trying to participate themselves in online instruction. Some children and adolescents simply checked out and neglected to log-on.

***

In a new statement this week after the second set of NAEP scores were released, FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, published a statement by Harry Feder: “Given that Monday’s state-by-state NAEP data mirror September’s national trends, as expected, we are getting an even greater cry of panic over “learning loss” and a call for dramatic interventions to catch students up. Such reactions are not justified. The September scores reflected the toll that the pandemic exacted. State-by-state numbers affirm what educators and parents already know – the pandemic was bad for kids.  But now that children are back in school, in-person learning has gone back to normal.  In all likelihood, scores for future 4th and 8th graders will revert to more normal patterns. We will need to see what happens to students as they age to see whether the pandemic score plunge dissipates over time.”

The Racial Injustice of Ohio Gov. DeWine’s Gerrymandering of the State Board of Education

Eleven members of the 19 member Ohio State Board of Education are elected, with eight members appointed by the governor. In mid-July, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported that, as he is charged to do as part of this year’s 10-year redistricting, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine had established a set of districts for the elected members of the Ohio State Board of Education.

But, as Hancock explains, the Governor’s State Board of Education district map implemented formally in July is illegal according to Ohio law, which “specifies that each (state) school board district must have ‘three contiguous Senate districts as established in the most recent apportionment for members of the General Assembly. But no Senate district shall be part of the territory of more than one state board of education district. Each state board of education district shall be as compact as practicable. The districts shall include, when practicable, some districts that primarily consist of territory in rural and some districts that primarily consist of territory in urban areas.’”

Hancock adds that according to DeWine’s new plan, “several Ohio State Board of Education districts lack three whole Senate districts.” She also reminds readers that the State Board districts are based on new Ohio House and Ohio Senate districts developed last winter by a committee made up of Governor DeWine, the Speaker of the House, the Senate President and several others.  The House and Senate district map has been rejected and deemed gerrymandered five times by the Ohio Supreme Court, and finally imposed anyway by a federal court.

In July, many in Ohio worried that the November election would be too soon for anyone to file a lawsuit challenging the crazy new State Board of Education districts. As we feared, the summer moved into autumn, and now early voting has begun.

On Tuesday morning, as I was in the midst of writing a different post for today, I received a phone call from a friend who was getting ready to participate in early voting. As we talked, I understood the racist meaning of the Governor’s’ gerrymandering of the Ohio State Board of Education in a way that was no longer abstract. I grasped what the gerrymandering mess in Ohio is really going to mean for voters in our school district and for the balance of representation on Ohio’s State Board of Education.

My friend called me because she was confused: she did not recognize the names of any of the three candidates running for the State Board of Education. We agreed that Meryl Johnson, a retired, 40-year, career Cleveland teacher, has been a wonderful representative of the needs of northeast Ohio school districts since 2016. We knew that Johnson, who was re-elected to the State Board of Education for a second four-year term in 2020, would not appear on this year’s ballot because she has two years left in her term. So who are the three new candidates and what are they doing on our ballot?

A lot of scurrying around online reassured us in one respect: for the two year remainder of her term at least, Meryl Johnson, our representative now for six years, will be serving on the State Board of Education.  But she will no longer represent our district even though we elected her. Meryl Johnson is now representing a different State Board of Education district.

For the past six years, Meryl Johnson’s State Board of Education district has included all of the largely African American east side of Cleveland, and the inner suburbs on the east side—many of them majority Black or racially integrated.  Meryl Johnson’s new District 11 includes Cleveland; many of Cleveland’s mostly white Cuyahoga County western and southern suburbs—Lakewood, Rocky River, Bay Village, Westlake, North Olmsted, Brookpark, Berea, Strongsville, Parma and Brooklyn; exurban and largely white Medina County; and rural Ashland and Wayne Counties.

Our new Ohio State Board District 10 includes Cuyahoga County’s eastern, inner-ring racially integrated or majority African American Cleveland suburbs of Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Shaker Heights, East Cleveland, South Euclid, Richmond Heights, and Warrensville Heights.  It also includes the largely white and wealthy eastern exurbs of Solon, Chagrin Falls, Moreland Hills, Hunting Valley, and Gates Mills; some of Cleveland’s southern suburbs including Independence, Brecksville and Broadview Heights; several wealthy Geauga County Cleveland exurbs along with several small, rural communities; and all of Summit County (metropolitan Akron).

