Ohio Public School Funding Looks Precariously Insecure As Ohio Senate Debates the State Budget

It is becoming clear that Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman and Senate Finance Chair Matt Dolan are not committed to funding the state’s public schools adequately and equitably. What clues can we see that the leaders of the state senate want to support a vast expansion of private school vouchers instead of funding the continued phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan?

This blog will take a day off its regular schedule.  Look for a new post next Tuesday, June 6, 2023.

The first clue is last week’s intimidating and threatening demand by Huffman that the more than 100 plaintiff school districts suing the state in the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit must report to the legislature what they are spending on the lawsuit to block the state from diverting millions to private school vouchers each year from the state’s school foundation budget.

Senate President Huffman had his attorney Matt Oyster ask Auditor Keith Faber to demand that the Vouchers Hurt Ohio plaintiff school districts report how much they are spending on legal fees.  The Dispatch‘s Anna Staver quotes Oyster’s instruction to Keith Faber: “To aid in the Senate’s evaluation and deliberation of current policy and funding issues and enhance the transparency of the use of public resources, we respectfully request the assistance of the Auditor of State… The Senate seeks a report … detailing Ohio school district… funding or financial support of the litigation over the past two fiscal years.”  Huffman clearly intends for members of local school boards to understand that the Vouchers Hurt Ohio Lawsuit is somehow connected to the Senate’s  state budget deliberations with the goal of threatening these school districts and encouraging them to drop out of the lawsuit. It is also a reminder of Huffman’s top priority: expanding vouchers at the expense of public school funding in the state budget.

The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock quotes Cleveland Heights-University Heights school board member Dan Heintz promptly comparing the district’s legal fees for joining the lawsuit to the outrageous annual cost of vouchers for that public school district: “This is all public record. Cleveland Heights-University Heights was losing $10 million a year to vouchers. We are investing less than $11,000 a year to protect our schools, our families, our students, and our taxpayers.” Heintz is describing the  lawsuit’s purpose: shielding the public schools from the legislature’s explosively large diversion of school funding dollars to vouchers in a state whose constitution promises that the state will provide “a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

Plain Dealer editor, Chris Quinn, not usually given to hyperbolic rhetoric, exploded angrily as he wondered how Huffman can condemn Ohio’s public school districts for trying to protect the state dollars guaranteed in the Ohio constitution. Here is Quin last Wednesday, in the May 24, Plain Dealer Today in Ohio podcast, Ohio Lawmakers, Auditor Try to Intimidate School Districts Suing the State Over Funding: “The schools all have a role here in fighting to make sure there’s equitable education… It’s getting clearer and clearer that the Republican supermajority created by gerrymandering is changing the whole way this state is governed, and people are no longer in charge. Every step these folks take is to reduce any chance of anybody questioning what they do. And Matt Huffman is the leader of it all. He is probably the most sinister politician we’ve seen in twenty years.”

In a column published on Sunday in both the Columbus Dispatch and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, columnist Thomas Suddes elucidates the problem: “One of the great Statehouse public relations cons of recent times is the claim that Ohio’s Republican-run General Assembly is conservative. Not so. It’s revolutionary, pushing the state and its power into more and more features of everyday life in Ohio… One by one, the General Assembly is making war on the common institutions that make Americans Americans and Ohioans Ohioans, starting with public schools, whose major fault seems to be that many teachers are unionized… So, beginning with the 1995-1997 state budget, and initially only in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, GOP legislators created a ‘pilot’ private school voucher plan that in the 28 years since has become five separate state voucher programs.  According to the Legislative Service Commission, the five programs cost the state $555 million in the fiscal year that ended last June. That’s money that otherwise could have gone to public schools.  And the legislature wants to further expand school vouchers in Ohio, regardless of the Ohio Constitution’s demand that the legislature must provide ‘a thorough and efficient system of common schools’—public schools—‘throughout the state.'”

