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

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

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

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

The Ohio House had repealed the state takeovers of school districts in its version of the budget.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was updated on 7/19/19.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

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

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

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

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

Skepticism Grows About High-Stakes, Test Based School Accountability and Privatization

Nick Hanauer’s confession that neoliberal, “corporate accountability” school reform doesn’t work is not entirely surprising to me.  After all, No Child Left Behind was left behind several years ago.

And Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on our 25 year experiment with high stakes, test-based accountability, says: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale. Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents… The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary school math that don’t persist until graduation.”(The Testing Charade, p 191)

Nick Hanauer is a smart venture capitalist who has been paying attention, so it isn’t so surprising he has noticed that we still have enormous gaps in school achievement between the children raised in pockets of extreme privilege and the children raised in the nation’s very poorest and most segregated communities. Because he is an influential guy, however, I am delighted that Hanauer published his confession in The Atlantic:

“Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system… This belief system, which I have come to think of as ‘educationism,’ is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world…  But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way.  We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall.  School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.  As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class… Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission… All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools… American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again… But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong.”

Hanauer—along with Bill Gates, the Waltons, and other philanthropists—has continued to invest heavily in the growth of charter schools.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss interviewed Hanauer last week about his recent confession: “In 2009 or thereabouts, I had an awakening. A friend sent me the IRS tax tables that showed the changes in income distribution that had occurred over the decades I had been working on education. The story those numbers showed was devastating.  When I graduated from high school in 1977, the top 1% of earners got less than 8% of national income. In 2007, 30 years later, that number had increased to 22.86%.  Worse, the bottom 50% of Americans’ share of national income had fallen from approximately 18% to 12%.  I was horrified by these trends, and frankly, shocked.  I had put so much work and so much faith in the Educationist theory of change, and all my work had amounted to nothing…. Nevertheless, I was under pressure to keep grinding on the same stuff in the same way, only harder.  You get a lot of strokes in the community for working on public education, and I did.  I was ‘the education guy.’  But it just didn’t feel right.”

Strauss describes how the priorities of hedge fund leaders, venture capitalists, and giant philanthropies dovetailed with the education priorities of the Obama administration, “which launched a $4.3 billion education initiative called Race to the Top.  It dangled federal funds in front of resource-starved states if they embraced the administration’s education priorities.  Those included charter school expansion, the Common Core, and revamping of teacher evaluation systems that used student standardized test scores as a measure of effectiveness….”

Barack Obama jumped on the education “reform”  bandwagon early, back in June of 2005, when, as the junior Senator from Illinois, he spoke at the launch of Democrats for Education Reform. In his, 2011, history of education “reform,” Class Warfare, Stephen Brill describes the players in the effort to lure Democrats into embracing corporate accountability for schools.  DFER was launched by a bunch of New York hedge fund managers when Obama was in New York City raising money to run for a second Senate term: “While in town he helped Boykin Curry, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson launch a group they had created called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Obama had agreed to be a guest at a party they had put together for people who shared their interest in school reform and wanted to get involved. Curry, Petry, and Tilson had chipped in a little of their own money plus some from a few friends, to start DFER.  The fourth member of their board was Charles Ledley, another value investor friend… Curry, Petry, and Tilson were immediately smitten with Obama, who seemed to talk about education reform as if it was no big deal for a Democrat to be doing so.  He recalled visiting a successful Chicago school where one teacher had complained to him about what she referred to as the ‘these kids’ syndrome that prevailed at traditional inner-city public schools, which, she explained, ‘was the willingness of society to accept that ‘these kids’ can’t learn or succeed.’… Obama… spent part of his talk extolling charter schools and what they demonstrated about how all children could learn if they had good teachers in good schools.” (Class Warfare, pp. 131-132)

Obama was, of course, merely articulating what had become the conventional wisdom among wealthy hedge funders, philanthropists, and even Democratic politicians. The term, “conventional wisdom,” was defined by economist, John Kenneth Galbraith as, “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” The “corporate school reform” conventional wisdom—about the failure of traditional public schools as the cause of a wide achievement gap between white children and children of color and between wealthy children and poor children—had been cast into law in the No Child Left Behind Act, passed with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  The law was designed to pressure staff in low scoring schools to raise expectations for their students or their schools would be sanctioned with a cascade of ever more punitive consequences.  No Child Left Behind’s strategy was neither to increase public investment in the schools in the poorest communities nor to ameliorate child poverty.

