Charter Schools Undermine the Public Schools Which Serve the Very Children Cory Booker Worries About

On Monday, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker published a column in the NY Times to announce his support for charter schools. I’ll give Booker credit for being honest. Until now, as an active candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, Booker has tried to hedge this issue, even though support for charter schools—and at one time even vouchers—has been among his primary priorities in public life for two decades.

I’ll also give Booker credit for endorsing, in this week’s column, better support for traditional public schools: “As a party, we need to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes for children who are underserved and historically disadvantaged.  That must mean significantly increasing funding for public schools, raising teacher pay, fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, investing in universal preschool, eliminating child poverty—and yes, supporting high-performing public charter schools if and when they are the right fit for a community, are equitable and inclusive, and play by the same rules as other public schools.”

Booker bases his argument on his own life story. His parents struggled with racism and segregation and fought to move into a school district where they could be sure their children would be well educated. He believes charter schools provide an escape from struggling public schools for children whose parents cannot move out of communities where they believe the schools fail to serve their children. For Booker, charter schools are an escape route for families who feel trapped by racism, as his parents did.

It is on one level an appealing argument, which was bluntly articulated when the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli argued that charter schools are a solution for poor strivers. Betsy DeVos adopts the same argument for school choice when she says that, because parents know what is best for each of their children, we should provide universal school choice.

However, the essential point to remember about school choice—whether it is a system of private school tuition vouchers or privately operated but publicly funded charter schools—is that school choice privileges the few at the expense of the many.

The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of education. Rewarding social entrepreneurship in the startup of one charter school at a time cannot possibly serve the needs of the mass of our children and adolescents. In a new, September 2019 enrollment summary, the National Center for Education Statistics reports: “Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school… enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.”

Booker argues for well-regulated and high-performing charter schools. The problem he fails to acknowledge is that charter schools were established beginning in the mid-1990s by state legislatures smitten with the idea of innovation and experimentation. None of these legislatures, to my knowledge, provided adequate oversight of the academic quality of the schools, and none imposed protections to guarantee the stewardship of public tax dollars.  Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Charter schools have now been established by state law across 45 states where stories of outrageous fiscal and academic scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools. Because advocates for school privatization and the entrepreneurs in the for-profit charter management companies regularly donate generously to the political coffers of state legislators—the very people responsible for passing laws to regulate this out-of-control sector—adequate oversight has proven impossible.

And while some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same.  According to the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools.”

In his NY Times column this week, Booker neglects to address perhaps the most worrisome of the problems with charter schools. Charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located. The political economist Gordon Lafer explains that the expansion of charter schools cannot possibly be revenue neutral for the host school district losing students to charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer documents that during the 2016-17 school year, “charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School District $57.3 million.” Because none of the states has created a separate funding stream for privatized charter schools or vouchers, the funding always comes out of state and local public school budgets.

In his NY Times column this week, Booker explains that, like many of the other Democratic candidates for President, he opposes for-profit charter schools. But opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point.  In most states, charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire a for-profit management company to operate the school. Two of the most notorious examples of the ripoffs of tax dollars in nonprofit-but-managed-for-profit charter schools were in Ohio. The late David Brennan, the father of Ohio charter schools, set up sweeps contracts with the nonprofit schools managed by his for-profit White Hat Management Company.  The boards of these schools—frequently people with ties to Brennan and his operations—turned over to White Hat Management more than 90 percent of the dollars awarded by the state to the nonprofit charters. These were secret deals. Neither the public nor the members of the nonprofit charter school boards of directors could know how the money was spent; nor did they know how much profit Brennan’s for-profit management company raked off the top. Then there was Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s infamous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—technically a nonprofit.  All management of the online charter school and the design and provision of its curriculum were turned over to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies—Altair Management and IQ Innovations. ECOT was shut down in 2018 for charging the state for thousands of students who were not really enrolled. The state of Ohio is still in court trying to recover even a tiny percentage of Lager’s lavish profits.

Booker wants to have it both ways—to strengthen the traditional public schools that serve the mass of our children and at the same time allow charter schools, which he believes can be regulated to serve the public interest. He fails to recognize that nobody yet has figured out how to regulate these schools which were created intentionally without what was said to be the straightjacket of bureaucratic regulation and which are now very often producing outrageous profits for their operators. The idea was to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, but what has emerged is a privatized education sector saturated with out-of-control corruption.

Booker insistently uses the term “public charter schools.”  But charter schools are a form of school privatization. They are an example of private contracting by which a public school district or state approved authorizer contracts with a private nonprofit or for-profit operator to run the school without an elected school board and without the guarantee of transparency. The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains why Booker is wrong to imagine that privately operated charter schools can protect the children whose educational opportunity is curtailed by poverty and racism:  “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Booker is right that our society urgently needs to address child poverty itself as well as the overwhelming challenges for the underfunded traditional public schools which serve children in urban communities where racism persists and poverty is concentrated. However, a relatively small privatization scheme to create escapes for a few children cannot be the answer. Public schools are far from perfect.  They are, however, the only institution where our very complex society can balance the needs of each particular student and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of nearly 50 million children and adolescents. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all students. While our society has not realized justice for many children and adolescents in the public schools, it is by striving systemically to improve access and opportunity in the public schools that we have the best chance of securing the rights of all of our young people.

An Urgent Issue in Troubled Times: Building the Will to Support Public Education

For this blog, I’ve been tracking the explosion of new vouchers in Ohio, a similar expansion of the cost of school vouchers in Wisconsin, the proposed closure of the storied Collinwood High School by Cleveland’s mayoral-appointed school board, and the protracted negotiations in Lorain, Ohio to get rid of the state’s appointed school district CEO, a man who has brought chaos to the city’s public schools and the entire community. Then, last week, I spent time reviewing the history of corporate, accountability-based school reform as a twelve-year experiment imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, in New York City.  It is all pretty discouraging.  And an added worry is the absence so far of any talk about our public schools, arguably our most important civic institution, in the 2020 Democratic candidates’ debates.