A second clue about the pro-voucher/anti-public school intentions of Ohio’s state senate leaders is that Huffman seems to question whether school districts even need the increased state funding at the heart of the new Fair School Funding Plan, now part way through its six year phase-in.  Huffman continues to point out that school districts are operating with carry over balances.  The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock describes Huffman’s claim that school districts have plenty of money: “He… said that he doesn’t buy into the idea that the Fair School Funding Plan has a six-year plan, even though the plan’s architects built it that way. He said too many school districts are sitting on significant cash reserves.”

While Huffman appears not to grasp how Ohio school funding works, the mothers and fathers across our state who have devoted months-long parts of their lives trying to convince their neighbors to pass school levies can tell you that school districts have to maintain carry-over balances because their school districts have no built-in way to accommodate inflation between school levies. Ohio House Bill 920, a tax freeze law embedded into the Ohio constitution in 1980, provides that each year in perpetuity a particular local school operating levy will produce the dollar amount approved by the voters on the day the levy passed—despite that as time passes, inflation drives up the school district’s costs. The school board, superintendent, and school treasurer have to figure out how to stretch the local revenue being produced by that levy over several years—by carefully managing a carry over balance—to ensure that the local voters do not have to go to the voters with a new school district operating levy every year. I wonder if Senate President Huffman and Senate Finance Chair Dolan ever tour the public schools in their own districts to observe the fiscal realities.

Discussion of the ongoing phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan is part of this year’s state budget debate.  The Ohio legislature must produce the next Fiscal Year 2024-Fiscal Year 2025 state budget by June 30.  The Ohio House passed its version of the state budget, House Bill 33, in late April and forwarded it to the Ohio Senate for further hearings. Tomorrow, May 31, the Senate Finance Committee will hear testimony on the school funding sections of the budget.  Two years ago, as part of the state budget, the legislature launched the first phase of a new school funding formula, with a second phase to be accomplished in the budget being developed this year, and the final phase-in to be completed in Fiscal Years 2026 and 2027.  Although the Legislature launched the phase-in of the plan two years ago, legislators did not establish the plan in a stand-alone bill. It’s existence, therefore, rests on legislators’ continued commitment to funding the full phase-in as part of the biennial FY 2024-FY 2025 state budget to be passed by June 30.

The Fair School Funding Plan was developed by an expert working group whose members spent three years calculating the real costs of reasonable class size for students from Kindergarten through twelfth grade and the state investment required for a full curriculum along with special programs for children with special needs, English language learners, and students living in concentrated poverty. The new plan is designed to make it possible for school districts lacking property wealth to fund their public schools adequately.  When the Ohio House passed its version of the new budget in April, the House fully funded the next step of the projected six-year phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan and at the same time, the House updated the data on which the formula calculates each school district’s state revenue.

It is becoming clearer, however, that Senator Huffman and the Senate Finance Committee Chair Matt Dolan are balking about funding the new formula in perhaps two different ways. First, they may stop or slow down the phase-in. It is important to remember that if the legislature were to abandon the continued phase-in of the plan, our state would lack a working school funding formula.

Second, by questioning whether the new budget should update the school district cost data from FY 2018 to FY 2022 (the most recent data currently available), Senator Dolan has expressed skepticism about the required regular updating of the data on which the new formula is calculated. The Plain Dealer’s Editorial Board worries about Dolan’s reluctance to update the new formula to accommodate inflation in the costs school districts face: “State Sen. Matt Dolan, a Chagrin Falls Republican who chairs the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee has raised concerns about the House’s decision to change (the Fair School Funding Plan’s) base year from FY 2018 to FY 2022. Dolan recently argued to the Columbus Dispatch that using FY 2022 data would amount to a ‘huge increase’—potentially hundreds of millions of dollars… ‘Funding our schools is important… but we need to be doing it in a way that we can afford.’”

