No Quick Fixes: Disparities in COVID Learning Loss Reflect Persistent Inequity in Children’s Economic Circumstances and Inequitable School Funding

Nine months ago, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon seemed confident that students would bounce back relatively quickly from the COVID disruption in their schools.  He told Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz: “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….”

Now Reardon has joined Harvard’s Tom Kane expressing deeper concern about what the newest test scores show: serious inequalities in the way children’s schooling was disrupted. Because Reardon and Kane are data wonks, of course test scores—the primary source of measurable academic data—are their focus. Their new conclusions about the depth of COVID disruption—what the data prove—should interest and concern us all.  I am concerned, however, about their proposed remedy when it comes to helping children who fell even further behind during the pandemic.

Here is how Reardon and Kane describe their research and what they have discovered: “We’ve looked at test scores, the duration of school closures, broadband availability, Covid death rates, employment data, patterns of social activity, voting patterns, measures of how connected people are to others in their communities and Facebook survey data on both family activities and mental health during the pandemic. And to get a sense of how probable it is that students will make up the ground they lost over the next few years, we looked at earlier test scores to see how students recovered from various disruptions in the decade before the pandemic… Our detailed geographic data reveals what national tests do not: The pandemic exacerbated economic and racial educational inequality.”

Are you surprised?

They continue: “By 2022, the typical student in the poorest districts had lost three-quarters of a year in math, more than double the decline of students in the richest districts. The declines in reading scores were half as large as in math and were similarly much larger in poor districts than rich districts. The pandemic left students in low-income and predominantly minority communities ever further behind their peers in richer, whiter districts than they were… (T)he extent to which schools were closed appears to have affected all students in a community equally, regardless of income or race… But school closures are only part of the story… We found that test scores declined more in places where the Covid death rate was high, in communities where adults reported feeling more depression and anxiety during the pandemic, and where daily routines of children and families were more significantly restricted. In combination, these factors put enormous strain on parents, teachers and kids…. On average, both math and reading scores declined by roughly a tenth of a year more in the 10 percent of districts where social activities were most curtailed than they did in the 10 percent least restricted.”

Parents don’t realize, they write, how far behind their children really are; they should be worried.  School districts need to take major steps.  So…. what are their prescriptions?  They conclude: “This summer mayors and governors should be launching public service campaigns to promote summer learning. And school boards should begin negotiating to extend the next school year.” Community organizations, museums, camps and athletic programs should “add an academic component to those programs.” “One possibility would be to offer an optional fifth year of high school for students to fill holes in academic skills, get help with applying to college or to explore alternative career pathways… Another option would be to make ninth grade a triage year during which students would receive intensive help in key academic subjects. As enticing as it might be to get back to normal, doing so will just leave in place the devastating increase in inequality caused by the pandemic.”

What worries me in a report documenting that, “in communities where adults reported feeling more depression and anxiety during the pandemic, and where daily routines of children and families were more significantly restricted,” the purpose of the new report seems to be stimulating parents to worry more.  And, if disruption in children’s lives was a primary cause of collapsing test scores, according to this research, why pack academics into summer camp and football practice at a time when we should be grateful that kids’ social life is returning to normal?

What about making the school year longer and adding a fifth year of high school?  Kane and Reardon suggest that the proposed fifth year would be optional, but I worry— when it comes to how the test-and-punish accountability hawks have always operated—whether optional might pretty soon become mandatory when it comes to the kids with the lowest scores. And even though these researchers correlate the reduction of in-person schooling with increased learning loss, they suggest that schools should incentivize community organizations to have students use “educational software—like the programs from Zearn and Khan Academy… Schools could incentivize organizations working with students after school, on weekends or during school vacation weeks to include time for students to learn online.”

Public school policy that obsesses about test scores has for over two decades been punitive for schools, punitive for teachers, and punitive for children. Many states have failed to end the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee, which holds kids back when they can’t pass the mandatory standardized test in third grade, even though it has been well documented that holding kids back even once increases their chance of dropping out before high school graduation.  And a number of states still make high school graduation dependent on passing a high school exit exam even when students have completed all of their classes successfully. Will cut scores on standardized tests once again become the marker that mandates more punishment—summer school and a fifth year of high school?

Certainly I believe that school districts should prioritize, and school staff should collaborate on plans to ensure that students catch up on their academic skills.  But I know that, in Ohio, for example, as the state phases in a new school funding plan, legislators have failed the school districts serving communities where family poverty is concentrated by phasing increases in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a much slower rate than the rest of the new formula. And rather than accelerating the phase-in of the new plan, the legislature intends to drive more and more money to expanding vouchers for private school tuition.

In an article published in a 2023, Big Ideas report from First Focus on Children, constitutional scholar Derek Black describes the rampant school funding inequity across the states and among the school districts within each state. Surely these alarming school resource disparities are a large part of the reason some children are catching up from COVID’s disruption more slowly than children in other school districts: “On most major measures, educational inequality is holding steady or on the rise. Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools. Even putting aside this inequality, overall government commitment to public education is receding. Since 2008, most states have substantially decreased school funding, some by more than 20%.”

We also know that family poverty is an enormous challenge for parents and for children and that school achievement scores correlate with family income. Congress supported parents and children during 2022 by expanding the federal Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable to the poorest families.  But Congress let that program lapse (see here and here) at the end of 2022, throwing many families back into deep poverty.  Restoring the 2022 expanded and fully refundable Child Tax Credit would be a major step to help stabilize children’s lives.

The most direct way for states to address academic learning loss through their public schools is for legislators to invest in the public schools by ensuring that state school finance formulas are adequate, fully funded, and designed to distribute revenue equitably across wealthy and poor school districts.  Children will best catch up from the pandemic in small classes taught by well supported teachers. Students will engage enthusiastically with schooling when there are strong academics, reading programs that feature enticing children’s and adolescent literature, art and music programs, and plenty of sports and other enriching settings for students to connect both socially and academically.

Certainly I agree with Reardon and Kane that test scores documenting COVID learning loss are a symptom of extremely serious structural inequity that was only exacerbated by the pandemic.  But I believe significant efforts to address school funding inequity and ameliorate child poverty are the only long term way to help children who are struggling to catch up after the three-year COVID disruption.


Why Is the Ohio Legislature So Devoted to the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee?

I am grateful to Ohio State Representative Gayle Manning for her dogged effort to eliminate third-grade retention that is the feature of the Third-Grade Guarantee, a plan hatched by Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd, a “think-tank” that has been pushing punitive school reform for years. Despite that her effort failed last year to eliminate mandated retention for Ohio’s students in third-grade if they can’t pass the standardized reading test, Rep. Manning hasn’t given up.  She has sponsored House Bill 117 in the current legislative session to eliminate third-grade retention.

The Third-Grade Guarantee is the most misguided example of terrible, test-based school accountability.  As with No Child Left Behind and the whole school accountability movement, the purpose is to force schools and school teachers to work harder. But in this case, the victims are the children who arrive at school with different levels of preparation for reading and at different places along the developmental range of normal reading readiness.

