Shady Exit of Youngstown’s Appointed School CEO Exemplifies the Failure of Ohio School Takeover Law

The future of Ohio’s state takeovers of so called “failing” school districts rests with the Ohio Senate.

On May 1, 2019, by an astounding bipartisan margin of 83/12, the Ohio House passed HB 154, to repeal Ohio’s failed school district takeover law. Then, just to ensure that the leadership crisis is stopped in the school districts of  Youngstown and Lorain, the House banned state school district takeovers in its version of the state budget, passed last week.

On Monday of this week, however, the Columbus Dispatch editorialized to warn the Legislature not to rush to change HB 70.  Ohio’s state school district takeover law, HB 70, was fast-tracked and passed without hearings at the end of the session in June of 2015.  Under HB 70, Ohio brands any school district which has received three years of consecutive “F” grades on the state report card as academic distressed and subject to state takeover. The bill was designed in secret by then Governor John Kasich, his appointed state superintendent Dick Ross, and some business sector allies in Youngstown.  The law provides that the state appoints an Academic Distress Commission to take over the district, a Commission that then appoints a CEO to manage the schools. The locally elected school board continues to exist, but its sole power is to decide when to place a local school levy on the ballot. The CEO has the power to override the teachers’ contract.

In its editorial this week, the Dispatch asks the Legislature to slow down and take plenty of time to study what to do about low-scoring school districts: “Four years after Ohio lawmakers approved a sweeping school takeover law they knew almost nothing about, agreement seems widespread that it is a gigantic failure. Now, as they scramble to replace it, they should avoid making the same mistake again…  Change clearly is needed; takeovers of the Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland districts have yielded immense controversy and virtually no academic improvement. But the House approach seems designed to avoid any pain—and probably any gain—with more options than requirements.  It generally would leave in charge the local officials who presumably led the districts to their state of failure.”

The assumption here is that low test scores on standardized tests, the primary yardstick Ohio uses to judge the quality of public schools, are a direct result of failed local governance. I have heard state officials use explicitly paternalistic terms: “The state needs to take over because these school districts don’t know how to get better.”

Youngstown and Lorain are communities devastated by the loss of manufacturing.  East Cleveland, Ohio’s poorest school district and the fourth poorest community in the United States, is the third school district affected by HB 70.  It is currently undergoing state takeover. In East Cleveland, an inner-ring suburb, the tax base has collapsed due to the foreclosure crisis and the loss of industry.  Other districts facing state takeover in the next two years are: Columbus; Ashtabula, a former shipping town on Lake Erie; Canton, Dayton, and Toledo, mid-sized cities with concentrated poverty and the loss of manufacturing; Euclid and North College Hill, both inner suburbs segregated by race and poverty;  and Lima, Mansfield, and Painsville, smaller cities with lagging economies. What dominates every one of these school districts is the concentration of urban poverty and racial segregation.

In two primary ways the Dispatch‘s argument fails to address the urgent need to eliminate the state’s takeover of Ohio’s poorest school districts.

In the first place, the appointed state overseers have shown themselves unable to work with their communities to support school improvement.

In Lorain, CEO David Hardy’s arrogance has been widely reported. Hardy has refused to bring his family to live in Lorain.  He has alienated the school community, the teachers, the students at the high school, the police department, the elected school board, and even several members of the state-appointed Academic Distress Commission—the people who hired Hardy. The chair of the Academic Distress Commission resigned in frustration last winter, and the new state appointee discovered that, although the Academic Distress Commission is required by law formally to evaluate Hardy’s performance after 180 days, then 365 days, and annually thereafter, nearly four years after the state takeover, no evaluation had been performed.

This week brought the latest installment of the problems of the Youngstown takeover. Krish Mohip, the Academic Distress Commission’s appointed CEO, had been scheduled to finish his four year term on July 31 and had elected not to continue.  A new CEO, from Muskegon, Michigan has been appointed to take over on August 1.  But a week ago, Mohip reinforced his reputation for arrogance by announcing he was leaving the district on Family Medical Leave.

The Youngstown Vindicator‘s Amanda Tonoli reports that Mohip explained: “I’m going to take care of some issues that have accumulated at home, and I’m going to focus my attention there… I don’t see my absence as being a hindrance to all the great work that’s happened and will continue to happen over the next few years.” Mohip is leaving, but he is not resigning.  Instead he will collect the rest of his $170,000 salary.  And, assuming he stays on Family Medical Leave until July 31, “A longevity provision in Mohip’s contract allows him a $10,000 payout if he completes his full contract.”

Of course, nobody is sorry to see Mohip go. The chair of the Academic Distress Commission explains: “We have to uphold what the contract says… We are following the law and following the contract that was agreed upon with Krish Mohip.” The blatant arrogance of Mohip’s mode of departure is merely the latest example of his abuse of the public trust.

There is a second problem with the state takeovers that Ohio’s politicians seem determined to ignore. Or maybe they are simply unaware of the massive body of academic research correlating low test scores with community and family poverty. You would think some of them would look at the distribution of Ohio’s “A” rated districts in homogeneous and wealthy exurbs and the “F” rated districts in the state’s most impoverished urban communities and notice what’s happening. The distribution is a clearly visible indicator of the reality that schools whose students post the highest test scores in the aggregate are the children being educated in pockets of privilege, and schools with the lowest standardized test scores serve the state’s very poorest students.

Research continues to confirm the findings of the 60-year-old Coleman report. Standardized test scores reflect aggregate family and neighborhood economics. This blog has quoted the research before, but here it is again.

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.”