At the impeachment hearings last week, I was struck by the importance of people like William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, experienced career professionals who clearly articulate the institutional norms and goals of international diplomacy. What educator could I feature in this blog, someone who would remind us of the educational policies and institutional norms worth fighting for as a way to protect in our public schools during troubled times?

After an extensive search across shelves of books, I remembered School Reform Fails the Test, an article in which, five years ago, Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, examined America’s long journey into corporate, test-and-punish school reform.  Even if you read this article five years ago when it was published in The American Scholar, and even if you’ve read Rose’s inspiring books, I encourage you to read Rose’s article from 2014 again. Rose identifies important norms and practices in our public schools and explains why, in the midst of all the news swirling around us, we must continue to advocate for strengthening our society’s dedication to universal public education as a right we guarantee for all of our young people.

Rose is not naive.  He explains: “Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.”

Rose suspects that our long, strange, education-reform trip into test and punish accountability may reflect massive and rapid change in our broader society: “School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of our education….”

Here is part of Rose’s analysis of the school reforms that followed, policies which were eventually formalized in the No Child Left Behind Act and which made demands on public schools and school teachers: “A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable….  The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished… An even more simplistic theory of cognitive and behavioral change suggests that threats will lead to a change in beliefs about students.”

But the framers of the law didn’t envision all the consequences which followed, including this one: “The nature of a school’s response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those less affluent students at the center of reform. When teachers… concentrate on standardized tests, students might improve their scores but receive an inadequate education. A troubling pattern in American schooling thereby continues: poor kids get a lower-tier education focused on skills and routine while students in more affluent districts get a robust and engaging school experience. It’s important to consider how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.”

In 1995, Rose published Possible Lives, a book about several years of research he undertook by visiting public school classrooms.  He reviews the conclusions of that research in the 2014 article: “During the first wave of what would become the 30 year school reform movement that shapes education policy to this day, I visited good public school classrooms across the United States, wanting to compare the rhetoric of reform, which tended to be abstract and focused on crisis, with the daily efforts of teachers and students who were making public education work.  I identified teachers, principals, and superintendents who knew about local schools, college professors who taught teachers, parents and community activists who were involved in education….”

What did Rose notice about the characteristics of the excellent classrooms he visited?  “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Rose concludes by lifting up the experiences and traditions within public schools themselves—as an alternative to the corporate boardrooms seen by school reformers as the place to seek answers: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?…  Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.

Even if you know the work of Mike Rose and have enjoyed his books, I hope you will read or reread School Reform Fails the Test.  It is a great review of what has gone wrong. It is also hopeful: Rose anchors school improvement in supporting the work of the professionals who have studied good pedagogy and who know the norms and expectations of the institutions where they spend their days with our children. Rose confirms what we’ve watched now for going on two years, as schoolteachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have been striking to drive home the urgent need for nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians and small classes. To serve  the collective needs of our children, we’ll have to build the public will for investment to overcome our public schools’ greatest challenges.

Michael Bloomberg Says He May Run for President: Why He Won’t Be my Choice

New York City’s former three-term mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire businessman, is exploring whether to join other Democrats running for President in 2020. It is said that he would be a Democratic centrist, and we know that he has contributed positively to the national conversation promoting gun control and an aggressive response to climate change.  But, as usual in this political season, his record on public education has been neglected by the press.

Michael Bloomberg does have a long education record. Bloomberg served as New York City’s mayor from January of 2002 until December of 2013. In 2002, to accommodate his education agenda, Bloomberg got the state legislature to create mayoral governance of NYC’s public schools. In this role, Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein were among the fathers of what has become a national wave of corporate, accountability-based school reform. Bloomberg is a businessman, and Joel Klein was a very successful attorney. Neither had any experience as an educator. They took aggressive steps to run the NYC school district, with 1.1 million students, like a business. Their innovations included district-wide school choice, rapid expansion of charter schools, co-location of a bunch of small charter and traditional schools into what used to be comprehensive high schools, the phase out and closure of low-scoring schools, evaluation of schools by high stakes standardized test scores, the assignment of letter grades to schools based on their test scores, and a sort of merit pay bonus plan for teachers.

In her 2018 book, After the Education Wars, Andrea Gabor, the New York business journalist and journalism professor, comments on Bloomberg’s educational experiment: “The Bloomberg administration embraced the full panoply of education-reform remedies. It worshiped at the altar of standardized tests and all manner of quantitative analysis. The Bloomberg administration also had a penchant for reorganizations that seemed to create more disruption than continuous improvement among its 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools.” ( After the Education Wars, p. 75)

Gabor describes Bloomberg’s expansion of charter schools: “Harlem, in particular, has become the center of an unintentional educational experiment—one that has been replicated in neighborhoods and cities around the country.  During the Bloomberg years, when close to a quarter of students in the area were enrolled in charter schools, segregation increased, as did sizable across-the-board demographic disparities among the students who attended each type of school. An analysis of Bloomberg-era education department data revealed that public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double—and several have triple—the proportion of special needs kids of nearby charter schools. The children in New York’s traditional public schools are much poorer than their counterparts in charter schools. And public schools have far higher numbers of English language learners… In backing charter schools Bloomberg and other advocates pointed to one clear benefit: charters, it was widely accepted, would increase standardized test scores. However, years of studies showed little difference between the test-score performance of students in charter schools and those in public schools.” After the Education Wars, p. 95)

A Leadership Academy for school administrators taught business management principles. Gabor explains: “The Leadership Academy, launched in January 2003, was a cornerstone of the new Bloomberg administration’s education-reform strategy for public schools, one focused on breaking up both the central bureaucracy and New York City’s large, factory-style high schools…  The Leadership Academy’s mission was to recruit and train six hundred new entrepreneurial principals by the end of Bloomberg’s first term, in 2006, to help run the many new mostly small schools that the new administration hoped to establish.  Like many of the Bloomberg-era reforms, there was much that was controversial about the Leadership Academy.  For one thing, the academy boasted the ideal of a public-private partnership and the promise of helping to run both schools and the education bureaucracy more like businesses….”  (After the Education Wars, p. 76)