Remember that Ohio law specifies: “The districts shall include, when practicable, some districts that primarily consist of territory in rural and some districts that primarily consist of territory in urban areas.’”

What became vividly clear to me and my friend during our phone call on Tuesday is that the new map cuts up and dilutes representation of African American voters across metropolitan northeast Ohio. Our African American State Board member for the past six years continues to represent half of the Cleveland school district, but she now no longer represents the voters in all Black or racially integrated school districts in East Cleveland, Warrensville Heights, Bedford, Maple Heights, Richmond Heights, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, South Euclid-Lyndhurst, Garfield Heights or Shaker Heights,  At the same time she now represents Cleveland’s largely white western suburbs along with Cleveland’s  more conservative southern exurbs and largely white, exurban Medina County. Added to further dilute the power of urban voters in her new district are two of Ohio’s most politically conservative and extremely rural areas, Ashland and Wayne Counties.

In February, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock exposed a factor that very likely played into the redistricting of the Ohio State Board of Education: “It took some time for school board members and education advocates to assemble the map based on DeWine’s written proposal. What it showed: DeWine most drastically changed the districts of Meryl Johnson of Cleveland, Dr. Christina Collins of Medina, Dr. Antoinette Miranda of Columbus and Michelle Newman of Newark, which is outside Columbus.  All four members supported the July 14, 2020 resolution that acknowledged racism and inequity in schools against Black students, Indigenous students and students of color. They also voted against the Oct. 13 (2021) measure that rescinded the anti-racism resolution, replacing it with a statement that seeks to promote academic excellence without ‘respect to race, ethnicity or creed.’… DeWine’s  (district) lines could also make it more challenging for African Americans to get elected from the Cleveland and Columbus areas since those districts now include urban and rural areas.”

For some additional context here, remember that last November, Governor DeWine forced the resignation of two of his eight appointed members of the State Board of Education: Laura Kohler, at that time the State Board’s president, and Eric Poklar. Both Kohler and Poklar voted against replacing the State Board’s 2020 anti-racism Resolution 20 with the much more banal Resolution 13.

In a statement released in July when Governor DeWine’s new State Board district map was finalized, Honesty for Ohio Education declared: “(C)hanges to districts 6 (in the Columbus area) and 11, the state’s urban-centered districts, severely dilute urban representation, violating the law and diluting Black, brown, and other marginalized voices.”

Ohio Senate Should End Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by Passing HB 497

In June, the Ohio House of Representatives passed House Bill 497 by a margin of 82-10, thereby launching an effort in the current legislative session to end Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee.  It is urgently important that the Ohio Senate take up and pass House Bill 497 before the end of this year’s legislative session, or the House version will expire.

The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Chantal Brown reports that the Ohio Education Association has made lobbying for passage of HB 497 a top priority this fall, and the Ohio State Board of Education has been considering a resolution recommending the elimination of the Third Grade Guarantee.

Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee, enacted by the legislature in 2012 and implemented beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, requires that students who do not score “proficient” on the state’s third grade reading test must be retained for another year in third grade. Brown reports that,”Ohio has retained around 3,628 students per year.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been dogged promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but last May, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver traced Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.’”

But it turns out that promoters of the Third-Grade Guarantee ignored other research showing that when students are held back—in any grade—they are more likely later to drop out of school before they graduate from high school.  In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney reported: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

Why does holding children back make them more likely to drop out later? In their book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass explain the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” Berliner and Glass continue: “Researchers have estimated that students who have repeated a grade once are 20-30% more likely to drop out of school than students of equal ability who were promoted along with their age mates. There is almost a 100% chance that students retained twice will drop out before completing high school.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 96-97)

In a recent report examining the impact of Third-Grade Guarantee legislation across the states, Furman University’s Paul Thomas explains that short term gains in reading scores after students are held back are likely to fade out in subsequent years as students move into the upper elementary and middle school years. But, Thomas quotes the National Council of Teachers of English on how the lingering emotional scars from “flunking a grade” linger: “Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • “retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • “basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • “retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.”

Here is what Thomas recommends instead: “States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.” Specifically, Thomas urges policymakers to eliminate: “high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd-5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input)…. Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.”

Last May, the Akron Beacon Journal Editorial Board pressed Ohio’s House to pass HB 497: “Unfortunately, the policy of holding struggling readers back in third grade shows that an aggressive tactic can create unintended consequences… Some 39,000 children have failed the statewide reading test since 2014, with most being forced to repeat third grade…. Politicians 10 years ago clearly overstepped in setting up this requirement. They apparently didn’t listen closely to educators who know that children feel stigmatized by being held back, and as Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro told a reporter, can come to hate reading.”