Last week, after Hanauer published his admission that he no longer supports school reform based on high stakes, test-and-punish accountability and the reliance on privatization as a turnaround strategy, former President Barack Obama responded.  Valerie Strauss quotes the response to Hanauer tweeted by President Obama: “This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all.  As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.”  In his response to Hanauer, Obama doesn’t fully reject the school turnaround strategies embedded in his administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs, but he admits that he has himself done some rethinking.

It is significant that Nick Hanauer, one of America’s financial and philanthropic glitterati, is openly questioning corporate, accountability-based school reform ideas, and it is also a good thing that former President Obama, who promoted such policies, is listening.  But it should concern us all that the ideas and biases of the wealthy have such inflated influence on public policy these days. How did it happen that those who have shaped the conventional wisdom about education blamed the professionals in the schools instead of listening to school teachers?  And how did policymakers miss an enormous body of academic research that has shown for half a century that poverty and inequality are a primary cause of gaps in school achievement?

In November of 2016, in a brief from a leading center of academic research, the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo warn about Lessons from NCLB: “The No Child Left Behind Act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with great fanfare and enthusiasm. Granting more power to states and curbing what was seen as federal overreach was well received.  Nevertheless, the new system remains a predominantly test-based accountability system that requires interventions in the lowest scoring five percent of schools.  The new law… shows little promise of remedying the systemic under resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform politics of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies. Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”

School reform, according to the theories of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and giant philanthropies, is emblematic of the sort of policy—driven by elites— that Anand Giridharadas warns us about in his, 2018, book, Winners Take All: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (Winners Take All, pp. 10-11)

EXTRA: Ohio Senate Passes Budget without Including State School Takeover Plan. It Will Likely Be Back.

The Ohio Senate passed a state budget bill this afternoon which does not include the Senate Education Committee’s proposed amendment for state school district takeovers—a plan designed to replace House Bill 70.  The Senate removed the language to repeal HB 70 which the House had included in its state budget bill.

The Plain Dealer reports on the budget the Senate passed today, including this short comment on the state school takeovers: “The Senate also removed language that the House had inserted that undid the state’s process for taking over failing school districts. Obhof indicated the issue could still be revisited before the budget process ends.”

Educators worry that the Senate’s plan, described in this blog last week, will come back either in the Senate-House conference committee or as a standalone bill.

For the Poorest Rust Belt School Districts in 2019, June Is the Cruelest Month

States continue to impose punitive school closures and state takeovers on school districts that serve the poorest children.  While the Ohio Senate tinkers with language to embed a new state takeover plan for struggling school districts into the FY 2020-2021 biennial state budget, Michigan plans to shut down Benton Harbor’s high school before June 30, the date when the state is slated to lose control over this district which Michigan’s state-appointed managers have failed to turn around.

Ohio’s Senate pretends it is eliminating a four-year failed experiment in the state takeover of school districts, in which top-down, state-appointed despots have created chaos by wielding unlimited power to reconstitute schools and shake things up. But the substitute plan (buried in the Ohio Senate’s proposed state budget) merely inserts a local committee into the process and calls the new czar a School Improvement Director instead of a CEO. This new overseer, whose responsibility would be to enforce a plan already reviewed and approved by what would be a new Ohio School Transformation Board, would have the power to replace school administrators; assign employees to schools and approve transfers; hire new employees; define employee job descriptions; establish employee compensation; allocate teacher class loads; conduct employee evaluations; reduce staff; set the school calendar; create the budget; contract services for the district; modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; establish grade configurations of the schools; determine the curriculum; select instructional materials and assessments; set class size; and provide staff professional development. The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.

What is happening in Michigan is also about a state’s imposed governance, but Michigan’s pending action comes much later in the process.  Michigan has been imposing state governance on school districts and municipalities for years now. In Benton Harbor this June, we are watching what happens when years of state control have failed to accomplish what was promised. Michigan’s state takeover has not turned around the schools in the abjectly poor Benton Harbor community.