Perhaps Gabor’s most abiding criticism is that Bloomberg and Klein distrusted experienced educators. And this attitude has been part of the corporate reform movement they helped launch across America’s big cities during the past two decades: “The business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures. They came with their prejudices—favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over the knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms.  They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators. And, most of all, they came with their suspicion—even their hatred—of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.” (After the Education Wars, p. 4)

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch examined all this while it was an ongoing experiment: “In the first decade of the new century, New York City became the national testing ground for market based reforms.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, applied business principles to overhaul the nation’s largest school system, which enrolled 1.1 million children… They reorganized the management of the schools, battled the teachers’ union, granted large pay increases to teachers and principals, pressed for merit pay, opened scores of charter schools, broke up large high schools into small ones, emphasized frequent practice for state tests, gave every school a letter grade, closed dozens of low-performing schools, and institutionalized the ideas of choice and competition (albeit without vouchers).  (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 69)

School closures were among the most problematic of Bloomberg’s reforms.  Ravitch explains: “As it elevated the concept of school choice, the Department of Education destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools.  Getting into the high school of one’s choice became as stressful as getting into the college of one’s choice… Students were expected to list their top twelve preferences. Most got into one of the twelve, but thousands got into none at all. Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all the children of the community, a school with distinctive traditions and teams and history. After the neighborhood high school closed, children scattered across the city in response to the lure of new, unknown small schools with catchy names or were assigned to schools far from home… As a high school for 3,000 students was closed down, it would be replaced by four or five small schools for 500 students.  What happened to the missing students?  Invariably, they were the lowest-performing, least motivated students who were somehow passed over by the new schools… These troublesome students were relegated to another large high school, where their enrollment instigated a spiral of failure, dissolution, and closing.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 84)

In a stunning 2013 report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tracked what happened to students who arrived in the district too late for that year’s school choice competition.  Others did not speak English, or for some reason did not participate in the choice process. These students who just showed up at school trying to register were dubbed in NYC, “over the counter students”: “Every year, some 16,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as ‘over-the-counter’ or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education. These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools with higher percentages of low-performing students… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools that are subsequently targeted for closure or that are undergoing the closure process.”

Under Bloomberg’s watch, several large comprehensive high schools, deemed failing for low test scores, were phased out one grade per year.  New ninth graders stopped being enrolled; then tenth grade was eliminated, then eleventh, and finally  the school closed.  Ravitch quotes education sociologist Pedro Noguera: “Pedro Noguera of New York University observed that the Department of Education failed to provide the large schools with the support and guidance they needed to improve. ‘They don’t have a school-change strategy… They have a school-shutdown strategy'”(The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 87)

In a stunning 2015, New Yorker magazine profile of Jamaica High School, in Queens, Jalani Cobb recounts the story of his own alma mater, its demise brought on by increasing residential segregation, poverty, and Bloomberg school reform: “Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States… One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony, but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students.  After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.  The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty percent.  Accordingly, the department had begun to ‘co-locate’ four newly created ‘small schools’ in the old building… The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself both figuratively and literally, pushed out.”

Cobb explains how the Bloomberg-Klein New York Department of Education phased out the school: “In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea.”  But the universal high school choice plan didn’t desegregate New York City’s public schools. “The demographic balance that characterized Jamaica during my years became impossible to maintain. In 2011, the year that the city formally decided to close the school, fourteen percent of the student population had disabilities and twenty-nine percent had limited English proficiency. In the year before the school closed, it was ninety-nine percent minority, a demographic that would not in itself be a concern were it not also the case that sixty-three percent of the students qualified as poor… The tacit belief that large schools were unreformable meant that Jamaica’s sliding numbers looked to some experts like predictable educational failure; to the faculty, those numbers looked like what happens when a school is asked to educate a challenging population without the necessary tools.”

Among the Democrats running for President in 2020, I’ll be looking for a candidate who respects professional educators and who understands the importance of supporting the public schools, designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children. Public schools need our ongoing attention and support. My choice for President couldn’t possibly be Michael Bloomberg.

EdChoice Voucher Expansion in Ohio Creates a New Kind of School Funding Inequity

Steve Dyer’s new Innovation Ohio report on Ohio’s FY 2020-20121 state budget begins: “When Governor Mike DeWine signed HB 166 into law, he approved a budget that lawmakers had packed full of little-noticed gifts to those who seek to erode support for traditional public schools through a proliferation of charter and private school options funded at taxpayer expense.” He continues: “This is just the latest in a series of expansions of vouchers in Ohio law. The state has been on the front lines of the private school voucher fight for two decades.”

One of the ways vouchers were expanded in this budget is that, while in the past, all students except those entering Kindergarten must have been enrolled during the previous school year in the public school district from which the student seeks to carry away a voucher to a private or religious school, the new budget bill erodes this protection for public schools. The Ohio Association of School Business Officials (OASBO) explains: “Generally, students wishing to claim a voucher under the original EdChoice voucher program must have attended a public school in the previous school year. However, HB 166 codifies in law… (that) students going into grades 9-12 need not first attend a public school. In other words, high school students already attending a private school can obtain a voucher.” This change in state law means that Ohio’s public school districts will now be subsidizing the education of many students, primarily those in religious schools, who have never intended to use the public schools.

But the implications of the new state budget voucher expansion are not merely because a new group of students will be awarded vouchers. A new white paper ( Executive Summary or Full Report), released this month by the Heights Coalition for Public Education and written by the Ohio Federation of Teachers’ Darold Johnson and the Heights Coalition’s Susan Kaeser and Ari Klein, digs deeper by exploring new, and very inequitable fiscal implications across Ohio’s 610 school districts of the new budget’s expansion of vouchers.