Ohio school finance expert, Dr. Howard Fleeter explains that Dolan’s reticence to implement the required update of the data in a complicated mathematical formula will undermine the entire plan: “For the school funding formula to have any integrity as an accurate reflection of the adequate levels of school funding required in Ohio it must be based on current and appropriate data… (I)t is just not defensible to claim that Ohio’s funding formula is adequate if the underpinnings of the formula are not the most current data available… Ohio’s funding formula can be thought of as having two main parts, with Part 1 being the formula amounts for the base cost and categoricals (adequacy) and Part 2 being the state/local share calculation which determines the share of funding for each district that should come from the state and the share which is expected to come from local resources (equity).”

Fleeter concludes: “It is important… to clarify that updating the property value and income data each year is the correct thing to do. The problem is that updating the data on one side of the formula (the state/local share side) while not updating the data on the other side of the formula (the funding adequacy side) leads to an imbalance in the formula… Again, the issue here is… that the two sides of the funding formula must move in parallel with one another.” (emphasis in the original).

In Public Education at a Crossroads: Funding, the State Budget, and All of Us a recent forum sponsored by the Ohio League of Women Voters, Jim Betts, who was part of the working group that designed the Fair School Funding Plan, explains that by failing to update the cost data from FY 2018 to FY 2022, the Ohio Senate would shift the tax burden of paying for public education from the state to local property taxpayers.  While in FY 2018 and FY 2019, the state assumed 50 percent of the cost of funding public schools, that percentage fell in FY 2022 to 42.2 percent, and in FY 2023 to 39.8 percent.  If the Ohio senate does not update the cost data, the state’s contribution will fall to 37.4 percent in 2024 and 35.5 percent in FY 2025.

Betts concludes: “The House version would basically sustain the phase-in, would sustain the values that are built into the Fair School Funding Plan, and… would sustain a reasonable relationship between the state and local share. That goes away if… the Senate does not concur in the change of the data year from 2018 to 2022… If that version coming out of the Senate does not include that data update… the plan would basically put a much larger burden percentage-wise on the (local) taxpayer… That is a huge transfer of responsibility.”

Ohio’s 1.6 million students need a thorough and efficient system of well funded public schools whether they live in rural areas, towns, small cities, suburbs or the state’s 8 large cities.  The system needs to be adequate and equitable.  The Ohio Senate should concur with the Ohio House provisions for phasing in the Fair School Funding Plan in HB 33, the next Ohio state budget.


Will the Ohio Senate Fail Our Children by Refusing to Fund the Continued Phase-In of the Fair School Funding Plan?

The Ohio House Budget, passed in late April and sent on to the Ohio Senate, fully funds the ongoing phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan, an adequate, equitable, and reliable way to fund public education for Ohio’s 1.6 million students enrolled in the state’s 610 public school districts. The full Ohio Legislature must pass the budget for Fiscal Years 2024 and 2025 by the end of June.

As the Ohio legislature develops the budget, fully funding the continued phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan should be a top budget priority for all Ohioans. The Fair School Funding Plan was carefully developed by a working group whose members spent three years calculating the real costs of reasonable class size for students from Kindergarten through twelfth grade and the state investment required for a full curriculum along with special programs for children with special needs, English language learners, and students living in concentrated poverty. The new plan would also make it possible for school districts lacking property wealth to fund their public schools adequately. Two years ago, the legislature launched a six year phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan. The first phase was accomplished in the current FY 22-23 state budget.