In Ohio these days, the loudest voices are the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Andy Brenner, who brags about his recent Master of Arts in Teaching from Liberty University, but who has never taught young children. For the Plain Dealer on Monday, Laura Hancock quoted Brenner: “Part of this discussion with the Third Grade Reading Guarantee is can we put these kids on reading improvement plans where the science is behind it that these kids will get on a path to be able to learn to read by fourth grade? That is still the objective.”

We also hear from the Fordham Institute and Ohio Excels—a group representing the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the business community. Both groups are strong critics of teachers and the public schools. Hancock quotes Fordham’s Aaron Churchill: “If you can’t read at the end of grade three, your prospects are quite dim… The dropout rates are higher if you’re having difficulty reading at this point. The material gets harder when you get into fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade, you’re going to get left behind if you don’t have those foundational reading skills.”

Actually Churchill has it backwards about the dropout rate. It turns out that promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee ignore research showing that when students are held back in any grade—they are more likely later to drop out 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, an emeritus professor of education and former president of the American Educational Research Association  and Gene V. Glass, a professor of education and an expert in  education policy, 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. However, 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.”

A year ago as the Ohio Legislature considered a bill similar to HB 117, the Akron Beacon Journal Editorial Board pressed the legislature to end mandatory third-grade retention based on a single test score: “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.”

Hancock describes Senate Education Chair, Andy Brenner on the likely future for HB 117: “Brenner, the Ohio senator overseeing the K-12 education committee, predicts the Senate will put back into the budget bill the Third Grade Reading Guarantee retention provision.”

Most educators accept that sometimes a child should be held back.  But most agree that this is a complex decision that needs to be considered carefully by the child’s teacher and parents and other school staff.

Perhaps Ohio politicians’ adherence to this dangerous policy is yet another example of their distrust of teachers. Some of our legislators would prefer an automatic policy as safer and more impersonal.  Maybe teachers are too soft on the children.  In fact, we ought to hope and assume that a child’s teacher cares about the child’s welfare, has a complex understanding of the child’s reading and other academic challenges and strengths, and is actively trying to help the child.  What an utterly radical idea!

Will Chicago Be Able to Climb Out of the Deep Hole Dug by Neoliberal School Reform?

Today the Chicago Public Schools epitomize the much larger national problem of over twenty years of punitive, test-based school accountability and neoliberal “portfolio school reform,” by which a school district rapidly expands charter schools and manages the whole system through school choice.  There are encouraging signs that Chicago’s leaders are reexamining and trying to ameliorate a set of tragic problems, but it is clear that undoing over two decades of test-based school accountability is going to be complicated and difficult.

In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daily got the Illinois Legislature to give the mayor and the mayor’s appointed school board power over the city’s public schools.  Paul Vallas implemented the plan. Later Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010, a plan to move toward universal school choice, open 100 new charter schools by 2010, and shut down so-called “failing” schools that couldn’t compete. In June of 2013, Rahm Emanuel shut down nearly 50 public neighborhood elementary schools—schools that were said to be under-enrolled and underutilized. In her book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing provided the data about exactly who suffered from these policies: “Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers—a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.”(Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Then in 2014, Emanuel and his appointed board instituted student-based budgeting.  Each school received per-pupil funding for the number of students enrolled, and schools with declining enrollment lost staff. This policy reinforced and deepened the school district’s commitment to competition among schools. As schools’ budgets began to drop as students moved to the schools with better reputations, principals in the under-enrolled schools had to increase class size and reduce staff including librarians, music and art teachers, special education teachers, and full time social workers. Student-based budgeting locked in place a race to the bottom for the most vulnerable schools.

It is encouraging that in recent months Chicago has taken steps to turn away from the past two decades of public school policy.

The first steps have been political. In July, 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill into state law to phase in a return to an elected board of education.  In 2024, eleven members will be elected as part of a 21 member partially appointed board, and by 2027 the phase in of an elected board of education will be complete.  Then last month, Chicago elected a new mayor, Brandon Johnson, who had run on a platform that includes reducing student-based budgeting and fully staffing all of the district’s public schools.

There have also been important steps taken within the school district itself. Last week, Chicago’s school board, appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, established a new school rating system intended to reduce the branding of schools.  The school board voted to replace the old SQRP—School Quality Rating Policy—a system that rated schools primarily on their aggregate standardized test scores.  WBEZ’s Sarah Karp quotes board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who spearheaded the drive for the new plan: “Part of what started this was our communities being very clear about the harm that they felt from a rating system that didn’t just make them feel like it was something wrong with their schools, but something deficient with them as people, as communities, as parents… I want to say again publicly that we are done with SQRP.”

John Easton, an advisor to the development of the new plan, formerly an administrator in Chicago Public Schools, and formerly the director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education is quoted by Karp about the new plan: “This is a soft accountability policy that can be a model for the nation… We’re using a flashlight, not a hammer… The flashlight is to help us find that place where some support can help… that you’re not a bad school because you’re serving kids from impoverished and disenfranchised and disinvested neighborhoods.”

Education Week‘s Libby Stanford reminds readers that federal policy, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind, currently continues to require that states rate and rank their schools. But Stanford reports that in January, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona hinted at softer enforcement of this policy when he used the same language as Easton in Chicago. Cardona said standardized tests should serve as ‘flashlight’ on what works in education not as ‘a hammer’ to force outcomes.” Stanford reports that Cardona’s “statement reflects a shift in thinking since annual testing became federal law more than 20 years ago, and it echoes past comments from Cardona.”

Will Chicago’s new system work to eliminate the branding of some of Chicago’s schools as so-called “failing schools”?  Here, according to Chalkbeat Chicago‘s Mila Koumpilova, is how the new system is supposed to work: “The new approach does away with rating schools on a five-point scale from 1+ to 3… Under the new accountability policy, the district will compile a wide array of metrics and present them to parents and the public—rather than using a complex calculation to produce a ranking as the old system did. A new dashboard with that data will go live sometime during the 2024-25 school year, based on data from this coming school year. And while the policy aims to hold the district accountable for providing the money, guidance, and other resources schools need to improve, it does not spell out any consequences for campuses that are not making headway.”

The Chicago Tribune’s Sarah Macaraeg explains: “(T)he ‘Continuous Improvement and Data Transparency’ policy will instead measure a range of ‘indicators of success.’ Those include not only academic progress but also student well-being, quality of daily learning experiences, school inclusivity, and the capacity of staff to collaborate in teacher learning.”

Will rethinking school accountability in Chicago be accepted by the federal government? We will have to watch closely to see whether the U.S. Department of Education is fully behind rethinking the nation’s long philosophy of using aggregate standardized test scores to brand schools as successful or failing. Will the Department adjust school accountability enforcement according to the more constructive and less punitive accountability standard that Secretary Cardona has articulated?

And, equally important, will rethinking school accountability help break parents’ habit of automatically ranking and rating schools in a racially segregated, school-choice district like Chicago?  It is to be hoped that parents in Chicago will carefully examine the new, more qualitative analysis of each school’s characteristics. One hopes that public opinion will not smear together the more descriptive indicators about schools into parents’ own informal branding system influenced by race and economics.