I urge the Ohio State Board of Education to pass the resolution its members have been considering to condemn the Third Grade Guarantee.  And when the Ohio Senate convenes again in a lame duck, post-election session, the Senate leadership should promptly bring House Bill 497 to the floor for passage.

Watch Out for Ron DeSantis

The political commentators focus on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis more and more as a potential Republican presidential nominee in 2024—the best alternative, they say, to the other guy.  But never once have I heard the pundits who dominate TV news explore DeSantis’ record on public education.  I guess it will be up to us—parents, teachers, and concerned citizens—to set the record straight.  Here is a summary of the facts we should all have at the ready. (And just to be clear, this post is not an endorsement of Trump as the 2024 Republican candidate.)

Top Education Rating from the Heritage Foundation — Last month, the far-right Heritage Foundation ranked Florida, the state led by Governor Ron DeSantis, as the overall winner on its 2022 Education Freedom Report Card.  If your state gets the top prize in education from the American Legislative Exchange Council or the Heritage Foundation, it does not mean that you have an adequately and equitably funded state system of public schools, a system which requires careful credentialing of teachers.

Here is how the Heritage Foundation describes its 2022 winner: “The Sunshine State embraces education freedom across the board. Florida does exceptionally well in allowing parents to choose among private, charter, and district schools, is home to a strong Education Savings Account (voucher) program…. Among other protections, state lawmakers set a high standard for academic transparency, and reject critical race theory’s pernicious ideas.”  “To assess the regulatory freedom of a given state, we consider barriers to teaching, such as whether a state encourages alternative teacher certification and the number of teachers who have benefited, or whether a state largely requires aspiring teachers to attend university-based colleges of education….”

Writing for Salon, Katheryn Joyce summarizes the policies prioritized by the Heritage Foundation’s report card as “key action items for conservative education reformers, from the promotion of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), as a preferred pathway to universal school vouchers, to alternative teacher credentialing, to the expansion of the Anti-CRT movement which now encompasses anything related to ‘diversity, equity and inclusion.'”

Parent Organizing for Ron DeSantis himself along with His Far Right Causes — Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, recently published Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, to follow supposedly untraceable money invested by those who want to undermine public education. Cunningham’s primary focus has been his home state, but last week he tracked the money behind Moms for Liberty, the Florida-spawned group of organized parents known for loudly disrupting local school board meetings: “The group, which claims to be about ‘parent rights,’ has ties to the January 6 insurrection and is expected to provide ‘foot soldiers’ for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Moms for Liberty (M4L) claims the organization was started by moms. But it is hard to believe that three mothers in Florida could start up a grassroots group on January 1, 2021, and then, within a matter of weeks and months, wind up on Rush Limbaugh,Tucker Carlson’s show, Glenn Beck, and Fox News. However, there is a shadowy network of money and influence in right-wing political circles that could arrange that easily. Among M4L’s financial supporters and profile boosters are some of the most influential organizations, media operations, and wealthy donors in the vast theater of the right-wing propaganda machine.”

Cunningham traces funding for Moms for Liberty to the Council for National Policy, which Cunningham describes as “combining vast sums of conservative money, Christian nationalists and their communications networks, and activist groups like the National Rifle Association into a powerful organization.” Moms for Liberty also received a big donation from Betsy DeVos’s mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen. Another funder of M4L is the Leadership Institute, which was, “the largest donor for M4L’s 2022 national summit and the sole known $50,000 presenting sponsor.”  “The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action for America were (also) sponsors of M4L’s national summit.”

For NBC News, Tyler Kingkade describes Moms for Liberty and its July, 2022, first national summit: “The organization’s rapid ascension—its leaders say it has nearly 100,000 members across 195 chapters in 37 states—has been driven by the appeal of its core issues among conservatives, including battling mask mandates in schools, banning library books that address sexuality and gender identity, and curtailing lessons on racial inequity and discrimination….” At its Tampa summit in July, “Attendees… heard speeches from prominent Florida Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a presidential candidate in waiting, as well as Sen. Rick Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, who said Moms for Liberty-backed candidates are going to help the GOP win governor races and control the Senate in the midterm elections…”  Cunningham adds some of the event’s other speakers: Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, former HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and Trump’s former Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” and Parents’ Bill of Rights Bill — On July 1, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law, popularly known by critics as the ‘don’t say gay’ bill, went into effect on Friday, restricting what teachers can say about gender and sexual orientation… The law, signed March 28 by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), is the first of its kind in the country… The law also legally empowers parents to sue school districts as a way to advance their ‘parental rights.’ It is part of a push by DeSantis to restrict what teachers can say—an effort that includes topics in race, racism, and U.S. history.”