In its new report, the Heights Coalition explains how Ohio’s four statewide voucher programs are funded: “The most recent program, EdChoice Expansion, is funded directly by the state as a line item in the state budget. The Jon Peterson, Autism, and EdChoice programs are funded by the deduction method. The deduction method counts voucher students as if they are enrolled in the district where they reside. They generate the same amount of state funding for their district of residence as do public school students. The cost of each voucher is transferred from that district’s state funds to the private education provider.”  According to the Ohio Department of Education: “The EdChoice scholarship amount is currently $4,650 for grades K-8 and $6,000 for grades 9-12.”(Emphasis is mine.)

To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, a student must live in the attendance zone of one of Ohio’s “EdChoice designated schools.”  Public schools whose attendance zones qualify for EdChoice vouchers are identified by a complicated state performance index based largely on the school’s aggregate standardized test scores. Last January, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported that in the 2018-19 school year, 218 schools had been identified where students could qualify for an EdChoice voucher. O’Donnell explains that beginning in September of 2019, “that list of ineffective schools balloons to more than 475.”  And the Ohio Department of Education recently designated hundreds of additional schools where students will qualify for EdChoice vouchers next school year in 2020-2021.

But there is a hitch that makes the impact of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers inequitable.  Some school districts don’t receive as much per pupil funding from the state as the per-pupil voucher amount deducted from the school district’s budget when a student takes the voucher to a private or religious school. The Heights Coalition explains how some school districts are harder hit than others by the cost of EdChoice vouchers: “Because state funding is driven by property wealth, high wealth districts receive less state support per pupil, and districts with low wealth receive more.  High wealth districts receive less funding per student, so more of the cost of a voucher is unfunded compared to low wealth districts.”

However, a problem arises because a number of so-called high wealth districts are deemed “high wealth” merely because they are located in metropolitan counties where property valuations are higher in general. These are not school districts filled with million dollar mansions; neither do they serve masses of wealthy children. Some of them have large populations of very poor children with high needs.  Because these districts receive less state aid per pupil than a school voucher is worth, vouchers cost such school districts relatively more than the same vouchers cost other school districts. The Heights Coalition continues: “High wealth districts receive less funding per student, so more of the cost of a voucher is unfunded compared to low wealth districts.”

It immediately becomes clear why the Heights Coalition is exploring this issue: “In FY 2019, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights (CH-UH) School District enrolled 5,111 students of whom 81% are considered to be economically disadvantaged… The CH-UH district is one of only 9 high wealth and high poverty (50% or more of students are economically disadvantaged) districts in Ohio.  It has a disproportionately high number of vouchers compared to its enrollment and compared to most districts.  Additionally CH-UH receives a moderate amount of state funding. In FY 2019, the CH-UH district transferred $7.36 million of its state funding to nonpublic schools for 1,132 voucher students.  This was 34.6% of its state aid, up from just 7% three years earlier. This is the second  largest share of any district in Ohio.”

In actuality, the problem is worse in the current 2019-2020 school year year because state funding for CH-UH is capped in the new state budget. The district’s state funding is frozen at last year’s level, but 600 new vouchers are being deducted from CH-UH this school year, with only 25 of them for students who were previously enrolled in the district. That means that the CH-UH district will not receive any additional state funding this year to cover the new vouchers being carried out of the district’s budget to private and religious schools. In its new report, the Heights Coalition explains: “At a minimum, the unfunded cost of vouchers for FY 2020 will be… an increase of $2.92 million in one year. This is not sustainable.”

The Heights Coalition continues: “When state funds shrink, districts have two options: cut expenses or raise more money by seeking voter approval for an increase in local property taxes. The loss of funds to vouchers has become so costly that during FY 2020, the CH-UH district will turn to voters to solve the budget shortfall. The community already taxes itself at one of the highest rates in the state. Voters who do not support the use of public funds to pay for religious education will balk at approving a levy that is needed to fill a deficit created by state-imposed voucher costs.”

The Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC) provided data for the Heights Coalition report. LSC confirms that 31 Ohio school districts transferred 10 percent or more of their state aid to private schools for vouchers in 2019.  Greater Cleveland is especially affected with roughly half—15 of Cuyahoga County’s 31 school districts— losing at least 10 percent of their state aid to vouchers. The Heights Coalition explains: “The cost of a voucher is set by the legislature and is the same in every school district.  But the state funding per pupil varies by district. This means the impact on public school students will be different depending on voucher use and per pupil (state) funding.”

The Heights Coalition proposes that in the short term, compensatory state aid be provided to school districts which lose more than 10 percent of their state revenue to voucher deductions: “Allocate additional state funds to districts where unfunded voucher costs… are greater than 10 % of that district’s state aid.”

The Heights Coalition suggests the legislature also adopt the longer-term solution that is already part of the proposed Cupp-Patterson School Funding proposal: “End the deduction method for funding vouchers.”  EdChoice voucher students should not initially be counted as though enrolled in their local school district, and the cost of their voucher would not then be deducted from the school district’s budget. These students should simply have their voucher awarded directly by the state out of a line item appropriated in the state budget.  This is, by the way, the way Ohio already funds another of its voucher programs—EdChoice Expansion.

Fourteen Years Later, Andrea Gabor Examines the Meaning of the 2005 Seizure of New Orleans’ Public Schools

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in September of 2005, I was serving in the Justice & Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination, as the point person tracking and staffing work in UCC congregations to support justice in public education. My job was to help our churches support equal opportunity and access to quality education and to ensure that members of our congregations understood the importance of the First Amendment separation of church and state in public schools.