In Chicago itself there is one very hopeful sign that could help erase the downward spiral of schools in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.  In mid-April, the Chicago Sun-Times reported: “Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said the school district plans to move away from student-based budgeting in the coming years… Student-based budgeting, which assigns funding to schools based on enrollment totals, has come under fire since its introduction a decade ago for exacerbating inequalities in the public school system. Under-enrolled schools often serve poorer areas with predominantly Black and Latino students. As those buildings lost students, they subsequently lost funding… Martinez said CPS wants to keep moving toward a system based on student and school needs. During the 2023-24 school year, the portion of the budget allocated based on school enrollment will decrease to 43%, he said. ‘I am optimistic that over the next year or so, we’ll have enough knowledge to be able to fully go away from SBB (student-based budgeting).”

Certainly if the Chicago Public Schools can once again fully staff comparable programming for students across its full system of public schools, the new rating system will begin to elevate the reputation of some of the schools where programming has been so seriously cut due to student-based budgeting. Ending student-based budgeting is an urgently needed reform.

We will all need to watch Chicago Public Schools grapple with the complexities of recreating a system of fully-staffed neighborhood public schools and to watch the Chicago school district create and implement a new more constructive school rating system.  We must recognize, however,  how hard it will be to undo the damage of marketplace branding and competition.  That said, we should be encouraged by Chicago’s formal steps to begin addressing structural injustice.

Why Randi Weingarten Is Not a Symbol of What’s Dangerous in American Politics

I felt myself getting angry as I began skimming Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times Magazine article featuring Randi Weingarten.  But as I read more carefully, I realized I had to give Mahler credit for recognizing Weingarten’s strong leadership on behalf of public schools and the school teachers she leads as president of the American Federation of Teachers—even in an article framing public school policy according to the standard Republican attack against the teachers unions:

“By now, Pompeo, Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican Party were busy elevating education to a central plank in its 2024 platform…. But Weingarten was building her own case. Public education was now itself a hyperpartisan issue, and she addressed it in hyperpartisan terms in a fiery speech at the National Press Club. Calling out by name some of the people who had demonized her since the pandemic, including Betsy DeVos, she described the ongoing effort to defund public schools as nothing less than a threat to ‘cornerstones of community, of our democracy, our economy and our nation.’ She pointed to studies that have shown that vouchers don’t improve student achievement, characterizing them as a back door into private and parochial schools that are not subject to the same federal civil rights laws as public institutions and can therefore promote discrimination. ‘Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ ambitions… They shouldn’t be destroyed by ideologues.'”

I have myself been delighted to see Randi Weingarten out there fighting for the educational rights of our children during the pandemic, pushing against the widespread blaming of teachers, and opposing the wave of culture war attacks on teachers and on honest and accurate curricula. She has been a far better defender of public schooling than Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

But there is a bias in Mahler’s piece that kept me extremely uncomfortable.  While Mahler gives Weingarten some credit for defending her side of the debate, he presents his analysis primarily from the point of view of of Mike Pompeo, Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, Ron DeSantis, and Donald Trump.

We learn about “pandemic learning loss” as measured in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, but we don’t learn that the drop in scores is likely temporary—a one time drop due to Covid disruption.  We learn about teachers unions fighting for better protection during Covid—fighting for mask and vaccination mandates.  It is implied that teachers unions were partly to blame for school closures, but we read nothing about the struggles of teachers to provide for students’ needs during remote learning, including some pretty difficult periods when many teachers were teaching kids remotely in the same classrooms where they were simultaneously working in-person with groups of kids whose families sent them to school.

Mahler implies that teachers unions are a monolith. He does not tell readers that teachers join their union locals, which operate independently from the national American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—the two large teachers unions.

The culture wars comprise a substantial part of Mahler’s profile.  He explains that Tina Descovich in Brevard County, Florida and Tiffany Justice, of Indian River County spontaneously decided to join up and create their own parents’ rights group, Moms for Liberty, but he neglects some important background: Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education are, in fact, Astroturf fronts for a national culture war campaign being mounted by groups like the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation, with funding from DonorsTrust dark money and Charles Koch.  Additionally Mahler reports that the American Federation of Teachers supported Terry McAuliffe against Glenn Youngkin, who ran a culture war campaign against honest teaching about race in American history in the campaign for Governor of Virginia.  It should not be a bit surprising that, as a labor union, the American Federation of Teachers can legally endorse and support candidates, and that the AFT endorsed the candidate who stood with the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, and PEN America on the issue of the school curriculum.

Mahler devotes a significant part of his report to what he describes as the “AFT’s left-wing local, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).”  He adds that “like-minded left-wing slates have since taken control of AFT locals in several other cities, too, including Los Angeles and Baltimore.”  Many supporters of public education would embrace the cause of these big-city teachers without identifying themselves as left-wing. Here is how Mahler describes CTU’s agenda: “They see public schools’ ongoing struggles to educate their students as inseparable from the larger societal and economic issues facing their working-class members and the poor communities whose children dominate their classrooms.” Mahler quotes the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s recent past president, Jesse Sharkey: “We are trying to promote a brand of unionism that goes all out in its fight for educational justice and is brave about taking on conflicts.”

The problem with Mahler’s analysis is that today’s debates about public education policy are far more complex and nuanced than a fight between Randi Weingarten as a symbol of teacher unionism and Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin.  Those of us who have followed the history of education policy battles through the past two decades of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are now watching the far right and dark money campaigns driving culture war chaos across the state legislatures as a path to the expansion of school vouchers.  Without any direct connection to teacher unions, many of us share the enlightened assessment that has been articulated by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Mahler mistakes the significance of the recent election of Brandon Johnson, who is a former teacher and more recently an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, as Chicago’s new mayor.  Mahler sees Johnson’s victory as a symbol of the power of teachers unions: “When Johnson narrowly won, it was a stunning upset…. the teachers’ unions had effectively elected the mayor of  America’s third-largest city, who was himself an avowedly progressive union organizer promising to raise taxes on the rich, reform the police and increase funding for the city’s schools…. It was those who had underestimated the political power of the unions who were mistaken.”  In reality the meaning of Chicago’s mayoral election was more likely a rejection of nearly a quarter of a century of mayoral governance of Chicago’s public schools, of test-and-punish school accountability, of the explosive growth of charter schools in Chicago, and of Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 closure of 49 elementary schools in Chicago’s Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

In our alarmingly unequal society, where too frequently our children reside far apart in pockets of concentrated poverty or in pockets of wealth, we will not be able to close children’s opportunity gaps merely by improving the public schools alone.  In a new book, The Education Myth,  Jon Shelton, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, identifies the No Child Left Behind Act as the embodiment of a deeply flawed plan to equalize school achievement: “At root, the very premise of the bill—that punishing schools for the scores of their students would improve the schools’ performance—was simply flawed, particularly when school districts did not have the ability to raise students out of poverty or alleviate the trauma of racism…. NCLB ignored the broader economic structures that might lead a student to succeed or fail in school as well as the relationship between where a student got an education and what job would actually be available to them.” (The Education Myth, p. 173)

I am grateful that, in the cities where their members teach, some teachers union locals are working actively to support efforts to ameliorate child poverty. That is not a left-wing cause; it is instead a goal for us all to embrace. As we publicly debate the needs of our children and our public schools, it is wrong to define the conversation as a mere battle between right-wing Republicans and the teachers unions.