The NY TimesDana Goldstein summarizes the bill: “Instruction on gender and sexuality would be constrained in all grades… Schools would be required to notify parents when children receive mental, emotional or physical health services unless educators believe there is a risk of ‘abuse, abandonment, or neglect.’…Parents would have the right to opt their children out of counseling and health services… Parents could sue schools for violating the vaguely written bill, and districts would have to cover the costs… Florida would rewrite school counseling standards.”

Strauss responds to the Florida bill, which has become a model for legislation proposed in other states, by quoting a statement from the White House: “This is not an issue of parents’ rights. This is discrimination, plain and simple. It’s part of a disturbing and dangerous nationwide trend of right-wing politicians cynically targeting LGBTQI+ students, educators, and individuals to score political points. It encourages bullying and threatens students’ mental health, physical safety, and well-being. It censors dedicated teachers and educators who want to do the right thing and support their students.”

A Book BanSalon‘s Kathryn Joyce recently exposed another of Governor Ron DeSantis’s public education initiatives: “This March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a policy… that bans schools from using any books that are ‘pornographic’ or age ‘inappropriate,’ and allows parents broad access to review and challenge all books and materials used for instruction or in school libraries… In combination with other recent laws restricting public schools from discussing LGBTQ issues or racism—including Florida’s 2022 ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law… and ‘Stop WOKE Act’… and its 2021 ban on teaching ‘Critical Race Theory’—this has led some school districts to advise teachers to box up their classroom libraries until each book is vetted. Others have instructed teachers to stop buying or accepting donated books for their classrooms until at least January, to give the district time to hire mandatory new staff to serve as ‘media specialists’ who review each title.”

Florida State Public School Funding Dollars Flooding Out of Public Schools into Florida’s Huge and Growing Voucher Programs — In a collaborative report released in September, the national Education Law Center and the Florida Policy Center document that over a billion dollars is currently flowing out of Florida’s public school funding budget into vouchers.  And even more shocking, when students take a voucher the state sucks money right out of the already established school district budget: “School districts have no control over the number of students who apply for vouchers, which makes budgeting difficult. The expansion of voucher eligibility allows higher income families to qualify and removes the requirement for students to have previously attended public schools.”

Here is what has happened since Ron DeSantis was elected Florida’s governor in November of 2018: “Since 2019, the flow of public funds to private education dramatically increased after the State Legislature enacted the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) program. While voucher programs are often funded as line-item appropriations in the state budget or through state tax credits, the FES voucher is funded from the Florida Education Finance Program state allocations that would otherwise be directed to the student’s resident public school district.” “In 2022-23, an estimated $1.3 billion in funding will be redirected from public school districts to private education, representing 10% of the state K-12 education funds allocated through the Florida Education Finance Program, the state’s school funding formula.  This sum is in addition to a potential $1.1 billion taken from general revenue that would otherwise be used to support state services, including education, as a result of tax credits claimed by businesses that donate to voucher programs.”

Consider all these facts when you hear the political commentators describe Ron DeSantis as the best non-Trump.  The conditions of public schools across the fifty states—schools which serve roughly 50 million of our children and adolescents—hardly ever seem to be part of the national political conversation these days.  But far-right advocates and politicians, many of them operating quietly in the statehouses that set public school policy, are working hard to undermine our nation’s largest and one of its most important civic institutions.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is a political leader actively working to undermine the institution of public schools and to threaten the work of school teachers. Beware!

Continued Misuse of Test Score Data to Rate and Rank Schools

Zachary Smith, the Plain Dealer‘s current data wonk, just published another article ranking Ohio’s schools, Ranking Ohio Public High Schools from 1 to 823, based on Ohio’s 2022 state school report card’s Performance Index.  A few weeks ago he ranked all of the state’s school districts by the same Performance Index.