In the autumn and winter of 2005, our office worked with partners in New Orleans to advocate for policies that would protect New Orleans’ most vulnerable citizens during the hurricane recovery.  Early in the fall of 2005, it wasn’t apparent that the city’s public schools would be affected, but weeks later the state intervened to take over the majority of the schools under a Louisiana law that had been amended to permit the broad takeover. All of the school district’s teachers were put on disaster leave, and on March 24, 2006, all of the school district’s teachers were dismissed or forced to retire.

My job included writing a September, beginning-of-school resource for UCC congregations. Its purpose was to highlight primary challenges to justice in our nation’s public schools. To research the 2006-2007 Message on Public Education, I traveled for a week in July, 2006 to New Orleans to learn what was happening in the public schools of a devastated city. I talked with the Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, sidelined in the state takeover. I spoke for more than an hour with Brenda Mitchell, the president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, which had been rendered—by state fiat—incapable of protecting even long-serving, tenured teachers. I drove past the former Alcee Fortier High School—previously a public neighborhood high school with open admissions—now seized by the state and turned over to Tulane University to become the selective Lusher (charter) High School, which privileged admission for the children of the staff of Tulane and other universities. And I visited Benjamin Franklin High School, formerly a selective magnet high school, and now a selective charter high school.  While charter schools in the rest of the country were required to accept students through non-selective lotteries, in New Orleans, the emergency had created a rationale for exceptions that created a group of exclusive, selective charter schools.

What I learned during that week was that the majority of public schools in New Orleans—one of the poorest communities in the United States—had been deemed “failing” because of low test scores and that, due to that designation, the state and all sorts of players I did not understand were conducting a disruptive experiment with a new kind of school reform on a group of children whose lives had just been upended in every other possible way.  In October of 2006, Leigh Dingerson, for The Center for Community Change, published a profound resource exploring the same issues.  She called it Dismantling a Community. Later Kristen Buras published Pedagogy, Policy and the Privatized City and other research that helped explain, from the point of view of New Orleans’ teachers and students, what had happened.  But at that time none of us really had the language accurately to characterize what we had watched happening as public education was intentionally collapsed into some kind of experiment.

Naomi Klein helped with the definition in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, in which she described the sudden takeover of the public schools in New Orleans as the defining metaphor for neoliberal economic reform: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

This month In the November, 2019, Harper’s Magazine, Andrea Gabor examines the New Orleans school takeover fourteen years later, from the perspective of history.  Who were the real players in the seizure of the city’s schools? How did the experiment work? Did the New Orleans state takeover improve the schools? And how has neoliberal school reform in New Orleans impacted what has happened across the United States in the ensuing decade and a half.  Gabor, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, also examined the history of corporate school reform in a 2018 book, After The Education Wars.

Who were the real players? Gabor explains: “The transformation of New Orleans into an all-charter city was spearheaded by a handful of large philanthropic organizations, and cultivating relationships with these institutions is often essential to a school’s survival.” Gabor identifies New Schools for New Orleans as the local pass-through agency, the gatekeeper for distribution of funds from philanthropies outside the city. And in New Orleans the big funders were the same foundations which have underwriting disruptive, neoliberal school reform ever since: “Since about 2000, the model’s chief proponents and funders have been three big philanthropies: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. (The Walton Foundation, which recently announced another $1 billion investment in K-12 education, may be the single largest charter-school benefactor in New Orleans, typically providing grants between $100,000 and $350,000 to startups.)”

Gabor describes how this sort of school reform works in New Orleans: “The system operated on a bottom-line approach known as the portfolio model, which seeks to manage schools like stocks in a Wall Street portfolio: the model rewards high performers (as measured primarily by test scores) with further investment and punishes poor performers by cutting off funding or by shuttering them. The promise of this model was that idealistic technocrats would run schools like businesses, emphasizing competition, financial incentives, and accountability…  Over one third of charters are run by large management organizations such as the San Francisco-based Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which operates hundreds of schools across the country, including eight in New Orleans.”

What about eliminating the teachers’ union?  In New Orleans, explains Gabor, “The silencing of teachers was facilitated by Teach for America… Typically, new T.F.A. staffers were handed canned curricula and detailed rules on classroom management… While the new teachers were willing, initially, to work fourteen-, sixteen-, and eighteen-hour days, close to half came to the city with less than three years of experience. And in the schools that served the poorest students, most teachers lasted no more than a year or two. Ironically, today New Schools for New Orleans blames its declining test scores in part on what it calls a teacher attrition ‘crisis.'”

Authentic community engagement was undermined in New Orleans by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (B.E.S.E.): “In fact, the chartering process was designed to deny input by community groups.  Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, then-governor Kathleen Blanco signed executive orders suspending key provisions of Louisiana’s school law, including the requirement to consult with, and obtain the votes of affected faculty and parents before converting an existing public school into a charter school. Granted the authority to take over ‘failing schools,’ B.E.S.E. handed most charter-authorization decisions to the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers.”

Gabor examines years of test-score evidence and concludes that even based on test scores alone, the New Orleans experiment didn’t work: “The latest state data confirms that New Orleans test scores have stagnated or declined since 2013. This year, only four charter high schools in New Orleans scored above the state average in English and math—of those, three were selective schools. The vast majority of nonselective schools performed well below average for the state….”  Gabor also describes the limits of test scores as the measure of school quality: “The portfolio model’s approach emphasized test scores at the expense of other crucial educational goals, including nurturing children and fostering their creativity and citizenship. Charter schools responded to this pressure by subjecting students to intensive test prep, including spending thousands of dollars on private tutors, and by weeding out students who didn’t test well.  And some schools cheated.”

The New Orleans state takeover quickly became a model for other states to experiment with the seizure of low-scoring school districts, and Gabor updates the story to what’s happening right now. The list of philanthropic players has expanded to include Laurene Powell Jobs, John Arnold—once a commodities trader for Enron, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings: “Hastings and Arnold… went on to launch the City Fund, a $200 million effort to spread the New Orleans portfolio model to forty cities across the country. With Neerav Kingsland, an erstwhile head of New Schools for New Orleans as its managing director, the City Fund is building on familiar alliances and strategies. One of the City Fund’s first beneficiaries was an Indianapolis-based gatekeeper called the Mind Trust…. With the help of Gates funding, Mind Trust created a nationwide network of local gatekeepers and like-minded organizations to advance the education-reform agenda.”