“Crain’s Chicago Business” Explores the Damage of Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 School Closures

In an excellent report for Crain’s Chicago Business, Margaret Littman marks the end of a decade since, in June of 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board shut down 49 neighborhood public elementary schools.

Littman examines “a different educational landscape” today: “In the years since the mass school closings—the most at one time in the U.S.—the landscape for Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest school system, has changed. Chicago has a former middle school teacher and union organizer as a mayor-elect. Beginning in January 2025, the new school board will include 10 elected members, ending mayoral control.”

Chicago school reform with strong mayoral control under a fully appointed school board was accomplished in a 1995 state legislative plan carried out in the decades since by a line of mayors and their appointed CEOs, beginning with Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan. The city’s public schools have been ruled with a neoliberal bias for the expansion of charter schools, competition among schools, and student based budgeting. What has been missing is the kind of democratic oversight of public schools—by an elected board of education—that  most Americans take for granted. Littman explains: “Families of color and those in low-income communities disproportionately bore the brunt of the Emanuel-era closures, and many say they continue to receive short shrift. Even as CPS enrollment has decreased, the demographic breakdown of students has remained constant. About 47% of students are Latino, 36% are Black, and 11% are white.”

Did the 2013 school closures save money? Littman reports: “One of the sales pitches the Emanuel administration used at the time was that the school closings would save money, a constant need in any discussion about CPS. The school district’s balance sheet today shows that was built on naive assumptions… Some of the deficit is related to the teachers’ pension system, an issue not solved by school closures. As written in the 2018 CPS budget summary, ‘For many years, pensions have been the dominant driver of CPS’s structural deficit. Unlike other school districts in (Illinois), CPS is required to fund its own teacher pension system with virtually no state support.'” Although Rahm Emanuel and his school board believed school closures would save money, Littman quotes several researchers demonstrating big costs for closing schools and maintaining empty buildings that still sit unsold along the city’s streets. Transportation costs have increased as students continue to be bused to schools far from their homes. The school district was unable to shed all sorts of fixed costs.

There have been, however, other costs that have nothing to do with money. Littman quotes Roosevelt University sociologist Stephanie Farmer: “The school closings became a touchstone for that generation of kids… They see it as evidence that the city does not care about them… If your mom, your cousins, your aunt, all went to a school there and it was closed, there was a pain there, regardless of what happened with your welcoming school.”

Littman adds: “Some of the Safe Passage programs and support that were supposed to help kids transition weren’t available as long as they (were) needed, in part because it cost money. In general, they typically only lasted one year. Resources that were supposed to move from a shuttered school to a welcoming school—even basics, like books—never arrived.”  And sometimes “kids who had previously been at rival schools were now in the same classroom. Littman interviews Wallace Wilbourne Jr., the Middle Years Programme International Baccalaureate Individuals and Societies teacher at Oscar DePriest Elmentary School in the Austin neighborhood: “There are still long-term impacts… When you destabilize communities, people in the communities are dealing with trauma. That manifests in different ways outside the academic sphere, such as violence in the community.”

Litman explains that Chicago school closures were accelerated by intentional competition from charter schools: “According to a 2017 paper co-authored by Roosevelt University’s (Stephanie) Farmer, 71% of new charter schools—publicly funded, privately run schools—that opened between 2000 and 2012 did so within 1.5 miles of the 49 schools that closed due to low enrollments in 2013.  The authors recommended imposing a moratorium on charter school expansion.”

One factor that is missing in Littman’s excellent piece is the added challenge of student-based budgeting. School decline accelerated in 2014, when Chicago adopted student based budgeting, which pushed many neighborhood schools into a downward enrollment cycle and further reduced services available in the schools in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.  For WBEZ, Sarah Karp and Nader Issa describe how ending student-based budgeting became a winning issue for victorious Brandon Johnson, Chicago’s new mayor and a former CPS teacher and teachers union organizer, as Johnson challenged Paul Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO and the father of the kind of school reform that eventually led to the 2013 school closures:

“Johnson… says he would… focus on beefing up traditional neighborhood schools in an effort to end the ‘Hunger Games scenario’ where kids ‘apply to access a quality school.’ That includes fully staffed special education departments, librarians, art and music teachers and nurses and social workers, he said.” “Johnson would rather the school district’s central office end per-pupil funding and guarantee a baseline of resources for every school… This would reduce the role enrollment plays in whether a school can afford staff and, he says, help ensure every neighborhood can offer a quality education. He would focus on addressing poverty and trauma.”

Littman does not oversimplify the challenges Johnson will face as mayor.  But she does emphasize a lesson the 2013 Chicago school closures should have taught school policymakers everywhere.  She quotes Rousemary Vega, a West Side mother of five, who has raised her children in the largely Puerto Rican, Humboldt Park neighborhood.  Vega’s children’s school—Lafayette Elementary School—was closed in 2013 and turned into a specialty high school: “Me and my children have to walk past it very day. And now that building is not open to the community. They have great programs in there that the (neighborhood) community cannot benefit from. How unfair is that?”

That question was the subject of Eve Ewing’s powerful Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a book that explores the human consequences of the 2013 school closures for Bronzeville, an African American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side:  “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard) pp. 155-159)

We Need to Be Sure People Don’t Forget the Recent History of Failed School Reform

I was stunned when early in April, the PBS NewHour brought in Margaret Spellings and Arnie Duncan to explain the meaning of a “Learning Heroes” survey showing that while parents think their children are doing fine in school and recovering from the disruption of Covid, standardized test scores show that our kids aren’t doing so well at all.

Nancy Bailey exposes the likely bias of Learning Heroes, a “campaign” funded by the Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and other foundations supporting corporate-style, test-and-punish school reform.  Couldn’t this be another attempt to expose so-called “failing schools”?

I suspect that several of us wrote to the PBS NewsHour to challenge the bias of the “experts” they brought in to comment on education policy.  I was especially grateful when Diane Ravitch captured the problem in her letter to the NewsHour: “Spellings and Duncan spent years promoting failed policies and are now called upon by PBS to comment on the outcomes of their punitive and ineffective ideas. They are in no position to say where we went wrong, because they were the architects of the disaster.  You really should invite dispassionate experts to review their record, rather than invite those who imposed bad ideas.”

The NewsHour‘s segment featuring Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan worries me.  In the context of today’s wave of school voucher legislation across the states and the far-right Republican culture war to ban so-called “Critical Race Theory” or any mention at school of human sexuality and gender, to ban books, and to deny academic freedom in colleges and universities, have those of us who have spent two decades pushing back against test-and-punish school accountability strayed from our message?  The problems launched by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top remain with us today but our protest is no longer so well harmonized.