Wikipedia describes former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder: “Richard Dale Snyder (born August 19, 1958) is an American politician, business executive, venture capitalist, lawyer and accountant who served as the 48th governor of Michigan from 2011 to 2019. He is a member of the Republican Party.” Snyder was a businessman-governor who believed tight management practices could make up for the state’s paltry investment in public schools and municipalities. The poisoning of Flint’s drinking water was one result of Snyder’s pressure to cut costs. Now the new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, finds herself ill equipped to address the school crisis in Benton Harbor which has derived from years of misguided policy on state school finance, on school and municipal governance, and on the segregation of the state by economics as well as race.

Governor Snyder put in place a disastrous set of takeovers of poor communities and school districts. He blamed municipal and school district indebtedness on governance and management. For the Detroit News, Jennifer Chambers reviews some of this history: “In 2013, the state dissolved the Buena Vista School District and Inkster Public Schools. Several districts have been placed into the hands of emergency managers, including Detroit Public Schools and the districts of Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. Both Muskegon Heights and Highland Park now operate as charter districts only. Craig Thiel, director of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said Benton Harbor is a unique case because it’s the only Michigan school district under a consent agreement. That agreement goes away June 30, when the state reform office closes. ‘All of the models dealing with finances of districts don’t involve additional state dollars.  They assume it’s management issues and they assume you can resolve it,’ Thiel said.”

Chambers describes what is happening in Benton Harbor this month: “The future of 700 high school students and the fate of a southwest Michigan school district hangs in the balance this week as the people of Benton Harbor push back against a state plan to close the city’s high schools. The urban school district, whose 1,800 students are 92 percent black and 81 percent economically disadvantaged, has staggeringly low academic achievement and has been ravaged by years of declining enrollment. And despite the efforts of a turnaround specialist who was ready to move ahead with educational and financial reforms for the next three years under state watch, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has told the community the only course of action left is to close Benton Harbor High School and a smaller alternative high school. Whitmer wants to send the students to primarily white, rural, and more affluent districts to address the district’s $18.3 million debt, give high schoolers access to certified teachers and allow educators to focus on K-8 education. The prospect of disbanding the high school and sending hundreds of black students to finish their education in overwhelmingly white suburbs has put a decidedly racial tinge on what is unfolding as the first crisis of Whitmer’s governorship…  Whitmer came to Benton Harbor last week and told residents that dissolving the district is the alternative to closing the high school, given the district’s financial and academic crisis… Robert Herrera, the state-appointed CEO of Benton Harbor Area Schools, who was one year into a four-year contract to turn around the district, said he was shocked to learn the governor wanted to shut down the high schools, a decision he learned in late May. Herrera resigned from the district on Thursday, which is effective June 30.”

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

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

As a school district serving one of Michigan’s poorest and most racially segregated communities, Benton Harbor represents the problems of the many communities whose troubles have been defined by Governor Snyder and other politicians as management issues—without attention to the state of Michigan’s paltry school funding.  Last February, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized a new in-depth study from Michigan State University: “According to the report, total K-12 education funding declined by 30 percent between 2002 and 2015, with 74 percent of that drop caused by declining state support for schools.” Strauss quotes the report: “Michigan ranks dead last among states in total education revenue growth since the passage of Proposal A (in 1994).  After adjusting for inflation, Michigan’s education revenue in 2015 was only 82 percent of the state’s 1995 revenue. No other state is close to a decline of this magnitude. In 48 states, 2015 education revenue was higher, often much higher, than in 1995.  Michigan’s real per-pupil revenues declined by 15 percent over this same period, ranking 48th among the 50 states.”

In Benton Harbor, two hundred people attended a recent meeting when Governor Gretchen Whitmer came to explain her plan to the community.  State officials appear to feel pressured by the expiration of the 2014 consent agreement on June 30, when control of the school district will revert to the local school board.  Chambers reports the state has given the school board an ultimatum. By mid-June, they must to come up with an alternative plan to the closure of the high school or face the state-imposed closure of the school district.  The local school board, however, appears to be intent on regaining local control by delaying any action past the June 30 deadline.

Chambers quotes Joseph Taylor, the school board’s vice president: “This is a bad plan for the community.  It gets rid of a high school…. High schools are the fabric of anyone’s community, and good high schools create good cities.”

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad opposes the school closure: “It’s a total affront to the community. It’s not just a slap in the face, but to take away the high school would be like taking down our twin towers.”