Ohio released its annual state school report cards in mid-September and changed its ratings from A-F to a five star system.  At the time, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported that because the state’s schools were dealing with COVID all of last year and the federal government, therefore, eliminated demands for school improvement plans, the state would not calculate an overall summative rating for schools and school districts: “This year the Ohio Department of Education is not offering an overall rating for each school and district, due to the reprieve on sanctions. In future years, there will be an overall star rating.”

This year the stars were awarded in five categories: Achievement, Early Literacy, Graduation Rate, Progress, and Gap Closing.  A new category was added, “College, Career, Workforce and Military Readiness,” but there was were no stars assigned this year in this area due to ongoing COVID recovery.

While the state did not assign any overall summative grade for schools and school districts this year, reporter Zachary Smith discovered—in the state’s description of the category of “Achievement”what he considers an overall way to rank the state’s schools. In its description of measuring Achievement,  the state lists a “Performance Index” number for each school and school district.  The state says it calculates the Performance Index based primarily on aggregate standardized test scores: “The Achievement component represents the number of students who passed the state tests and how well they performed on them. This component includes three additional performance indicators —the Chronic Absenteeism Improvement Indicator, End-of-Course Improvement Indicator and Gifted Indicator.” Based on Performance Index scores, Smith and the Plain Dealer have been ranking the state’s school districts and high schools.

The problem is that test scores are known to reflect a community’s family economics more than they measure the quality of a school or school district. I wish Smith would go back a couple of years to look at Rich Exner’s profound 2019 Plain Dealer article on Ohio’s school report cards. See How Closely Ohio School Report Card Grades Trend with District Income. Here is an example of one of Exner’s bar graphs, which profoundly depict the story.

Two weeks ago, Jack Schneider, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and Joel Boyd, the superintendent of the Lowell Public Schools, explained that the correlation of standardized test scores with family income has been an issue from state to state through the past two decades since No Child Left Behind thrust us into school accountability based on standardized test scores: “As research indicates, test scores are highly indicative of the inequalities that afflict our communities, and are not a valid basis for determinations about overall school performance… Scholars have repeatedly shown (that) the leading predictors of student standardized test scores are demographic variables like family income and parental educational attainment.”

Schneider and Boyd show how test scores this year particularly are likely to reflect the disparate economic realities for families during the COVID pandemic: “Imagine that in one school community, students were insulated from the worst effects of the pandemic. Parents were able to work from home, oversee remote schooling, and offer additional support. Young people felt safe, and their families remained intact. Family resources were deployed for educational purposes and enrichment. The pandemic was a challenge, but one that was mitigated to a significant degree.  In the other school community, students felt the effects of the pandemic acutely. Family members became sick, were hospitalized, and may have even died.  Working in so-called essential fields drew caregivers away from home during the day. Internet was often slow and unreliable, and students competed for quiet space with siblings. Young people felt vulnerable, frightened, and isolated.”

The No Child Left Behind Act, formulated in 2001 and signed into law on January 8, 2002, restructured public education by demanding quantitative, standardized-test-based school accountability and by using sanctions to punish the public schools struggling to raise aggregate scores.  Gail Sunderman was one of NCLB’s early critics as the lead author of NCLB Meets School Realities, published for the Harvard Civil Rights Project in 2005, in collaboration with James Kim and Gary Orfield. Sunderman is now a research scientist in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Research and director of the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Sunderman reminds readers that No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, but the new law still requires states to rate their schools and put the lowest scoring schools on corrective action plans. Here are Sunderman’s concerns today about the damage wrought by state school rankings: “There’s… evidence that state school rating systems often reflect personal and ideological preferences of state leaders… States with a more liberal orientation… are more likely to incorporate indicators related to school quality and indicators of student success, such as growth measures, while states with a more conservative leaning maintain a focus on student test scores…  While school rating systems may be a practical means to a political end, their educational value is questionable. Despite the proliferation of school rating systems, there is very little peer-reviewed, empirical research on their effects on student performance, and school and teacher practices…  Summative ratings also tend to obscure the well-documented relationship between student achievement scores and demographic variables, most notably race and socioeconomic status. An analysis of the Maryland five-star rating system, for instance, examined why no high-poverty schools earned a five-star rating, but when the researchers adjusted ratings to account for economic disadvantage, the number of five-star schools increased.”

Sunderman concludes: This inability of summative school ratings to distinguish school performance from student demographic variances disproportionately harms schools serving marginalized children and inflates the quality of schools serving wealthy and white students.”

This blog previously covered Ohio’s 2022 school ratings here.