Although the Legislature launched the phase-in of the plan two years ago, legislators did not establish the plan in a stand-alone bill. It’s establishment, therefore, rests on legislators’ continued commitment to funding the full phase-in.  That is where there is potential trouble.  The Ohio House has presented a budget plan which funds the next phase of the new school funding formula, but earlier this month, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock described waffling by Senate President Matt Huffman: “He… said that he doesn’t buy into the idea that the Fair School Funding Plan has a six-year plan, even though the plan’s architects built it that way. He said too many school districts are sitting on significant cash reserves. ‘One of the issues with 600 school districts is we get the big 8s and the rurals, and the rurals who have money and the rurals who don’t have money… And then we have the suburban schools, who don’t allow open enrollment from the urban schools. So there’s a lot of different kinds of public schools and even schools within districts. It’s hard to make a generalization.'”  On the other hand, Hancock quotes Huffman as being perfectly willing to spend nobody knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars to fund universal vouchers for private schooling: “Senate President Matt Huffman, in whose chamber the two-year budget is currently being vetted, said… that the Senate is considering expanding to universal vouchers. He believes people walking with their feet… is strong accountability.”

In a wonderful new video produced by the Ohio League of Women Voters (LWV) last Thursday, Public Education at a Crossroads: Funding, the State Budget, and All of Us, we learn the facts which Senate President Matt Huffman seems determined to obfuscate and distort.  Last week’s video features policy authorities: Howard Fleeter, the economist who has been the expert on Ohio’s school funding since the early 1990s during the DeRolph case; John Patterson, one of the sponsors of the Fair School Funding Plan; Jim Betts, a member of the three-year working group that designed the plan; and Tanisha Pruitt, a policy fellow at Policy Matters Ohio.

In the video, Howard Fleeter explains: “A school funding formula has two purposes: to make sure school funding is adequate and to make sure school funding is equitable.” Fleeter wrote a report for then Governor George Voinovich in 1992: “Its title was Equity, Adequacy, and Reliability in School Finance.  And if I were to write a report right now, I would call it Equity, Adequacy, and Reliability in Ohio School Finance. The issues are the same now as they were thirty years ago.” Fleeter explains that one common problem across the states is that legislatures look at how much money they have to spend on all the functions of state government (and also consider tax cuts) and then just decide how to cut up the various pieces of the budget pie without any consideration of the real cost of public schooling. “The DeRolph decision made clear that is not acceptable.  In order to be adequate, the system needs to be based on an analysis of the cost of educating different types of students.” “K-12 education is different than other services. It’s different because it is specifically mentioned in the constitution.”

This month, Ohio senators are balking not only about funding the next step in the Fair School Funding Plan’s phase-in; they are also threatening not to fully update the cost data (to keep up with inflation) on which the Fair School Funding Plan is calculated. The Ohio House budget does phase in the next step of the plan and further updates the cost data for inflation, but the Senate seems not fully committed. Because the Fair School Funding Plan is calculated with an objective formula that adjusts for the actual base cost-per-pupil in every one of Ohio’s school districts, the formula must be updated in every two year budget to reflect the actual costs that change from year to year through inflation. Two years ago, the latest cost figures available were from 2018, but now it is time to update the formula with new cost figures recently released for Fiscal Year 2022. Apparently Senator Huffman believes that when inflation happens, schools just will have to make do by making classes bigger, or making counselors’ case loads larger, or eliminating music and art. In the video, Jim Betts explains simply that any working school finance formula based on the real costs of operating schools, “needs to be adjusted… because inflation will always further erode the values.”

What is Jim Betts’ biggest worry about Ohio this year?  If the Ohio Senate refuses to adjust the formula by updating the data on which it is calculated by using 2022 cost figures instead of old, 2018 cost numbers, or if the legislature fails fully to fund the next step of the three year phase-in, the Ohio Senate would be transferring responsibility for funding public schools to local school districts, whose citizens would be forced try to pass additional local property tax levies to maintain existing programming.  Increasing reliance on local school property taxes is inequitable because it places a heavier burden on the school districts that lack sufficient local property valuation.  The DeRolph decision itself declared overreliance on local property taxes unconstitutional, because districts with lots of property wealth can more easily fund their schools locally.