Public education policy has never been at the center of the national news, and it is likely that there are people who never paid attention to how the public schools went off track after the Clinton White House got behind Goals 2000 and charter schools and as the Bush administration brought us No Child Left Behind with its mandated testing and rating and ranking of public schools by test scores.  After Arne Duncan bribed state legislatures—as the mere qualification to apply for Race to the Top grants—to change state laws to incorporate test-and-punish policies like school turnarounds, the transformation of traditional neighborhood schools into charter schools, and the evaluation of teachers by students’ test scores, maybe the the state-by-state implications got lost in scanty statehouse reporting.

It is worth reviewing the books by education policy experts that expose the damage as corporate school accountability emerged—Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System and Reign of Error,  Daniel Koretz’s The Testing Charade, and more recent updates like Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire’s A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Ravitch almost perfectly summarizes what happened as schools faced the sanctions of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  As you read the following passage from Reign of Error, you will be struck, a decade after that book was published in 2013, by how the cycle she describes continues to operate in Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit and other big cities.

“The federally mandated regime of annual testing generates the data to grade not only students and teachers but schools. Given unrealistic goals, a school can easily fail. When a school is labeled a ‘failing school,’ under NCLB or a ‘priority’ or ‘focus’ school according to the metrics of the Obama administration’s program, it must double down on test preparation to attempt to recover its reputation, but the odds of success are small, especially after the most ambitious parents and students flee the school. The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability… As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students…. Low grades on the state report card may send a once-beloved school into a death spiral. What was once a source of stability in the community becomes a school populated by those who are least able to find a school that will accept them.  Once the quality of the neighborhood school begins to fail, parents will be willing to consider charter schools, online schools, brand-new schools with catchy, make-believe names, like the Scholars Academy for Academic Excellence or the School for Future Leaders of Business and Industry. In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort… When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.”  (Reign of Error, pp. 319-320)

It isn’t merely the scholars of education policy who have been concerned about the problems with test-and-punish school accountability.  Last year Lily Geismer, a professor of history at Claremont-McKenna College, who focuses on recent political and urban history, explored the failure of neoliberal policy coming out of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council and the Clinton administration to address our society’s structural economic inequality with solutions that involved public-private partnership. In Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality,  Geismer traces the history of the development of charter schools as a supposed “solution” for parents in some of the nation’s underfunded big city school districts.

Geismer devotes an entire chapter, “Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business,” to the Clinton administration’s developing education policy beginning with Vice President Al Gore’s meetings with, “leading executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. The so-called Gore-Tech sessions often took place over pizza and beer, and Gore hoped for them to be a chance for the administration to learn from innovators of the New Economy…. One of these meetings focused on the problems of public education and the growing achievement gap between affluent white suburbanites and students of color in the inner city…. The challenge gave venture capitalist John Doerr, who had become Gore’s closest tech advisor, an idea…  The tools of venture capital, Doerr thought, might offer a way to build new and better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice, and competition… Doerr decided to pool money from several other Silicon valley icons to start the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools sat at the forefront of the concepts of venture philanthropy. Often known by the neologism philanthrocapitalism, venture or strategic philanthropy focused on taking tools from the private sector, especially entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and management consulting—the key ingredients in the 1990s tech boom—and applying them to philanthropic work… Doerr and the NewSchools Fund became especially focused on charter schools, which the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council were similarly encouraging in the 1990s.” (Left Behind, pp. 233-234)

From today’s perspective nearly three decades later, focusing specifically on charter schools, Geismer exposes the tragic limitations of Clinton’s experiment in using: “the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people. Clinton and his allies routinely referred to microenterprise, community development banking, Empowerment Zones, mixed-income housing, and charter schools as revolutionary ideas that had the power to create large-scale change. These programs, nevertheless, uniformly provided small or micro solutions to large structural or macro problems. The New Democrats time and again overpromised just how much good these programs could do. Suggesting market-based programs were a ‘win-win’ obscured the fact that market capitalism generally reproduces and enhances inequality. Ultimately, the relentless selling of such market-based programs prevented Democrats from developing policies that addressed the structural forces that produced segregation and inequality and fulfilled the government’s obligations to provide for its people, especially its most vulnerable.” (Left Behind, pp. 9-10)

Now, in The Education Myth: How Human Capital Trumped Social Democracy, Jon Shelton, a professor of “Democracy and Social Justice” at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has published a new book again examining how our society went wrong by imagining that economic inequality could be ameliorated merely through holding public schools accountable for expanding opportunity. Manufacturing jobs were exported through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and in 1996, Bill Clinton collapsed the social safety net by ending welfare with a bill called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—which utterly failed to create work opportunity and branded the poor as irresponsible. Beginning with Lyndon Johnson, Shelton writes, and continuing through the Carter, the Reagan, the George Herbert Walker Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations, politicians became laser-focused on education, which they imagined would expand human capital and workforce readiness and cure America’s growing economic inequality. Shelton explains: “Clinton’s view… was based on the mythology that embracing meritocracy and investment in human capital could paper over any negative repercussions caused by dismantling the government safety net and making American jobs more susceptible to capital flight.” (The Education Myth, p 161)

Shelton identifies No Child Left Behind as the embodiment of the Education Myth: “At root, the very premise of the bill—that punishing schools for the scores of their students would improve the schools’ performance—was simply flawed, particularly when school districts did not have the ability to raise students out of poverty or alleviate the trauma of racism…. NCLB ignored the broader economic structures that might lead a student to succeed or fail in school as well as the relationship between where a student got an education and what job would actually be available to them.” (The Education Myth, p. 173)

Many of us remember Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone as one of only a handful of Democrats who, in 2001, voted against the No Child Left Behind Act. To expose the foolish illusion that by reforming the public schools without ameliorating child poverty, our society can close the opportunity gap between America’s poorest and wealthiest children, Shelton quotes Wellstone’s condemnation of the No Child Left Behind Act: “The White House bill will test the poor against the rich and then announce that the poor are failing.  Federally required tests without federal required equity amounts to clubbing these children over the head after systematically cheating them.” (The Education Myth, p. 172)

As public education advocates, we need to find ways to keep this history alive.

Brandon Johnson Beats Paul Vallas to Become Chicago Mayor: What Does This Say about School Reform?

On Tuesday night, Brandon Johnson, a former middle and high school teacher, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer, and a Cooke County Commissioner, was elected to be the next mayor of Chicago.

The public schools have been at the center of mayoral politics in Chicago since 1995, when a state legislative overhaul launched mayoral governance, the possibility of charter schools, and a cascade of test-and-punish reforms—a mix of policies that culminated in June of 2013 in the shutdown of 50 neighborhood public schools on the South Side and West Side after the rapid proliferation of charter schools. Paul Vallas, one of the candidates in Tuesday’s mayoral election, oversaw the launch of those school reforms as the Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Executive Officer from 1995-2001.