Speaking to the issue from another point of view is Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on problems with standardized testing. In 2017, Koretz published The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a book length critique of our nation’s two-decades old, test-and-punish school accountability scheme—the basis of Ohio’s school district report cards by which the state identifies school districts for state takeover by academic distress commissions.  Koretz is an expert on the design and use of standardized testing as the basis for high-stakes evaluation of schools and schoolteachers.  He demonstrates that school evaluation based on high stakes testing unfairly penalizes the very kind of schools Ohio targets under HB 70: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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… 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)

Koretz is very clear about how Ohio’s focus on bringing districts out of “academic distress”—moving them from “F” grades on the school report card based on test scores up to “D” grades—distorts teaching itself in the schools where student poverty is concentrated: “First, many good (educational) activities… fall outside the range most standardized tests can sample well… Second, while good instruction in general will improve students’ mastery and therefore, should increase scores, it won’t increase scores on a specific test as much as instruction—and test-prep—aimed squarely at that particular test.  In other words, teaching to the test can increase test scores more rapidly than high-quality teaching not focused narrowly on the specific test used for accountability.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 139-140)

Koretz explains further that punitive state policies based on high-stakes testing are likely to drive educators in the schools serving the poorest children to narrow the curriculum to focus on test preparation or to find other ways artificially to raise scores. After all school districts’ ratings and even teachers’ jobs in some cases have depended on their quickly raising scores.  Koretz writes: “Lower performing schools often face severe barriers to improvement—for example, fewer resources, less experienced teaching staff, high rates of teacher turnover, higher rates of student transience, fewer high-performing students to serve as models, fewer parents who are able to provide supplementary supports…. Faced with these obstacles, teachers will have a stronger incentive to look for shortcuts for raising scores. Ironically, one of the elements of school reform intended to help low-achieving students appears to have backfired, making these incentives worse. The key is that the performance targets are uniform and are coupled with real sanctions and rewards. When these targets require faster gains than teachers can produce by legitimate means, teachers have a strong incentive to search for whatever methods might raise scores quickly… There is ample evidence that test prep is more pervasive in the schools serving disadvantaged kids, and some signs that cheating (the Atlanta and Washington, D.C. scandals where educators erased answers or otherwise raised scores) is more common… What matters for rewards and punishments (for schools and teachers) is the performance—or at least the apparent performance—of the school system, individual schools, and often individual teachers.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 68-69)

Finally, Koretz concludes: “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 Testing Charade, p. 191)

Governor Mike DeWine’s budget proposal and the House Budget both allocate additional funding for wraparound social and medical services provided at school to support families and children living in poverty.  It is a strategy to help families struggling with hunger, homelessness, families broken up by parental incarceration, and families undermined by the Opioid epidemic. Ohio’s schools need more money for basic operations than it appears the current budget negotiations will provide, but the move to help schools address the poverty that undermines children’s education in the state’s poorest communities is a positive strategy.

The Ohio Senate needs to repeal HB 70 immediately either by passing HB 154 or passing the House Budget. And Governor DeWine needs to agree. The state school takeovers have proven to be an appallingly paternalistic, top-down theft of local democracy from Ohio’s poorest communities.  Editors of the Dispatch and any legislators who believe nobody knows how to improve students’ achievement in our state’s poorest communities ought to look at the academic research.


Ohio House Budget Fails to Increase Base Funding for 82 Percent of School Districts Now Capped or On Guarantee

The headline on Jim Siegel’s Columbus Dispatch article on March 19 proclaimed, “DeWine budget sets stage for Ohio House’s sweeping school funding revamp.” For those of us who know the urgent needs of Ohio’s 610 school districts after years of tax cuts under John Kasich and a state legislature for whom tax cutting still remains the dogma, the news raised our hopes for some relief—especially for the state’s poorest school districts.

But the school funding revamp didn’t happen. 

Everything broke down when it became clear that the plan needed revising and there wasn’t really time, despite the good intentions of a bipartisan coalition behind what became known as the Cupp-Patterson Plan. It is not expected that the Ohio Senate will revise school funding or otherwise increase basic support for Ohio’s school districts when the budget process moves to that chamber.

Governor DeWine’s earlier budget proposal included an additional $550 million over the biennium to be distributed to school districts to support wraparound services for children living in poverty. It was supposed to be a sort of place holder to which the new school funding plan would be added. While the governor’s added $550 million investment is a good idea in a state where there is devastating Appalachian rural poverty and where there are more than a dozen school districts where urban poverty is concentrated, DeWine’s $550 million was never intended to serve as the only school funding increase in Ohio’s biennial education budget.

Then in the last week of March came the rollout of the new Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan.  The mere release of the plan was groundbreaking, because the plan identified, measured, and explained an alarming decade-long school finance problem, a problem nobody had previously brought to the attention of the legislature or the public.

Representative Bob Cupp has worked diligently for school funding reform since the early 1990s when I first met him during his visit to our school district to learn about the school funding challenges in greater Cleveland and particularly its racially diverse Eastern suburbs. Cupp has, over the years, stood out as an Ohio Republican who embraces the state’s public responsibility to provide opportunity for each of its children through a sound education. Joining Cupp to lead the current drive for school finance reform has been a Democrat, John Patterson.

A large task force of public school leaders—superintendents and school treasurers—have worked with Representatives Cupp and  Patterson over more than a year to analyze what the task force finally identified as a crisis: 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—82 percent— have had their state funding frozen for several years because the state has lacked the money to contribute what any decent school funding formula would provide.

For over two decades, a problem for Ohio’s public schools is that state school funding has been merely a budgetary residual. After the legislature and governor decided on the level of taxation needed to fund government services and created a revenue pie for state government, the budgetary process was pretty much about the size of the various pieces. Budgetary debates have not been directly related to the actual need for infrastructure, Medicaid services, colleges and universities, criminal justice and K-12 public education. Instead the discussion typically involves who gets bigger and smaller pieces of budgetary pies that tax cuts have made smaller and smaller through the years.

The Cupp-Patterson plan instead measures the resources necessary for schools to function well in terms of class size, support staff and other expenses like transportation and broadband connectivity. Then the plan corrects what ought to be the state’s contribution to its 610 school districts based on their local capacity to raise revenue—their local property taxing capacity as well as their aggregate family income that makes it possible for their residents to pass local school levies.

The Cupp-Patterson Plan did not make it into the House Budget. 

The Cupp-Patterson Plan did not make it into the 2020 Ohio House education budget, passed on May 9.  And its absence from the House Budget pretty much guarantees that it won’t make it into the Senate’s budget or an eventual House-Senate conference committee compromise.

After computer runs for the new school funding plan demonstrated that the new plan left many school districts serving the state’s poorest children with zero funding increases for next year, well-intentioned people worked to adjust the factors but were unable to do so quickly enough. In a Columbus Dispatch podcast, Why Is School Funding Still Broken?, Howard Fleeter, an expert on Ohio school finance, suggested that Ohio’s urban districts with deep and concentrated family poverty very likely need an added poverty adjustment of at least 30 percent more funding per-pupil than other school districts.

What is included for K-12 public education in the Ohio House Budget, passed on May 9?

The Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel explain that the House Budget adds “another $675 million… (for) K-12 education, directing much of the money to districts with higher poverty concentrations to help them pay for services such as mental health counseling and after-school programs.”  That means that the House added $125 million to Governor DeWine’s proposed $550 million funding increase for wraparound social and medical services to help the state’s school districts serving a large number of poor children. That is all to the good. But remember that DeWine’s plan was never intended to constitute the body of the state’s public education budgetary increase for public schools. The House Budget, as passed, means that 82 percent of the state’s school districts will remain capped or on hold-harmless guarantee. They will receive the very same state allocation they were awarded last year, and the year before that, and in many cases several years before that.

Two tiny additional items in the House Budget do address another deplorable problem in Ohio public education policy. For many years, the state has embraced punitive accountability for its struggling school districts. Ohio uses aggregate standardized test scores to rate and rank school districts and individual schools  on report cards that grade them, “A” through “F.”  Under a bill fast-tracked through the legislature in the summer of 2015, the state takes over any district earning an “F” for three years running, and appoints an Academic Distress Commission, which hires a CEO to take over. The elected school board continues to exist but has no real power; the union contract is abrogated. The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain, taken over four years ago, have not improved their standardized test scores (the flawed yardstick Ohio uses to judge and rank its school districts). Both districts are experiencing a leadership crisis under their state-appointed CEOs. East Cleveland, the poorest school district in Ohio, is currently in the process of being taken over. Ten additional school districts are slated for state takeover in the next couple of years:  Ashtabula, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, Euclid, Lima, Mansfield, North College Hill, Painsville. and Toledo. (This blog recently explored the serious problems with Ohio state school district takeovers.)

Several bills currently in the Legislature would repeal HB 70, the state takeover law. On May 1, the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach reported that HB 154 gained enough bi-partisan support to pass the Ohio House by an astounding bipartisan margin of 83-12. The House has emphasized its consensus that the state takeover law must be repealed by adding language to that effect in the House Budget. The Dispatch‘s Candisky and Siegel report briefly that the House Budget, “Eliminates the state school takeover process for chronically struggling school districts, replacing it with requirements for local planning and adjustments.”

The House Budget also includes language which would make the state report cards fairer and more consistent.  Candisky and Siegel add that the House Budget, “Alters the state report card, changing how districts receive an overall grade. This would allow a few dozen districts to get higher grades.” Ohio ought to stop the punitive branding of its school districts with letter grades, especially as the state punishes school districts without increasing their funding, but if the state is going to grade schools and school districts, at least the methodology ought to be fair.

One again, the House Budget reduces the size of the overall state revenue pie for the next biennium.

The Ohio House has sent to the Senate a budget that laudably adds some money to support school districts serving poor children with wraparound social and medical services, but as the Cupp-Patterson Plan documents, the budget will leave 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—82 percent—massively underfunded. These districts will continue receiving state funds that are capped or held-harmless under guarantee. For a decade, Governor John Kasich and a super-majority Republican Legislature made the overall state revenue pie smaller by cutting income taxes. They also eliminated the estate tax and local school districts’ capacity to tax commercial inventories.

While on the revenue side this year, the Ohio House must be commended for reducing a controversial state business income-tax loophole, the state persists again this year with an overall income tax cut when the money ought to be invested in education and other urgent public needs. Candisky and Siegel explain that the House budget: “Eliminates the state income tax on up to $22,250 of income and reduces remaining tax brackets by 6.6 percent.” The House Budget, “Also scales back the tax exemptions currently enjoyed by pass-through business owners, rolling the deduction back from $250.000 to $100,000. Overall, tax changes net a $108 million tax reduction per year.”

One again through tax cuts, the Ohio House has passed a budget which leaves the state without enough revenue to pay for essential public services.

Considering School Closures as Philadelphia’s Empty Germantown High School Faces Sheriff’s Sale

In her profound and provocative book about the community impact of Chicago’s closure of 50 so-called “underutilized” public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, Eve Ewing considers the effect of school closures on the neighborhoods they once anchored.  Ewing’s book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, is about Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and a set of school closures in Chicago in which 88 percent of the affected students were African American, and 71 percent of the closed schools had majority-African American teachers. (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Ewing writes: “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 also 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)

Public school closures were one of three “school turnarounds” prescribed for so-called “failing schools” in the No Child Left Behind Act; they were also as part of Arne Duncan’s priorities in Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. (The other two turnaround strategies were firing the principal and half the staff or privatizing school by charterizing it or turning it over to a private Educational Management Organization.)  At the end of the school year in 2013, Chicago closed 50 schools. Other big city school districts also imposed school closure as a “turnaround” strategy. Philadelphia closed 23 schools that same year.

Chicago and Philadelphia were also both rapidly expanding marketplace school competition by imposing a management theory called portfolio school reform. It is a strategy that models business school thinking.  The district manages traditional public and charter schools as though they are  investments in a stock portfolio. The idea is to launch new schools and close low scoring schools and schools that become under-enrolled. It is imagined that the competition will drive school improvement, but that has not been the result anyplace where this scheme has been launched. School districts in Chicago and Philadelphia launched a growing number of charter schools at the same time the overall student population in the school district was declining. As families experimented with school choice, both districts shut down neighborhood schools described as becoming “underutilized.”  School closure was a top down policy, and when it was imposed, the justification was presented with reams of technical data. In Philadelphia, the school closures were imposed by a state-appointed School Reform Commission. By popular demand, the Philadelphia school district has now been returned to democratic governance under a locally elected school board, a development which may reflect partly on the community’s response to the massive school closures.

I thought about the wave of 2013 school closures this morning as I read an article from Tuesday’s Philadelphia Inquirer about Philadelphia’s storied Germantown High School—now covered by the newspaper as a mere eyesore, an abandoned hulk of a building. The Inquirer’s Hannah Chinn reports: “When the Philadelphia School District closed Germantown High School in 2013 just shy of its 100th anniversary and announced plans to sell it, some residents felt blindsided and confused.  Others were hopeful. How could their community continue without a central education facility? Who would take on the responsibility of the building?… Could the building be redeveloped to offer affordable housing…?  Vocational training? A resource center? Six years later, all those questions remain unanswered… In September 2013, the Maryland-based Concordia Group began negotiations to purchase Germantown High.”  The sale was opposed in court, but, “In 2017, after an appeal from the School District, the court approved the sale of … five schools.  But the Concordia Group no longer seemed so sure… The two Germantown schools are not listed on Concordia’s site—or seemingly anywhere else, except with the sheriff… This spring (2019), unpaid balances have caught up to the property. On May 15, the high school is scheduled for tax sale. According to the Sheriff’s Office, if a property owner fails to pay utility bills, schools taxes, or city taxes, the property may be auctioned at a tax delinquency sale so the city can collect what it’s owed. The opening bid on Germantown High next month is listed as $1,500.”