Chambers quotes  Dadrainana McFall, a 10th grader and captain of the junior varsity girls’ basketball team: “I don’t have anywhere else to go… I have been in Benton Harbor. I have not been anywhere else other than Benton Harbor. This is my hometown. Benton Harbor created me. I don’t want the school to close.”

Last fall, Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist published an extraordinary book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which explores the impact of Chicago’s closure of 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year—many of them concentrated in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing describes widespread community mourning in a Chicago neighborhood where residents experienced school closures very differently than the officials who had the power to make the top-down choices which are shaping the neighborhoods.

In several years of interviews, Ewing listened as people from the Bronzeville community described the loss of their schools as a death: “Understanding these tropes of death and mourning as they pertain not to the people we love, but to the places where we loved them, has a particular gravity during a time when the deaths of black people at the hands of the state—through such mechanisms as police violence and mass incarceration—are receiving renewed attention.  As the people of Bronzeville understand, the death of a school and the death of a person at the barrel of a gun are not the same thing, but they are the same thing. 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.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

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, p. 159)

EXTRA: Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Plan to Replace HB 70 Is Still a State Takeover

I have been reading a May 7, 2019 draft Ohio School Transformation Plan. This is the Ohio Senate’s proposal to replace the current Ohio HB 70 state takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland and state takeovers scheduled for ten more school districts in the next two years. Currently Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are operating under state appointed Academic Distress Commissions. In Youngstown and Lorain, now completing their fourth year under Academic Distress Commissions, the dysfunction, chaos and ill-will are unsustainable.

The Senate’s just proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan plan was designed by an Academic Distress Working Group that includes representatives of the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, Warrensville Heights and Mansfield school districts; Ohio’s state superintendent, Paolo deMaria; Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee; and representatives of several advocacy groups including the Thomas Fordham Foundation, Ohio Excels, Capital Partners, Education First, and Learn to Earn Dayton.  The Ohio School Transformation Plan is being prepared for inclusion in the Senate’s proposed FY 2020-2121 Ohio biennial budget.

Here is how the Working Group describes the plan: “The group recommends that in the budget, action be taken to incubate a new approach to turning around low performing schools and districts in Ohio… In the budget language for the Senate, the Working Group recommends establishing the Ohio School Transformation Plan. This is to be accomplished through a phased implementation—addressing the needs of districts currently within the Academic Distress Commission in Phase I—and working over the next six months to develop a Phase 2 detailed framework.”

Make no mistake, the Ohio School Transformation Plan is still a state takeover.

Having considered the ongoing catastrophe of the current Youngstown and Lorain state takeovers under HB 70, however, the members of the Working Group claim to have learned some lessons and made adjustments: “For a district in Substantial and Intensive Support status, allow a local superintendent to continue to serve with support, especially if the superintendent is relatively new to the school district’s leadership team… If change is necessary or the position becomes vacant, allow the district board of education to hire a new superintendent with the approval of the state… Union leadership should be at the table from the beginning to help build the transformation plan. It is critical that district and union leadership work together to set a transformation plan in place to ensure shared commitment to plan implementation.”

While there is no evidence in Ohio or nationally that collective bargaining impedes school improvement, and despite that the Senate Working Group includes the teachers’ union in any school district’s development of its local Transformation Plan, the Working Group adds a warning that the teachers union may ultimately be a barrier to be overcome: “Identify early in the process (ideally during the root cause analysis), provisions in the collective bargaining agreement that may impact successful plan implementation.”

And while the Working Group describes lessons learned, it would appear that members of the Working Group neglect to consider that residents and leaders of the districts under Transformation might notice that while the local people are still in place, their power has been replaced by total control from a new state agency. Additionally, under the Senate’s plan, local educators would be operating with the “guidance” of an outside consultant. The Working Group explains how all this will work:

“Establish the state-level Transformation for Student Success Board (TSSB) charged with reviewing, approving and monitoring progress of School and District Transformation and Implementation Plans (SDTIP)… The TSSB would replace locally based Academic Distress Commissions for each district, elevating the import of this work to a higher level to address the learning, equity, and economic issues inherent in supporting student success and talent development in the State of Ohio. The TSSB will report to the Governor and be comprised of members representing: State Superintendent for Public Instruction; Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation; (and) up to 5 members with significant direct recent experience in school/district leadership, education policy, technical assistance, and/or education research appointed by a combination of the Governor, Senate President and Speaker of the House, Minority Leaders of the House and Senate in consultation with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

Notice that the framers of the Ohio School Transformation Plan describe elevating the work to a higher (state) level. The assumption is that officials of the state, many of whom lack any training and experience in the field of education, know more about operating a local school district than the professional educators chosen by the struggling school district’s elected school board. This despite the long process the Working Group envisions by which the school district’s leaders and their chosen third-party consultant will create their local plan for improvement.  Which must then be approved by the state Transformation for Student Success Board.