In mid-March, Chicago education reporters, Sarah Karp of WBEZ, and Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times, characterized the mayor’s race between, “Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, versus Brandon Johnson, a Chicago Teachers Union official. Vallas built a long career on pledges he could give children a better education by reforming low-performing schools in dramatic and controversial ways. Johnson has spent his time organizing around better support for students and targeting the conditions around them in neighborhoods, decrying drastic reforms as disruptive to relationships kids need to succeed.  At the heart of the argument is whether teachers and schools are primarily to blame for low performance or whether a lack of investment in schools and communities is the main driver.”

Since 2011, Brandon Johnson has served as an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union; he is also in his first term as a Cooke County Commissioner.  Before that, he earned a masters degree in education and taught social studies for several years to middle schoolers at Jenner Elementary beginning in 2007. When the school closed, he moved to a high school.

School decline accelerated in 2014, when Chicago adopted student based budgeting, which pushed many neighborhood schools into a downward enrollment cycle and further reduced services available in the schools in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.  Brandon Johnson has pledged to end that cycle.  For WBEZ, Nader Issa and Sarah Karp explain Johnson’s position on this issue: “Johnson… says he would… focus on beefing up traditional neighborhood schools in an effort to end the ‘Hunger Games scenario’ where kids ‘apply to access a quality school.’ That includes fully staffed special education departments, librarians, art and music teachers and nurses and social workers, he said.” “Johnson would rather the school district’s central office end per-pupil funding and guarantee a baseline of resources for every school… This would reduce the role enrollment plays in whether a school can afford staff and, he says, help ensure every neighborhood can offer a quality education. He would focus on addressing poverty and trauma.”

Vallas campaigned on more police to a quell a years-long rise in gun violence. By choosing Brandon Johnson in this election, the majority of Chicagoans voted for neighborhood repair instead of police crackdown. In his campaign Johnson stressed the need for strengthening essential community institutions including neighborhood schools, trauma intervention services for students and families,  and a collaboration with Cooke County to improve improve mental health services.

What did Chicago voters reject when they elected Brandon Johnson?

Paul Vallas was the efficiency-hawk technocrat brought in as Chief Executive Officer in 1995 to launch Mayor Richard M. Daley’s and the Illinois Legislature’s plan for the Chicago Public Schools—to be operated under the mayor and an appointed school board.  Karp, Issa, and FitzPatrick describe Vallas as “the ultimate technocrat… aiming to solve societal problems with a sort of scientific approach, and who, without degrees in education, asserted that low-performing schools either needed to change or students should be allowed to choose a new one.” “The state legislature had just given Daley control over the city’s schools and Vallas was the first non-educator to hold the school system’s top job. Vallas leaned on standardized testing and fired staff at so-called ‘failing’ schools while holding back underperforming students.  He promoted a system of choice, opening 18 new schools, several of them magnet and selective enrollment high schools seen as a way to keep the middle class in Chicago. And he opened the city’s first charter schools amid a national movement to offer alternatives to traditional public schools.”

Pauline Lipman, an education researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago, reminds us that, “When test scores flattened in 2001, Vallas left.  But the system he set up of ranking and sorting schools based on an inappropriate use of standardized tests, and disregarding the historical disinvestment and racism schools had suffered, laid the foundation for almost 200 school closings and turn-arounds and the education market that followed. These school closings, 90 percent predominantly Black, devastated Black communities in particular.  Vallas’s (2023) electoral campaign focuses on fighting crime, but the disruptions from the school closings that were a major factor in the destabilization of Black communities can be traced back to Vallas’s reign at CPS.”

Vallas left Chicago in 2001 for a stint in the School District of Philadelphia, where he also opened charter schools, and, in 2007, he was brought in to New Orleans to manage the mass charterization of the public schools that had been launched in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. Lipman, Camika Royal at Loyola University Maryland, and Adrienne Dixson at the University of Kentucky conclude: “From Chicago, to Philadelphia, to New Orleans—three school districts serving primarily students of color—Paul Vallas left a trail of top-down, punitive, destabliizing and fiscally irresponsible policies. Our research… reveals that rather than ‘restoring broken education systems,’ Vallas has a pattern of leadership that demoralizes teachers and undermines public education.”

In a profound 2018 book,  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of neighborhood schools for the communities they serve—something that Paul Vallas has always failed to grasp but Brandon Johnson made the center of his campaign. Ewing describes how the school reforms launched by Paul Vallas over time affected one Chicago South Side neighborhood: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”

Ewing continues, describing the huge wave of Chicago school closures in the two decades following Vallas’s technocratic makeover: “These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

These are the very issues that were at stake the 2023 mayoral race in Chicago. The voters chose Brandon Johnson.

Ohio’s Proposed Income Tax Cut for the Rich Would Impose a $929 Million Property Tax Increase on Ohio’s Homeowners and Farmers

The Ohio House Ways and Means Committee is considering Ohio House Bill 1, a convoluted and labyrinthine proposal to cut state taxes by substituting a flat tax for the state’s current graduated income tax.

Why?  To provide a tax cut for Ohio’s wealthiest citizens.  The Plain Dealer‘s Lucas Duprile quotes the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Adam Matthews: “Bill proponents pitch the bill as a way to lower taxes, simplify the system and increase consumer spending by putting money back in taxpayers’ pockets, Matthews said. The disproportionate benefit to wealthy families is part of a strategy to encourage upper middle class and wealthy families to live, work and pay taxes in Ohio, Matthews said. ‘Higher income families are increasingly mobile… We want those with the ability to pick up and move to stay in Ohio.'”

How Would Ohio House Bill 1  Work?

Ohio’s school finance guru, Howard Fleeter has continued to revise and clarify his earlier report on how the proposed HB 1 would work:

“House Bill 1 proposes an estimated $2 billion reduction in Ohio’s state income tax. The income tax would be changed from the current graduated rate structure… to a flat rate structure with a single rate of 2.75%.” To pay for the state tax cut, “HB 1 also proposes the elimination of a property tax relief program commonly referred to as the 10% rollback… The 10% rollback… currently saves residential and agricultural taxpayers $1.221 billion in local property taxes as the state pays this amount to schools and local governments…  Because the 10% rollback means that the state pays roughly 10% of each residential and agricultural taxpayer’s property taxes, elimination of the rollback will automatically increase every residential and agricultural taxpayer’s property taxes by the amount of their rollback.  In order to offset this automatic increase in residential and agricultural property taxes, HB I includes a provision which reduces the assessment percentage on residential (and) agricultural property from 35% to 31.5%…  Reducing the assessment percentage from 35% to 31.5 % on residential and agricultural property is intended to offset the elimination of the 10% rollback by reducing the amount of taxes owed on all ‘fixed rate’ property tax levies in place across the state.  School operating and permanent improvement levies, that were approved by the voters for a specific millage amount, are fixed rate levies. ” (emphasis in the original)

Fleeter then introduces the complication introduced by Ohio House Bill 920: “The ultimate impact of the reduction in the assessment percentage depends on whether or not the HB 920 tax reduction factors will be triggered by the reduced property valuation resulting from the reduction in the assessment percentage to 31.5%.”  He continues: “In 1976, after the setting of the 35% assessment percentage and following very rapid inflation in home prices, Ohio enacted HB 920, one of the most stringent property tax limitations in the country. The goal of House Bill 920 was to insulate homeowners from the effects of inflationary increases in their property. House Bill 920 aspired to accomplish this goal by introducing ‘tax reduction factors,’ which were reductions in voted property tax rates designed to adjust the tax rate downward when property increased in value after property reappraisal.”   He adds: “A final point about HB 920 is that it also works in reverse. If property values after reappraisal are lower than they were previously, then the HB 920 reduction factors will actually increase in order that property tax revenue from fixed rate levies does not decline.”