In a 2016 report on the wave of school closings across America’s cities, Rachel M. Cohen describes the 2013 Philadelphia school closures that included Germantown High School: “In 2012, citing a $1.4 billion deficit, Philadelphia’s state-run school commission voted to close 23 schools—nearly 10 percent of the city’s stock… Amid the fiscal pressure for state budget cuts, declining student enrollment, charter-school growth, and federal incentives to shut down low-performing schools, the district assured the public that closures would help put the city back on track toward financial stability… While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures. In Philadelphia, black students made up 58 percent of the district, but 81 percent of those affected by closures.”

You might wonder whether any academic research has been conducted on the effects of Philadelphia’s school closures and on the use of school closure as a strategy for supporting higher academic achievement among the affected students.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew P. Steinberg and John M. MacDonald just published such a study of the impact of the 2013 public school closures in Philadelphia. The study (published in the Economics of Education Review, Volume 69, April 2019) is paywalled, but the conclusions are reported in the abstract: “We estimate the impact of public school closings in Philadelphia on student achievement and behavioral outcomes. While school closures had no effect on the average achievement of displaced students, achievement increased among displaced students attending higher-performing schools following closure. The achievement of students (already) attending receiving-schools, however, was negatively affected by the receipt of displaced students. School absences increased significantly for displaced students following closure. We also find that the achievement of displaced and receiving-school students declined as the fraction of displaced students attending a receiving-school increased, and displaced students missed more days of school and received more suspension days the farther they traveled to their new school following closure.”  It is clear that the educational experiment has not been an astounding success for the students involved.

The new study on Philadelphia pretty much replicates the findings in a research brief summarized in January by the National Education Policy Center: “In School Closure as a Strategy to Remedy Low Performance, Gail Sunderman of the University of Maryland, and Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop of the University of California, Berkeley, conclude that closures are ‘a high-risk/low-gain strategy that fails to hold promise with respect to either student achievement or non-cognitive well-being.’ Sunderman, Coghlan and Mintrop found that closures don’t necessarily result in students transferring to higher performing schools. In addition, the transfer itself can set students back as they adapt to new environments. School closures also often fail to deliver promised cost savings, the brief’s author’s note. That’s because closures come with hidden costs such as mothballing buildings, transporting students to schools that are farther from their homes, and renovating receiving schools to accommodate additional enrollment.”

After Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

The Chicago Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school.  Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”  “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

We have lived through two decades of top-down school reform—including prescriptions for turning around our society’s lowest performing schools—the schools situated in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods. In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests that we reframe our thinking about school closure as a turnaround strategy. “When Barbara Byrd-Bennett (then Chicago’s school CEO) made her statement to the board (who were considering the proposed school closures), she encouraged them—and anyone else who might be listening, including journalists and average citizens—to see Chicago’s empty school buildings as a ‘utilization crisis,’ a matter of dire urgency demanding immediate attention… Within this frame, the frame of the utilization crisis, school closure indeed appears to be the only option for anyone who cares about children… But if we consider not only the painting but the frame, we might come to other conclusions because we have seen that, when considering a school’s value, there is more to the assessment than meets they eye. There is the symbolic weight of a school as a bastion of community pride, and also the fear that losing the school means conceding a battle in a much larger ideological war over the future of a city and who gets to claim it. There is the need to consider that losing the school represents another assault in a long line of racist attacks against a people… There is our intensely segregated society to account for, in which those who attend the school experience a fundamentally different reality than those who have the power to steer its future. And finally, there is the intense emotional aftermath that follows school closure….” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 158-159)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closures 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… 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)

High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

A society’s public institutions reflect the strengths and also the faults and sins of the culture they embody. For this reason, America’s public schools that serve over 50 million children in every kind of community will never be perfect. There will be instances of mediocrity and examples of poor school administration and poor teaching. There will be schools stuck in the past and schools where there is sexism and racism—schools where poor children aren’t served up the kind of curriculum that rich children are offered—schools where families persist in segregating their children from others who are “not like them.”  We must expose the problems in our schools and surely, as a society, we are obligated to address our schools’ faults and problems.

But something else has happened in America as we have permitted advocates for privatization to capture our national imagination. How did so many come to view public schools as a problem?  How did we accept the terms “failing schools” and “failing teachers”?  How did we allow policymakers in our very unequal society to extol privately operated schools as a solution?  The education writer and UCLA professor of education, Mike Rose, demands that we be more discerning as we confront the “failing schools” conventional wisdom: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of the public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.” (Why School? p. 203)

After he spent four years visiting public school classrooms across the United States—urban schools, rural schools, Midwestern, Eastern, Western, Southern and border schools, and after observing hundreds of public school teachers from place to place, Rose celebrated the schools he had visited in a wonderful book, Possible Lives: “One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed, out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.” In the book’s preface, Rose reflects on the learning moments he witnessed during his journey: “The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p. xxviii)  Later in the book, Rose continues: “When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, p. 433)

These days most of us do not have the kind of experience Rose acquired in four years of visiting public schools. Schools have been forced to worry about security and to lock kids safely in their classrooms. Most of us might think of what happens at school—if we think about it at all—only as we remember our own experiences, good and bad.

But sometimes, evidence of what students are learning finds its way outside the school and into the press. It happened last week in Lexington, Kentucky when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to town to participate in a roundtable conversation with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who made a name for himself last year supporting a bill undermining teachers’ pensions.

At the roundtable conversation, Governor Bevin and Secretary DeVos were slated to discuss her new proposal for a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit, a plan that would divert federal tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers. There is no expectation that Congress will adopt DeVos’s new proposal for the tax credit plan she calls “Education Freedom Scholarships,” but she has been on-tour promoting her idea. We can presume she expected a sympathetic ear from Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year Kentucky’s teachers went out on strike to protest his education policies, and this year they have been staging sick-outs to protest several bills in the state legislature—one of them to set up a statewide private school voucher program. All year Bevin has been on the attack against the state’s public school teachers. Covering Bevin’s re-election campaign, Fox News describes Bevin’s political future as threatened by his persistent attacks on schoolteachers.