Causes for concern crop up throughout the document. The state would help to finance the transformation, but the Working Group estimates huge costs—hundreds of thousands of dollars per district for consultants during the initial school district transformation analysis and more costs later for for turnaround support, coaching of principals, and in-service education for staff on literacy instruction and intervention in classroom culture and climate. Because Ohio’s biennial budget, as proposed by the House, does not include these services and unless the Senate allocates significant additional funding, the money would have to come from somewhere else in the state education budget or the school district’s operating budget. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act allows for the diversion of 7 percent of Title I funds for school turnaround. It seems that funds being used currently for student services would now be diverted to consultants.

The plan is presented by the Working Group as though it is a guaranteed win for Youngstown and Lorain, the school districts currently in chaos because of their failed governance under Academic Distress Commissions. But consider the overall record on state takeovers across the country. Neither the Louisiana Recovery School District, the Michigan Educational Achievement Authority, The Tennessee Achievement School District, the decades’ long New Jersey state takeovers, nor the state-appointed Philadelphia School Reform Commission have managed quickly to sustain lasting school improvement in their struggling schools. All but one of these state takeover plans have been terminated by their states because they were ineffective or unaffordable or both. In 2017, Arne Duncan’s School Improvement Grants turnaround program was deemed a failure by the U.S. Department of Education’s own National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

School improvement experts explain that school improvement is a step by step process that may take many years. There has been no evidence anywhere that schools can be quickly turned around in a year or two. But the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan prescribes that if school districts under the Senate’s plan, “Should… fail to meet the requirements of School and District Transformation and Implementation Plans over the two-year period, they would fall into Academic Distress Commission control, as currently mandated, or would be subject to a new comprehensive and cohesive policy when such a new policy is enacted (expected in 2020).”

The Senate Working Group’s proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan’s most serious fault is what it fails to consider. While the members of the Working Group proclaim that the new plan will: “Require school and district transformation plans that respond to the root cause analysis of the district’s performance challenges and focus on effectively addressing those causes with effective practices to drive meaningful change, ” the plan’s very substance assumes that school governance is the problem: the school district’s educators don’t know how to improve their students’ performance.

But what if school governance is not the problem?  The state evaluates and judges school districts almost entirely based on their standardized test scores. And it is well known that standardized test scores correlate primarily with family and neighborhood economics. As one looks at the school districts currently under HB 70 Academic Distress Commissions, all of them, along with the districts currently slated for takeover in the next two years, are school districts serving children living in concentrated neighborhood poverty and racial segregation.

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

The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel recently explained why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the use of standardized testing, condemns high-stakes standardized testing as an inaccurate way to measure the quality of a school.  While schools in the poorest communities need more support for their students and smaller classes to increase the attention students receive from adults, standardized test scores in the aggregate merely tell us that the so-called “failing school” is likely to be located in a neighborhood or community where the residents are struggling with poverty:

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

The Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan is merely another top-down attempt to prescribe governance changes as the way to raise aggregate students’ test scores.  It will fail like all the others. It is a paternalistic plan envisioning that state overseers and consultants know more than local educators. In other words it assumes that school district administrators don’t know enough and teachers aren’t working hard enough. Like the federal law that didn’t work, the Ohio’s Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan assumes that the Legislature can merely prescribe that school districts promise No Child Left Behind.  It assumes that school districts can cure our society’s failure to overcome the tragedy of concentrated family poverty.

Instead of adopting the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan, the Ohio Legislature needs to pass HB 154 or alternatively the Ohio House Budget’s plan to eliminate the HB 70 state takeovers.  Then the Legislature needs to invest significantly in smaller classes, more counselors, more social workers, more wraparound social and medical services and more school enrichment. The state needs to begin adequately supporting rather than punishing its very poorest school districts.