Fleeter concludes by pointing out the impact for local governments, school districts, and other institutions and for local taxpayers.  There are only two possible outcomes.  First, if HB 920 doesn’t apply to the legislature’s new proposal: “Schools and local governments will lose local revenue for all inside millage and fixed rate levies, compromising their ability to provide local services.”

If HB 920 does apply, HB 920 will protect the tax revenue from residential and agricultural property for schools, local governments and other local institutions, but homeowners and farmers will experience an unvoted, automatic leap in their local property taxes.  However, because HB 920 does not apply to commercial and industrial property, property taxes for businesses would be reduced and local governments, school districts, and other essential institutions across the state would lose that stream of property tax revenue.  The loss of property tax revenue from businesses and industry would make up the bulk of $538 million, which will ultimately be lost under HB 1 to school districts, local governments and local institutions.

It Looks As Though Ohio House Bill 920 Would Apply to the Proposed Ohio House Bill 1

The big question has been, of course, whether HB 920—enacted in 1976 and inserted into the Ohio constitution in 1980—would apply to the implementation of the proposed HB 1 currently being considered by the Ohio House.

According to Howard Fleeter’s new summary of the Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC) Fiscal Note, the LSC accepts that House Bill does apply to what would be the operation of the proposed House Bill 1.  Across the state, according to the LSC, there would be an automatic, unvoted property tax increase amounting to $929 million for residential and agricultural property owners, while at the same time schools and local governments and other agencies would still lose $538 million primarily from property tax cuts for owners of commercial and industrial property.

What’s Wrong with the Proposed House Bill 1?

The Legislature is currently considering a plan to impose nearly a billion dollars in unvoted property tax increases upon Ohio homeowners and farmers at the same time their public schools would lose more than half a billion dollars.

Even though the proposed HB 1 is labyrinthine and impenetrable, what’s wrong with the proposal on a practical level is pretty simple.  At a March 14 hearing, the ranking Democrat on the Ohio House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dan Troy formulated the practical problem clearly: “Nobody likes taxes… but the problem is we need to have something to underwrite the cost of critical services.”

There is also the ethical problem.  Over 25 years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court found Ohio’s school finance formula unconstitutional because of overreliance on local property taxes.  We all know that wealthy communities where property is expensive can raise school funds more easily than impoverished communities, because property values themselves are lower in poor communities.  And poorer people cannot afford tax rates high enough to compensate for the community’s overall lower property tax valuation.  The basic principle of school funding equity is that the state will compensate poorer communities with additional funds to enable them to offer their children an education that is comparable to what wealthy communities provide; state funding is supposed to compensate for school districts’ unequal fiscal capacity.  I don’t suppose the legislative sponsors of HB 1—people who prioritize slashing income taxes for the rich—can be expected to worry about the ethical concept of equity in school funding.

Maybe the political problems with this bill will carry more weight with Ohio’s legislative Republican supermajority.  There is a political lesson a lot of us in Ohio have learned over the years: In Ohio, we can’t ever have unvoted property tax increases.  I know that in some states, school boards can raise their millage rates when expenses grow, but not in Ohio.  As a parent I would certainly prefer that we didn’t have to exhaust ourselves to pass our school levies, but decades of preaching by Ohio Republicans and the laws they have put in place have taught me that in Ohio, unvoted tax increases cannot happen.

Here is how I learned this lesson—and how thousands of parents, grandparents, teachers, and good citizens will realize, if HB 1 becomes law, that Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature has done something outrageous by imposing unvoted property tax increases amounting to almost a billion dollars across the state. We know from what Howard Fleeter explained earlier in this post, that HB 920 freezes the revenue from any voted school operating levy at the amount the levy yields when it is passed. So, for generations, to enable their school districts to respond to inflation, parent and citizen volunteers have been spending thousands of hours—literally months—running ballot campaigns to pass school levies to keep their school districts solvent.

In 1993, exactly 30 years ago, my friend Ellen and I—parents with children in our public schools—volunteered to chair the campaign to pass an 8.9 mill school levy in the November election. Back then, without computer data base programs, we kept all the records written by hand on legal pads.  Beginning early in July, we led a committee that recruited over 700 volunteers to serve as street captains who promised to talk to their neighbors on three different designated weekends and to deliver the brochures we raised money to print. We recruited people to manage this army of volunteers, collected hundreds of endorsements, sent out speakers to community events and churches and synagogues, and made special outreach to senior citizens.  After the failure of two previous levies (whose campaigns had also taken months to organize), we raised community awareness high enough to pass that levy by a margin of 2,000 votes.  It kept our district from having to lay off teachers

Across Ohio’s 610 school districts, school levy election campaigns are repeated every few years when there is a need for increased funding.  We would all prefer not to have to fund our schools this way because it is exhausting, but it is the process which, for decades, Ohio Republicans have mandated for raising local school taxes.  Now we learn that our Republican legislature is promoting a plan that, by legislative fiat, would impose a set of unvoted property taxes totaling $929 million on Ohio homeowners and farmers—all for the purpose of cutting state income taxes for Ohio’s wealthiest citizens.

Did the sponsors of this legislation have any idea what they were doing?  Shouldn’t we hope that the anticipated political backlash from property taxpayers will cause the Legislature to recognize that HB 1 is a politically untenable proposal?  Will the Ohio House Ways and Means Committee be foolhardy enough to pass House Bill 1 out of committee for a vote on the House floor?

Ohio House Imperils Public School Revenues with a Proposed State Tax Cut for the Rich

Funding for public education is under siege this year in the gerrymandered, supermajority Republican Ohio Legislature.  There has been considerable discussion of two primary threats: the danger that the Legislature will choose not to continue phasing in the second of three funding increases that define a new Fair School Funding Plan, and a large and expensive expansion of vouchers.

But a third potential peril for public schools emerged last week: an Ohio House plan to eliminate the state’s graduated income tax and replace it with a flat tax while eliminating a state reimbursement to school districts that reduces local property taxes.  All this to produce a tax cut for the state’s richest citizens.

The Continued Phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan?

In June of 2021, the Legislature funded the first two years of the Fair School Funding Plan as part of the two-year state budget.  Now, in 2023, in the Fiscal Year 2024-Fiscal Year 2025 state budget, the Legislature needs to add funding for the second step. The continued phase-in of the new school funding formula may be in jeopardy.