Governor Bevin’s roundtable conversation with Betsy DeVos might not have been widely noticed, covered as it was supposed to be by a group of invited journalists, but the members of the editorial board of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s Lamplighter, a public high school newspaper, received permission to leave school to cover the 11:00 AM event.  Despite “PRESS” identification tags, they were turned away at the door because they were unable to present one of the special invitations.  Instead of covering the event, the high school journalists did some thinking and some research, and penned a scathing high school newspaper editorial demonstrating not only the quality of their public school training as journalists but also their education in civics along with considerable curiosity about the meaning of their experience trying to cover what should have been a public event.

The Lamplighter editorial, No Seat at the Roundtable, and its high school authors became the subject of Monday’s Washington Post, Morning Mix column: “Unable to document the event, or query DeVos in person, they set about investigating the circumstances of her private appearance at the public community college. Ultimately, they penned an editorial flaying the education secretary and the Kentucky governor, accusing them of paying lip service to the needs of students while excluding them from the conversation.”

In their editorial, the students describe what happened as they encountered the guard at the entrance to the meeting they had set out to cover. Notice the role of the students’ journalism teacher and advisor to help them explore and plan their actions: “We presented our school identification badges and showed him our press credentials. He nodded as if that would be enough, but then asked us if we had an invitation.  We looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise. Invitation? For a roundtable discussion on education? ‘Yes, this event is invitation only,’ he said and then waved us away.  At this point, we pulled over and contacted our adviser, Mrs. Wendy Turner. She instructed us to try again and to explain that we were there as press to cover the event for our school newspaper. We at least needed to understand why were were not allowed in, and why it was never publicized as ‘invitation only.’  We watched as the same man waved other drivers through without stopping them, but he stopped us again.  Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry.  It’s invitation only.’… We scrambled to get ourselves together because we were caught off guard, and we were in a hurry to produce anything we could to cover the event and to meet our deadline… After more research, we found mentioned on the government website that the meeting needed an RSVP, but there was no mention of an invitation.  How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?  On the web site, it also stated that the roundtable was an ‘open press event.'”

The Lamplighter‘s editors continue: “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply ‘open to ALL press’ including students? We are student journalists who wanted to cover an event in our community featuring the Secretary of Education, but ironically we couldn’t get in without an invitation… Why was this information (the press notice about the meeting the next day) only shared a little more than 24 hours before the event?  When the Secretary of Education is visiting your city, you’d think you’d have a little more of a heads up.  We can’t help but suspect that the intention was to prevent people from attending.  Also, it was held at 11 AM on a Wednesday.  What student or educator is free at that time?  And as students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.  How odd is that, even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away? We expected the event to be intense. We expected there to be a lot of information to cover. But not being able to exercise our rights under the First Amendment was something we never thought would happen.  We weren’t prepared for that.”

Before they wrote their editorial, the student journalists did more work to track the story: “We emailed FCPS (Fayette County Public Schools) Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.  Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders—educators, students, and parents.  Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy even took to his Twitter to satirize the lack of time DeVos and Bevin took to visit local public school educators. When we reached out to him via email to explain what we experienced, he responded: ‘If Secretary DeVos wanted a true understanding of our public schools, she should hear from the people who participate in it every day.'”

The students also followed up with journalists who were admitted to the event.  They explore in some detail comments reported in the local press about the event from Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Wayne Lewis, someone who endorses DeVos’s proposed federal tuition tax credit voucher proposal. They also report that one high school student attended the roundtable—a scholarship student from Mercy Academy, a Louisville religious high school. This student is quoted in the Lamplighter report: “I was the only student at the table and I was invited because of a scholarship program I was a part of in Louisville.”

The student journalists conclude their editorial: “The bottom line is that we do not think that it is fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.”

The reporter for the Washington-Post‘s Morning Mix, Isaac Stanley-Becker comments on the students’ experience and the way they responded as journalists: “As their travails became the story, the students began to see the terms of the event as emblematic of the approach of the education secretary, who has been criticized as displaying only cursory understanding of the subjects in her remit… Still, they sounded an optimistic note.  Though they were unable to gain the experience they had set out to acquire, they had learned a lesson nonetheless. ‘We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary… We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.'”

The public high school newspaper editors of the Lamplighter exemplify education theorist Henry Giroux’s idea of the value of quality, universal public education. Commenting on the importance of what striking public school teachers—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Los Angeles and Oakland—have been trying to protect, Giroux writes: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy.”

Melinda Gates and the Blindness of Privilege

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published an interview—David Marchese talking with Melinda Gates—about the enormous power of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for shaping our lives.  Marchese asks Ms. Gates directly about the Gates Foundation’s role in driving today’s neoliberal public education policy. Doesn’t a giant foundation—“Its endowment at $50.7 billion… the largest in the world.”—have an outsized impact on social policy? “What about the notion that the foundation’s work on an issue like public education is inherently antidemocratic?  You’ve spent money in that area in a way that maybe seems like it’s crowding out people’s actual wants in that area. What’s your counter to that criticism?”

Ms. Gates cheerfully counters his critique: “Bill and I always go back to ‘What is philanthropy’s role?’ It is to be catalytic. It’s to try and put new ideas forward and test them and see if they work. If you can convince government to scale up, that is how you have success.  But philanthropic dollars are a tiny slice of the United States education budget. Even if we put a billion dollars in the State of California, that’s not going to do that much. So we experiment with things.”

Despite Melinda Gates’ protestations, as we look back, we can see that when the Gates Foundation has experimented with with reforming institutions like public schools, there have been no real consequences for Bill and Melinda and their staff at the Foundation when projects have failed. In the history of the Foundation’s projects with America’s public schools, however, there are many examples of negative consequences for the schools, our communities, and our children.  Here are two.