During my own week visiting New Orleans back in 2006, I found what had happened to the schools extremely disturbing, but I struggled to see the big picture and to name what was happening.  It is important that writers like Gabor are putting a decade and a half of New Orleans-style school reform into historical context.  In January, Diane Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath, will surely continue this analysis.

In her new Harper’s Magazine article, Gabor identifies the key players in neoliberal, corporate-style, accountablity-based school reform; shows how their ideology and their money undermined public education in New Orleans; and demonstrates how  school reform modeled on the New Orleans takeover has grown into a multi-state wave.  She also shows that the movement has been a failure.

Delegates Assembly of Chicago Teachers Union Ends Strike, Agrees to New Contract

The beloved former president of the Chicago Teachers Union who has been sidelined by a brain tumor, Karen Lewis released a statement on Tuesday night to urge Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, to find a way to resolve the then nine-day teachers’ strike. Lewis concluded her statement with the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”

The primary issues underneath the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, tentatively ended around midnight on Wednesday, were shockingly inadequate services for children and two decades of the disempowerment of school teachers in Chicago. To fully ratify the agreement, all 25,000 members of of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) must vote within ten days.

Just as teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles and Oakland publicly exposed deplorable conditions in underfunded public schools and in school districts where sizeable portions of the budgets have been diverted to charter schools, Chicago’s strike focused on the conditions in which Chicago’s teachers are forced to teach and their students are expected to learn.

The Chicago strike was never really about teachers’ pay.  Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially offered teachers a 16 percent raise over five years, and the teachers eventually accepted that offer. Some people criticized teachers, because Lightfoot’s original offer seemed generous. So why did they strike?

You have only to look at what teachers—in the final contract—accepted as an improvement in school staffing to grasp the deficient conditions Chicago’s leaders have ignored during years of austerity and disruptive corporate school reform.  From the Chicago Sun-Times: “The union received a guarantee that there will be a full-time dedicated nurse and social worker in every school by July 2023 with staffing ramping up from now till then. On class size, a new joint council will be created to address overcrowding. The council will get weekly updated data and will have $35 million per year to address situations on a case-by-case basis. Overcrowded classrooms will only get relief, however, when they hit certain hard caps. Those limits are: 32 students in a K-3 class, 35 kids in grades 4-8, and 32 students in core high school classes. The district’s guidelines for normal-sized classes—ones it says it ‘shall aspire to stay within’—are 32 for K-3, 31 for grades 4-8 and 25 for core high school classes.”

Chicago’s top school reporter, WBEZ‘s Sarah Karp describes the real subject of this Chicago teachers’ strike: “The strike… did something else, beyond just producing a contract that includes language on and money for lower classes and more staffing.  It shined a light on the barebones conditions common in many Chicago schools. Sharkey (CTU president Jesse Sharkey) declared at one rally that the strike was a revolt by all the people who work in or are impacted by Chicago Public Schools. He often said the strike was about educational justice.  For decades, Chicagoans had gotten used to schools with the bare minimum numbers of nurses, social workers, counselors, librarians, even teachers.  And in the last decade of budget cuts and austerity, these staff became more scarce at many schools… In press conferences and at rallies, teachers, social workers, special education teacher assistants and even athletic coaches talked passionately about how their schools lacked resources commonplace in most other school districts.  Many teachers talked about having 40-plus students in their classrooms and they did not have any recourse. The teachers talked about how they often had to serve as nurses or social workers because these staff were only available one or two days a week. One preschool teacher talked about how having too many children in preschool classes left some students sitting in urine for hours. Other teachers talked about how they had no help for traumatized students. Athletic coaches said needed equipment was so sparse they often used their paltry stipends to buy bats and bases. One softball coach said her team picks up broken glass and other trash before starting practice… And to perhaps the surprise of Mayor Lightfoot, many parents stood by the teachers. Parents said they knew firsthand how bad conditions were because their children were living it.”

It is easy these days to extract a particular event out of its historical context. The 24/7 news shifts the focus to sensational details, disagreements, and rancor. But Chicago’s teachers made it clear from the outset that remediating the 25 year  disempowerment of Chicago’s teachers was also a primary goal of this strike. Chicago teachers have been pawns again and again as politicians enacted plans that undermined Chicago teachers’ control over the circumstances in which they teach and their students learn.

In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley got the legislature to grant him mayoral control and, in the same law, a provision that has banned the right of Chicago’s teachers to strike over any issue apart from salary and fringe benefits. In 2004 the same mayor, along with appointed corporate reformer CEO Paul Vallas and his assistant Arne Duncan, disrupted the Chicago schools with Renaissance 2010 to close schools and open charters. Mayor Rahm Emanual intensified corporate school reform by instituting student based budgeting, which combined school choice with a plan to let the money follow the child. This sort of policy is central to what is known as “portfolio” school reform, in which a district sheds its weakest schools and opens new ones.  As children choose schools perceived to be winners, student based budgeting begins a downward spiral in schools that are losing students, as principals with ever-decreasing budgets shed the counselors and librarians  they can no longer afford and increase class size. University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing documents widespread community grieving on Chicago’s South and West Sides for the closure of institutions long valued as anchors of their neighborhoods.