The plan was carefully designed to fund the state’s public schools adequately and to distribute state funding equitably once it is fully phased in.  It would ensure that students in poor as well as wealthy communities can thrive academically. Based on funding the per-pupil cost of essential services needed by our state’s typical student and adjusted to add categorical funds to support services for students with special needs, the new Fair School Funding Plan was designed to be phased in over six years—three biennial budgets.  While the Ohio Legislature embedded funding for the first two years of the plan in the state budget, our lawmakers failed to establish the new formula in a stand-alone law. It would be unfair, said Senate President Matt Huffman, to tie the hands of future legislatures because nobody can predict the economic constraints on future revenues. This year the Governor favors fully funding the second step in the phase-in of fairer school funding, but it is not clear whether the powerful Senate President prioritizes fully funding the next step of the plan.

The Legislature also needs to correct one flaw in the Fair School Funding Plan’s initial phase-in. Lawmakers neglected to conduct a promised cost study to evaluate the needs of school districts serving many children in poverty, and they began the phase-in of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a much slower rate than their phase-in of the rest of the plan. The Legislature should correct these serious problems.

Expansion of Vouchers?

While legislative debate about vouchers has not yet begun, bills to expand or launch expensive private school vouchers have been introduced in both legislative chambers.  The Governor has proposed expanding the already massive EdChoice voucher program, and the Senate will debate this expansion as Senate Bill 11.  The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock explains that right now under the current EdChoice program, “Families are eligible for EdChoice scholarships by either living in the boundaries of a low-performing school or by household income. Currently a family of four can qualify for state money if the household income is at or below $69,375, or 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines…” Under the proposed SB 11, “The limit would increase to 400% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which would be $111,000 for a family of four….”  Senator Huffman has bragged that the expansion would create an almost universal voucher program.

The House will consider a different kind of voucher: a Backpack Bill—an education savings account universal voucher—in what is to be introduced as House Bill 11.

The Newest  Threat: A Proposed Tax Cut for the Wealthy at the Expense of the Public Schools

A third dangerous threat for Ohio’s 610 public school districts (and very likely a challenge to the full phase-in of funding of the Fair School Funding Plan) would be the passage of Ohio House Bill 1, the substitution of a flat tax for Ohio’s current graduated income tax. The Ohio House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing on House Bill 1 on February 28th, and the tangled, scary details of what’s in this bill are finally becoming clearer.

The Statehouse News Bureau‘s Karen Kasler reports: “Lawmakers got their first look at a bill that could create a flat state income tax and make major property tax changes—while potentially costing schools and local governments more than a billion dollars.  House Bill 1… is the top priority of House Speaker Jason Stephens. Local governments and school districts are estimated to lose $1.2 billion annually to pay for the 2.75% flat tax and the property tax changes in House Bill 1….”

The Ohio House says it will pay for its proposed statewide tax cut by eliminating a state reimbursement to municipalities and school districts called the 10 percent rollback. The Plain Dealer’s Jeremy Pelzer explains: “Ohio House Republicans’ high-priority bill to flatten the state income tax…  would mean a slight tax cut for the middle class but much bigger savings for wealthier taxpayers… HB1 would make up for the lost income-tax revenue by ending $1.2 billion per year in state property tax rollbacks. That is state money given to local governments, such as school districts, cities, libraries….” Since 1972, the state has paid directly to school districts and other local government bodies an amount equal to 10% of property taxes owed for residential and agricultural properties. This reduces the amount owed by the taxpayers by that amount and currently results in annual direct state payments to local governments of $1.2 billion of which $800,000 is paid to local school districts.

Howard Fleeter, Ohio’s school funding guru at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, published two short papers last week to explicate the details of the proposed new flat tax in HB 1.  In the first of these publications, Fleeter explains: “Because the 10% rollback means that the state pays roughly 10% of each residential and agricultural taxpayer’s (local) property taxes, elimination of the rollback will automatically increase every residential and agricultural taxpayer’s property taxes by the amount of their rollback.”

However, given the Ohio Legislature’s aversion to anything that would appear to be a tax increase, HB1 includes another tax policy gimmick.  Property taxes are currently assessed based on 35% of market value.  HB 1 would reduce this to 31.5% (a 10% reduction), thereby lowering the taxable value of each property by 10% and effectively offsetting for taxpayers most of the impact of the elimination of the tax rollback.  The legislation’s intent is clearly to shift the cost of paying for the income tax reduction from property taxpayers to local governments.  Local school districts would lose $800 million annually.

But the meaning of HB 1 is far more complicated and, in fact, not a bit clear without further analysis from experts on Ohio law.  The most serious question is how HB 1 would intersect with the long-standing  residential and agricultural property tax reduction law, House Bill 920, which was embedded into the Ohio Constitution in 1980. Fleeter explains further: “(T)he impact of HB 1 is clouded by the presence of the property tax limitation commonly known in Ohio as HB 920.  In 1976… following very rapid inflation in home prices, Ohio enacted HB 920, one of the most stringent property tax limitations in the country. The goal of House Bill 920 was to insulate homeowners from the effects of inflationary increases in their property. House Bill 920 aspired to accomplish this goal by introducing ‘tax reduction factors,’ which were reductions in voted property tax rates designed to adjust the tax rate downward when property increased in value after property reappraisal… These adjusted tax rates are referred to as ‘effective millage rates.'” Parents walking the streets promoting local property tax operating levies for their school districts have memorized how to explain the need for yet another school levy: “House Bill 920 means that past levies will always produce the same revenue for our school district as on the day each levy passed. To enable our school district to keep up with inflation, we have to pass another levy.”

In a second publication, Fleeter examines two possible results for school districts and for agricultural and residential property owners of the potential intersection of a new House Bill 1 with the old House Bill 920.  Both scenarios will ultimately make school districts more reliant on local property taxes.

  1. If “HB 920 does not apply… schools and local governments will lose local revenue… compromising their ability to provide local services.” The full cost of the revenue loss will fall on the school districts and local governments, forcing them to ask voters to approve additional property tax levies to preserve existing levels of service.
  2. If it is determined that HB 920 will in fact adjust the effective millage upward to assure that school districts’ and local governments’ revenues from residential and agricultural property taxes remain at the same level as on the date of levy passage, there will be no revenue loss to schools and local governments. However, as Fleeter explains, “property taxpayers will experience an (automatic) increase in taxes that will be roughly the same as that which would have occurred as a result of the elimination of the 10% rollback and which the reduction in the assessment percentage is trying to forestall.”

In essence, either way, the Legislature would be replacing Ohio’s graduated income tax with a flat tax and paying for the resulting loss of state revenue with higher local property taxes. There is considerable irony in this proposal.  In Ohio, twenty-six years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court declared the state’s school funding unconstitutional due to “overreliance on local property taxes,” a condition which has left Ohio’s property-poor school districts desperate for resources while their wealthy, exurban neighbors can fund their schools with ease. That condition remains and will only be exacerbated if HB 1 should be enacted by the legislature this year.

The language of HB 920 is included in the Ohio Constitution.  It is not clear at this time when a determination will be made on how HB 920 would impact the changes proposed in HB 1.