The first is local—situated in metropolitan Tampa, Florida.  In 2009, The Gates Foundation made a $100 million grant to the Hillsborough County School District in Florida.  The money was to pay for  a huge experiment in merit pay for teachers. Then in 2015, the Gates Foundation deemed the experiment a failure and walked away, leaving the school district to cover millions of dollars of sunk costs and the responsibility for undoing the damage. According to an extremely thorough and arresting report by Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times, the Gates Foundation’s plan in Hillsborough County transformed a cadre of 265 of the district’s best teachers into full-time peer-evaluators paid to “observe teachers… (and) score teachers on everything from subject knowledge to how well they get their students to behave. Their findings, after multiple visits, are combined with results of principals’ evaluations. A third component, based on student data, is dependent on state test results and comes later in the year. The total scores now factor into teacher pay.” Sokol lists some of the failures of this experiment: “The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in…. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.”  “The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teacher into high-needs schools. More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants… After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model.  And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses…. Hillsborough’s graduation rates still lag behind other large school districts. Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced….” And the school district itself spent more than $100 million on a program it cannot afford to maintain.

The second example of a Gates experiment gone wrong continues to affect all of us across the United States.  It is embedded in the policies Arne Duncan forced states to enact into law in order to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was involved in every level of the development of test-and-punish school accountability. In a stunning expose for Dissent Magazine back in 2011, Joanne Barkan traces the evolution and outsized impact of a Gates Foundation project which upended public policy at the local level in Chicago and subsequently created the framework for Arne Duncan’s policies at the U.S. Department of Education. The new project replaced an earlier Gates experiment to break large high schools into small schools.  The Gates Foundation had given up on the small schools initiative, but, as Barkan writes: “No matter. The power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, standards and tests, and school ‘turnaround’ (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere). To support the new initiatives, the Gates Foundation had already invested almost $2.2 million to create The Turnaround Challenge, the authoritative how-to guide on turnaround. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring.  He’s incorporated it into federal policy, and reformers around the country use it. Mass Insight Education, the consulting company that produced it, claims the document has been downloaded 200,000 times since 2007.  Meanwhile, Gates also invested $90 million in one of the largest implementations of the turnaround strategy—Chicago’s Renaissance 2010.  Ren2010 gave Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan a national name and a ticket to Washington; he took along the reform strategy.”

In her groundbreaking 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explores the role of the Gates Foundation and today’s other venture philanthropies in the development of corporate school reform: “Foundations exist to enable extremely wealthy people to shelter a portion of their capital from taxation, and then to use the money for socially beneficial purposes… Foundations themselves may not engage in political advocacy, but they may legally fund organizations that do.  They may also support research projects likely to advance the foundation’s goals. Education has often been high on their agendas… There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are, after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 197-201)

Philanthropic dollars these days shape public policy in myriad ways, and the consequences are rarely neutral. A profound new book by Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, is the best refutation I know of Melinda Gates’ rather theoretical defense in last Sunday’s NY Times of philanthropic experimentation with education policy.

Ewing describes in wrenching detail the experience for parents, children, grandparents and teachers of what happened several years after the Gates Foundation underwrote Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 experiment.  In May of 2013, after the vast expansion of charter schools, Rahm Emanuel’s administration shut down 50 traditional Chicago public schools—schools said to have failed their turnarounds and become underutilized. Over 80 percent of the students in the schools eventually shut down were African American. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research independently confirms Ewing’s finding of overwhelming community grieving across the areas where so many of the schools were closed.

The philanthropic model—experiments with turnarounds and merit pay—experiments with opening and closing schools and shuffling children from one school to another—misses the role of institutions like public schools in the lives of families, neighborhoods, and entire communities.  Ewing urges policy makers to ask a very different set of questions:  “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… 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. 158-159)

Well-Intentioned Ohio School Finance Plan Must Be Revised to Eliminate Savage Inequalities

After a decade of tax cuts brought by Governor John Kasich and a supermajority Republican Ohio Legislature,  Ohio—still dominated in the House, Senate and Governor’s mansion by Republicans—is considering a new school funding formula intended to address what have been glaring problems for the state’s public schools. The new plan is bipartisan. We all owe enormous thanks to Representatives Robert Cupp and John Patterson for their leadership.

Currently, only 107 (18 percent) of the state’s 610 school districts are receiving their calculated formula level of school funding from the state—an amount that supposedly represents what the state should contribute based on each school district’s capacity to raise local revenue. All the rest—503 school districts—are operating on guaranteed or capped funding.  We have reached a point—years and years after the last funding formula adjustment, where nobody can really explain how the state is dividing up its contribution through the formula.

The proposed Fair School Funding Plan is designed to consider each school district’s capacity to raise local revenue—with factors reflecting the district’s property tax base and the aggregate income of the residents.  And, we’ve been told, the new formula will distribute school funding based on the cost of what it takes to educate children—what experts identify as the cost of teachers, support staff, school operations, and school administration.

It is not yet possible to see how all this has been figured out, because the calculations and the numbers that were plugged into the calculations haven’t yet been released.  The new funding plan does get more school districts back inside a formula designed to address the number of children who live in the district, however, and supposedly to address the needs of those children. Of the state’s 610 school districts, only 100 will remain on a guarantee; 510 school districts will be back on the formula.

Conceptually all this seems positive. Except that when the computer runs of the funding for all of the state’s 610 school districts were released, something outrageous showed up.  Among those 100 Guarantee districts, which will receive the same state funding as they are receiving this year, are the state’s very poorest urban school districts, including Youngstown, Lorain, East Cleveland (said to be the nation’s fourth-poorest community), Dayton, Toledo, Lima, and Cleveland.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel highlights the evidence that Ohio’s proposed plan fails to address a key element in any state state school funding formula—equity: “The 52 districts with student poverty rates of at least 60% would get an average funding increase of $280 per pupil over two years…. Meanwhile, the 61 districts with poverty rates of less than 15 percent would get an average $392 per pupil… (T)he formula sends 15% of new funding to the wealthiest suburban districts, compared to 5% to major urban districts and 9% to the poorest rural districts.”

In a follow-up report, Siegel describes Jennifer Hogue of the Ohio School Boards Association explaining the new plan’s implications for the schools in Ohio’s racially segregated communities: “Hogue noted that of the 71 districts getting no new money next year, 19 are among the poorest in the state, and nearly 70 percent of the students in these districts are minorities.” Hogue adds: “We have very real concerns about how this proposal will impact students in poverty particularly those attending urban districts across the state.”