In last week’s negotiations, CTU demanded that Mayor Lightfoot agree as part of the contract to support legislation in Springfield to return Chicago’s schools to an elected school board, and to support legislation once-again to permit Chicago’s teachers to bargain about the conditions in their schools and not merely salary and benefits.  Lightfoot refused. While, Mayor Lightfoot agreed to the kind of staffing changes now prohibited by state law as permissible in CTU negotiations, she delayed settling the strike when she refused to agree to the union’s demand that she throw her support to state legislation to undo the 1995 law that established a mayoral-appointed school board and limited the CTU contracts to salary and benefits.  Sarah Karp explains: “(T)o her credit, she did not pursue this legal argument once the strike started and never moved, as her predecessor did, to have the walkout declared illegal. This, she must have realized, was a strike on moral issue and fighting it in a courtroom would not reflect well, especially on a mayor who ran as a progressive. After all, she agreed the school district needed more support staff.  But she said putting these promises in the contract would lessen the flexibility the leadership needed.”

Fortunately Chicago’s powerful leaders in Illinois’s state legislature grasped that one of the strike’s primary goals was to undo at least some of the history aimed at disempowering the Chicago Teachers Union. The Sun-Times reports: “On Wednesday, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton signaled support for both measures. That led the union to drop its demand that Lightfoot publicly support the measures.” Later, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker added his support for the legislation demanded by CTU.

Chicago has served as a microcosm where we have all watched the operation of accountability-based, test and punish school reform. Chicago’s history has mirrored the imposition of the same kind of reforms mandated nationally in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Corporate-accountability reformers have embraced evaluation of schools by test scores alone, competition among schools (public school competition and competition from charter schools), punishments for teachers when test scores are low, and school closures for so-called “failing” schools. The experiment has been going on in Chicago for nearly 25 years since mayoral governance was imposed in 1995.

What Chicago teachers showed us during their ten day strike is that corporate reform has not worked.  Chicago’s children have been trapped in schools where too many classes have 40 students and not nearly enough support staff.  Parents and students have been rallying with their teachers now for nearly two weeks. We have all watched an open display of schools whose funding and resources have become shockingly inadequate.

Wealth and Power Undermine Equity and Democracy Across Ohio’s Public School Districts

The operation of wealth and power has never been more evident in Ohio school politics than it is this month.

HUNTING VALLEY   In an op-ed this week, the retired editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin describes  an attempted state budget amendment that would have let residents of wealthy Hunting Valley in greater Cleveland off the hook from paying school taxes: “There are few wealthier towns in the country than Hunting Valley, a lovely little place with meandering streams, dense forests, winding roads and gorgeous homes, snuggling along and across Cuyahoga County’s eastern border. With a mean household income of $507,214 and average home value of about $1.3 million, the Higley 1000, using 2010 Census data, ranked Hunting Valley Ohio’s most affluent place and the nation’s 17th richest community… What a small minority of the 700 or so who live in Hunting Valley want is special treatment so recklessly selfish it would devastate the Orange public school system. Worse yet, it might just ignite a backlash in the 615 school districts throughout Ohio, perhaps harming 1.7 million public school children in the process.”

Last spring, Hunting Valley hired former speaker of the Ohio House and now lobbyist, Bill Batchelder to insert a tiny amendment into the huge Ohio budget to permit Hunting Valley to limit payment of school taxes to the Orange school district of which it is a part only to the amount required to cover the tiny number of the village’s children who enroll in Orange schools. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, alerted to Hunting Valley’s search for a way to help its residents avoid paying taxes, vetoed the amendment, but Larkin reports that some of Hunting Valley’s residents haven’t given up.

What alarms Larkin is the absence of civic responsibility among some of Hunting Valley’s privileged residents: “Millions of Ohioans with no children in the school system in which they live pay these property taxes—not necessarily because they like it, but because they understand it is the right thing to do, because they embrace the notion that educating our children is an essential element of sustaining our democracy.”

HILLS AND DALES   Then there is the amendment that did make it into the Ohio budget without a veto.  The Plain Dealer‘s Andrew J. Tobias reports this week that, “Ohio has lowered the bar communities must meet if they want to break away from their assigned school district and join another one. The little-noticed change was added as an amendment to the 3,000-page state budget bill signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in July. It’s drawing sharp criticism from public school officials lobbying to repeal it, and prompted a lawsuit from a Stark County school district that’s pledged to fight it from taking effect… Under the new law, people who live within a township containing more than one school district now can hold a vote on which district they want to send their children to. It supersedes the existing system that requires approval from the state board of education, which used to have to consider factors including the impact of the transfer would have on students.  School officials say the change will lead to more inequality in how schools are funded by making it easier for richer communities to break away.”

Tobias fills in the background of this new provision quietly slipped into the state budget: “(T)he request seems to trace back to Hills and Dales, an affluent Stark County village of about 200 people that for years has fought to change districts from its current Plain Local Schools to nearby Jackson Local Schools.  A group of Hills and Dales residents, including W.R. Timken, the politically connected ex-chairman and CEO of the Timken Company, in July wrote a letter backing the change to six lawmakers tasked with finalizing the state budget… (V)illage council minutes show Hills and Dales began its latest push to change school districts in February 2018.  They wanted an alternative to the existing process for changing schools, under which the State Board of Education in 2005 denied the village’s request to switch to Jackson Local Schools.  A state hearing officer ruled the move from Plain schools, where student enrollment was 74% white and 15% black, to Jackson Local Schools, which was 87% white and 2% black, would harm students because it would increase racial and socioeconomic isolation and financially hurt Plan schools.”

Tobias quotes Will Schwartz of the Ohio School Boards Association raising concerns about Hunting Valley’s and Hills and Dales’ attempts to change the law on behalf of powerful local residents: “These things are kind of popping up, sidestepping those good-government due process provisions… And we’re concerned.”