Currently, Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are identified by the state as in “Academic Distress,” a category that has put them under state takeover. Dayton is expected to join them next year. Cleveland is also under another form of state takeover based on its test scores.  At the same time as Ohio has been allowing its school funding formula to fade into dysfunction, the state has aggressively pursued punitive, high-stakes, test-based accountability.  Ohio grades its school districts (A–F) on a state report card and publishes the results. The branding has exacerbated suburban out-migration in the state’s metropolitan areas—encouraging more affluent families to choose A-rated exurbs and adding to economic segregation. Ohio awards EdChoice vouchers for private and religious school tuition to students in its F-rated schools, and it enables charter schools to open in those same school districts. And, finally, Ohio takes over the governance of the so-called “failing” school districts. In Youngstown and Lorain, both under state takeover for three years, the state appointed governance has not made a difference in test scores.

As one considers what the new formula’s numbers mean by visualizing what’s been happening in the state, one should consider that the state report cards and all the punishments have negatively branded urban districts and inner ring suburbs and encouraged families with means to move to growing exurbs around the state’s several big cities. The new formula awards funding based on a per-pupil count of students in any district, and it is the outer suburbs of Ohio’s cities which are growing.  The Dispatch‘s Siegel explains how all this is reflected in the proposed new school funding formula: “The top 10% of districts in enrollment growth over the past three years are getting about $300 more new money per pupil than the bottom 10%.”

The situation is very difficult in school districts like East Cleveland and Youngstown and sections of Cleveland and Dayton.  Here, parts of entire neighborhoods were devastated by the foreclosure crisis a decade ago. But the families who were forced to move out or double up did not methodically abandon entire sections of the city to make it easy for school districts to close schools and save costs. The children who remain in those neighborhoods have enormous needs, and these school districts must cope with the additional challenges of concentrated economic segregation and deepening poverty. The proposed school funding planners clearly have not grasped the economic devastation across Ohio’s cities.

The best description I can find of today’s challenge for Ohio is part of a book published in 2010 by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research: Organizing Schools for Improvement.  In this book Anthony Bryk, a sociologist, confirms what many people continue to deny: deep and concentrated neighborhood poverty makes it hard for children to thrive at school.  Bryk and his colleagues studied schools in the city of Chicago and identified a group of schools they identify as “truly disadvantaged”: “In Chicago, extreme poverty combines with racial isolation.”  In the 46 truly disadvantaged schools they identify: 100 percent of the students are African American; 96 percent of the children are low income; male unemployment is 64 percent, and median family income is $9,480.  “Specifically, one-fourth of children in foster care in Chicago were concentrated within 27 elementary schools, which represent only 5 percent of the system.” Bryk and his colleagues conclude: “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused, and so on.  Classroom activity can understandably get diverted toward responding to these manifest personal needs.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 164-173)

While no school funding plan is perfect and while the success of any plan depends on the continued commitment of a legislature to fund it adequately over time, one strategy that has been successful has been targeting of funding to the school districts with the most overwhelming needs.  In New Jersey, for example, the remedy in the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke targeted additional funding to thirty-one of the state’s poorest school districts.  These “Abbott” districts received extra funding, guaranteed pre-Kindergarten for all students, and social services.

In Ohio, on the other hand, politics seems to dictate that any added services be spread—at least to some degree—to all school districts.  For example, a month ago—wanting to support schools with what research shows are needed services by many families, Ohio’s new Governor Mike DeWine proposed a biennial budget that—on top of the new, proposed school funding formula—includes money to help schools provide wraparound social and medical services.  In his personal blog, former legislator Steve Dyer, explains:  “(I)n the 2019-2020 school year, DeWine provides $250 million more for poverty based aid in the form of wraparound services.  Then in the 2020-2021 budget, he adds another $50 million.  So at the end of the day, districts will have an additional $300 million two years from now to spend n these wraparound services.”

In Ohio, however, unlike New Jersey, politics ensures that everybody gets a little of the funding pie, even if that makes the pieces smaller for the school districts that more desperately need the funding.  As as Rich Exner explains for the Plain Dealer, Governor DeWine’s proposed program for wraparound social and medical services would include some funding for all 610 school districts: “(E)ach Ohio school district would receive a minimum of $25,000 the first year and $30,000 in year two… (M)oney would be distributed on a sliding scale, based on the percentage of children in poverty in each district.”  One wonders whether wealthy outer suburbs like Dublin, Hudson, and Solon really need to have dentists and physicians visit their schools regularly to provide services for the children.

It is difficult to know what will happen politically to Ohio’s recently proposed Cupp-Patterson school funding formula. The biggest problem, as the Dispatch‘s Siegel points out, may be the overall price tag: “Lawmakers would need an extra $1.1 billion over two years to fund the plan, which would be phased in over four years.”

Another challenge will be political biases that blame the state’s poorest Black and Brown communities for the economic problems which have derived from the collapse of manufacturing and the foreclosure crisis among other serious structural problems that have afflicted the state. In the Dispatch, Siegel quotes Jim Betts commenting on the fact that the new funding proposal awards nothing to the state’s school districts that have been taken over by the state for their so-called “academic distress.”  Betts, who led Ohio’s rich districts’ school funding advocacy coalition, the Alliance for Adequate School Funding, during the period of the DeRolph litigation, falls back on the old argument from Hoover Institution economist Eric Hanushek: that money really doesn’t matter in school funding.  Betts’ comment also reflects a racist bias that is widespread across Ohio and across the nation: “Just because a district is poor does not necessarily mean that it needs more money, because that (raises) the question: How much is enough? Is another $2,000 (per pupil) going to help East Cleveland? Probably not.”

In a 2013 blog post, Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker confronted Betts’ idea that money doesn’t matter: “I too often hear pundits spew the vacuous mantra – it doesn’t matter how much money  you have – it matters more how you spend it. But if you don’t have it, you can’t spend it. And, if everyone around you has far more than you, their spending behavior may just price you out of the market for the goods and services you need to provide (quality teachers being critically important, and locally competitive wages being necessary to recruit and retain quality teachers). How much money you have matters. How much money you have relative to others matters in the fluid, dynamic and very much relative world of school finance (and economics more broadly). Equitable and adequate funding matters.”