YOUNGSTOWN CASE HEARD THIS WEEK BY OHIO SUPREME COURT      Ironically other recent Ohio headlines capture urgent problems for school districts whose residents are less powerful. On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court held oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging Ohio’s 2015 law that set up state takeover of the state’s school districts with persistently low standardized test scores.  Despite that decades of research and a simple set of graphs from the Plain Dealer‘s data wonk Rich Exner demonstrate conclusively that a school district’s aggregate standardized test scores are a poor way to measure school quality because of their almost perfect correlation with the community’s median income, the state of Ohio has for four years now been punishing low scoring school districts with autocratic state takeover. Describing the case considered on Wednesday by the Ohio Supreme Court, the Associated Press reports: “At issue is a state law that shifted operational control of such districts from locally elected boards to unelected CEOs hired by state-appointed academic distress commissions, starting with one in Youngstown.  The Youngstown school board and school employees’ unions challenged the law, arguing it violates the Ohio Constitution by stripping school boards of their authority.  They also contend lawmakers violated a procedural rule—the “Three Reading Rule”—and skirted more thorough debate about significant changes made to the divisive House Bill 70 when it was pushed through the Legislature in one day in 2015.”  We will await the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, but even as the Court is considering the constitutionality of the law creating state school takeovers, the consequences in Youngstown and Lorain continue to play out.

STATE NOW TRIES TO REMOVE ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD IN YOUNGSTOWN     Earlier this month we learned about one more extension of autocratic state power, hidden in the fine print of HB 70 when it was passed in 2015. Even though HB 70 sidelines the locally elected school board when the state takes over, in Youngstown and Lorain, the law has permitted the election of a locally elected local school board. But there is another provision in HB 70 that has gone unnoticed until now: At the end of four years of state takeover, because the Youngstown school district earned another “F” on the state report card, the state will now replace the elected school board in Youngstown with a state-approved, mayoral-appointed school board.  This is to punish Youngstown for not raising its grade to “C” during four years of state takeover, a period when, ironically, the locally elected school board has had no role to play in the operation of Youngstown’s schools.  Since 2015, the state has been running the district through a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO to lead the school district.  The state’s operation of the school district has earned four years of “F” grades on the state report card, but HB 70 now triggers the state’s elimination of the locally elected school board.

LORAIN’S STATE TAKEOVER CEO, DAVID HARDY, IS BEING TERMINATED—FINALLY     The HB 70 state takeover has been a disaster in Lorain, the other Ohio district now four years into state takeover. Last week, members of the the state-appointed Academic Distress Commission in Lorain announced that their appointed CEO, David Hardy is being fired after four chaotic years. There have been problems from the start. The chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission quit last winter.  Last spring, after the state appointed a new chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission, the Elyria Chronicle Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explained: “Per Hardy’s contract, the commission was required to evaluate him after his first 180 days in the district, 365 days in the position and thereafter on a yearly basis.  None of those evaluations were completed.” The new Academic Distress Commission chair formally evaluated Hardy over the summer, and Woytach reported last week: “In August, Hardy received an ineffective rating from the commission for the 2018-19 school year.” His termination is currently being negotiated.

SCHOOL CLOSURES ANNOUNCED IN CLEVELAND     In the Cleveland school district, under another form of two-decades-old state takeover—state established mayoral governance and an appointed school board—the district announced a downsizing plan this week, a plan based on closing the storied Collinwood High School and ten other schools. Under-enrollment is the rationale.  The District says its schools now have 7,000 unused seats. At a hearing, Ohio state school board member Meryl Johnson raised concerns about the imbalance of closures affecting the city’s historically black East Side.

EQUITY CONCERNS ARISE AS NEW STATE BUDGET RADICALLY EXPANDS SCHOOL VOUCHERS     Buried in the new Ohio state budget is explosive growth of school vouchers for students to carry to private and religious schools. Students qualify for EdChoice Vouchers by living in the neighborhood school zone of a public school posting a low grade on the state’s report card. The number of such schools has ballooned, explains the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell, from 218 last year to 475 this school year.  Because Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers deduct the voucher directly from a school district’s budget, and because the new state budget expanded eligibility to include all of the state’s high school students enrolled in EdChoice designated schools—even students who have never previously been enrolled in a public school, some school districts are assuming an unbearable burden imposed unexpectedly in the state budget.

A new report from the Heights Coalition for Public Education, with information verified by the Ohio Legislative Services Commission, describes the plight for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School district, where many families who were already using religious schools are taking advantage of the new rules established in the budget.  The problem is made more serious because the school district’s state funding is capped at the 2019-2020 level due to revenue restrictions also set by the new state budget. The Heights Coalition’s report explains:  “The 2020-2021 biennium budget froze budgets at the FY 2019 level. Inadequate state aid will be stretched to cover a growing number of public school students and an avalanche of new voucher students. In CH-UH district, vouchers increased by 600 in FY 2020, of whom only 25 students left (were previously enrolled in) the CH-UH system.  At a minimum, the unfunded cost of vouchers for FY 2020 will be $7.28 million, an increase of $2.92 million in one year. This is not sustainable.”

Ohio operates four statewide voucher programs that eat up state and local funding for public schools. The Heights Coalition’s report explains how the funding mechanism for the EdChoice Vouchers program raises equity concerns: “The deduction method counts voucher students as if they are enrolled in the district where they reside. They generate for that district the same amount of state support as public school students. In CH-UH and most other districts in the state, the cost of a voucher is significantly more than the per pupil funding that voucher students generate. To cover the ‘unfunded’ part of each voucher, payments are transferred from state funds generated by that district’s public school students, creating an over-reliance on local property tax.”  This is complicated further when, as in the new budget, so many school districts’ state revenue is capped at last year’s level due to a state school funding formula which, most people agree, has been underfunded for so many years it has become unworkable. This year, without any additional money from the state, the
Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district will suddenly be paying for private school tuition vouchers for hundreds of new students who have always attended private schools.

Ohio’s school funding challenges are overwhelming. Funding from the state has been inadequate for years. But it isn’t merely a lack of investment in the state’s public education system. Dangerous challenges result from manipulation of power in Columbus and policies imposed autocratically to deny democratic participation in the school districts serving families in poverty. Communities with wealth and power have also been shameless in trying to protect their own interests.