It has been a long time since I heard someone consider school funding from the point of view of Jonathan Kozol, whose words—in Trump’s America—seem even farther from our political realities today than they did in 1991 when, as he stared at the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Kozol wrote the concluding words in Savage Inequalities: “Standing here by the Ohio River, watching it drift west into the edge of the horizon, picturing it as it flows onward to the place three hundred miles from here where it will pour into the Mississippi, one is struck by the sheer beauty of this country, of its goodness and unrealized goodness, of the limitless potential that it holds to render life rewarding and the spirit clean.  Surely there is enough for everyone within this country.  It is a tragedy that these good things are not more widely shared. All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America.  Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly. (Savage Inequalities, p. 233)

Meryl Johnson, who represents District 11 on the Ohio State Board of Education, will interview Diane Ravitch on Johnson’s weekly radio show, It’s About Justice (WRUW 91.1 FM) next Saturday, April 13, 2019 at from 1:00 PM until 2:00 PM.  The program will be live-streamed at

Teachers’ Strikes Showed Desperate Need for Funding: Will Congress and State Legislatures Respond?

In walkouts and strikes all year long—from West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to California—teachers have been crying out for essentials their schools cannot afford. Two weeks ago in its annual update on the fiscal condition of America’s K-12 public schools, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirmed teachers’ concerns. In 24 states, combined state and local funding for public schools (adjusted for inflation) remains below what was being spent in 2008, before the Great Recession.

We are in the midst of the federal and state budget season, and too often the conversation isn’t really about what public schools need. After all, that would be way too expensive. Instead of a conversation about what is required to serve our children well, we hear debates in Congress and in our legislatures about the size of the slices in a budgetary pie that is smaller after years of tax cuts. Sometimes public schools merely get what is called “a budgetary residual”—what’s left after lawmakers fund higher priorities. This year teachers have been reminding us that our children ought to be our priority.

Budget discussions are just beginning in my state, Ohio. The Governor’s new budget flat-funds K-12 spending except for one laudable line-item—an additional $250 million to help school districts provide wraparound social services for children and families in poverty.  The amount would grow to $300 million in the second year of the biennium. But the Governor’s proposed budget won’t address Ohio’s inadequate and very unequal school funding formula. Last summer, when he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio’s school finance expert Howard Fleeter explained that Ohio’s funding formula is failing to support the state’s poorest school districts—the ones the state brands with “F” ratings and has begun to punish by seizing them and taking over their governance. After documenting Ohio’s underfunding of its poorest districts, Fleeter commented: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Ohio’s Democratic legislators responded last Friday.  They suggest that the state should cost-out the price of a quality education across the state’s 612 school districts and then figure out how to raise the revenue to pay for it. Like many other states, Ohio is in such a hole that the disparity between what the state is spending today and what it would cost to provide the recommended level of services will be a shocking amount if the Democrats succeed with their plan. Let’s hope they do.

What are these essentials that too many of America’s public schools are missing?

From state to state this year, teachers have protested an epidemic shortage of support staff like counselors, social workers, school psychologists and nurses.  This month the American Civil Liberties Union examined the shortage of support professionals nationally across American public schools: “Our report reveals that schools fortunate enough to have mental health professionals are still grossly understaffed. Professional standards recommend at least one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students, and at least one nurse and one psychologist for every 750 students and every 700 students respectively. These staffing recommendations reflect a minimum requirement.”  Education Week‘s Evie Blad sums up what the ACLU found: “No state met the recommendation of one social worker for every 250 students…. Four states meet the recommended ratio of one school psychologist for every 700 students. About 33 percent of schools reported that they did not have a nurse on staff.”

In their protests and strikes this year, teachers have been very clear about their schools’ greatest need: Teachers have asked their legislatures to provide enough money for their schools to hire more teachers and, consequently, reduce the size of their classes. A recent newsletter from the National Education Policy Center backs up striking teachers’ demand. NPEC’s newsletter summarizes the research literature: “Smaller classes in early grades are associated with better test scores…. Smaller classes in early grades are associated with better long-term outcomes…. Class size reduction helps, even if classes remain large…. Class size reductions make an even bigger difference for experienced teachers.  Although all teachers benefit, on average, from class size reductions, experienced teachers are better able to take advantage of the smaller class sizes.”

At least one member of Congress is trying to keep this discussion alive.  Rachel M. Cohen reported last week that Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) just introduced a bill to allocate $2 billion in federal competitive grants to encourage school districts to lower class size in the primary grades. Cohen explains that, while federal Title II dollars can be used to hire additional teachers, many school districts have instead been using these funds for professional development.  Cohen quotes Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters: “As the teacher strikes reveal, and data shows, budgets and class sizes still haven’t recovered (from the recession)… Increases in class size have severely damaged the quality of education for all children in affected schools, but especially disadvantaged students and students of color, who see twice the benefit from smaller classes than the average student.”  Senator Merkley’s bill is primarily designed to reduce class size in districts serving concentrations of poor children. It would further require that school districts receiving the grants report back on whether smaller classes affected teacher retention and turnover, and whether the smaller classes affected chronic absenteeism and school discipline.

Early in March, the American Federation of Teachers launched a nationwide campaign to keep attention focused on what striking teachers have helped us see are acute school resource shortages across the country.  For U.S. News, Lauren Camera reports: “The American Federation of Teachers, the 1.7 million-member teachers union, announced a major education initiative… aimed at pressing lawmakers in state capitals and Congress to increase funding for public schools and universities.”  AFT is demanding full funding for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education at the promised federal level: 40 percent of the cost of these programs. The federal government has chronically underfunded these federal responsibilities—never once covering even 20 percent of IDEA funding—even as it names educational support of poor children and disabled children as federal priorities.

Challenging the President’s proposed budget for education—which increases the federal Charter Schools Program but flat-funds Title I, the IDEA, the Office for Civil Rights and Head Start—AFT President Randi Weingarten describes the purpose of AFT’s Fund Our Future Campaign: “After a decade of neglect and austerity in our country’s schools, the American people have had enough—and want a reordering of the country’s priorities to focus on things that make their families’ lives better.  And that starts with our children and sustainable investments in pubic schools, colleges, infrastructure and healthcare. That is the aim of Fund Our Future, the AFT’s campaign to demand (that) those in power invest in our public schools and in the resources students need to succeed—particularly children of color, children with special needs, children who are vulnerable and children who live in poverty… In an ideal world, our elected leaders would use the country’s economic resources to improve people’s lives—to make the American people healthier, better educated and more secure; to promote their potential and create opportunity where it has been denied, and to make the vulnerable among us less so.”