Like Jim Betts, the members of the Plain Dealer editorial board worry that the Ohio senators crafting the budget may fail to adjust the Fair School Funding Plan’s formula with updated 2022 cost figures: “State Sen. Matt Dolan, a Chagrin Falls Republican who chairs the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee has raised concerns about the House’s decision to change (the Fair School Funding Plan’s) base year from Fiscal Year 2018 to FY 2022. Dolan recently argued to the Columbus Dispatch that using FY 2022 data would amount to a ‘huge increase’—potentially hundreds of millions of dollars… ‘Funding our schools is important… but we need to be doing it in a way that we can afford.’… Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, has also expressed reservations about fully funding (the plan) for the next two years.”

In the LWV video, Howard Fleeter warns citizens not to believe Senators Huffman and Dolan when they say there is insufficient money in the state coffers to equitably and adequately fund Ohio’s public schools: “Don’t let anybody convince you that fully funding the phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan is too expensive for the state… This is an investment more than it is an expenditure… Our constitution requires it, but common sense requires it even more… The (Ohio) Senate has been exaggerating, inflating and bloviating about the cost of this model since it was first released.”

It is well worth taking the time to watch and carefully listen to Public Education at a Crossroads: Funding, the State Budget, and All of Us, an extremely accessible and genuinely interesting conversation by Ohio’s experts about what is at stake for Ohio’s public schools as the Ohio Senate develops its version of the next state budget.

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

Nine months ago, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon seemed confident that students would bounce back relatively quickly from the COVID disruption in their schools.  He told Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon….”

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

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

Are you surprised?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio Senate and Ohio House Committees Are Expected to Vote Out Companion Higher Education Destruction Bills This Week

In a move akin to what’s been happening in Ron DeSantis’s Florida, an Ohio Senate committee is expected this week to vote out Senate Bill 83 (and the Ohio House to vote out House Bill 151, a companion bill) attacking academic freedom on Ohio’s public college campuses; the collective bargaining rights of college faculty; and diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Ohio’s public universities.  Despite massive protests by both university faculty and students, it looks as though the Ohio Senate will pass the amended version of Ohio Senate Bill 83.

After several hundred outraged citizens appeared in Columbus to testify against SB 83, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), modified the bill a bit.  Last week, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reported: “Cirino told the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau that he listened to the hundreds of people who testified against his plan and made several changes. ‘I try to be a flexible person,’ Cirino said. But whether SB 83 can get a single Democratic vote remains doubtful. The substitute bill added new restrictions for public employee unions and banned most mandatory diversity training….”

Back in mid-April, an emeritus professor of history at Oberlin College and founder of Oberlin’s Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, Steven Volk published a powerful blog post dissecting and opposing Cirino’s original bill.  Here is how Volk described some of the provisions in Cirino’s bill that would curtail universities’ protection of diversity, equity, and inclusion:

“Ohio’s SB 83 would cut funds from public colleges and universities that don’t affirmatively oppose diversity training or programs for students, faculty or staff… Public colleges and universities would be prohibited from using ‘political and ideological litmus tests’ in hiring or promotion; diversity statements would be prohibited, but otherwise what these ‘tests’ might be is left undefined… All new courses must submit an ‘intellectual diversity rubric’ before they can be approved… but the bill doesn’t define what ‘intellectual diversity’ is or who would be in charge of approving the rubrics. No state institution would be allowed to fund or support ‘any position, material benefit, policy, program, and activity that advantages or disadvantages faculty, staff, or students by any group identity,’ except that they may offer advantages to U.S. citizens and Ohio residents… Colleges and universities would be prohibited from disadvantaging or segregating any students by ‘membership groups defined by… sex or sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.'”

Volk condemns SB 83’s violation of academic freedom for college faculty and the bill’s threat to keep faculty members under intense scrutiny by college administrators and the public:  “Colleges and universities must post all course syllabi online… A single person unaffiliated with the university and lacking any qualification, who while spending his spare time surfing the internet, comes across something in a course syllabus that he finds ‘objectionable,’ will now be able to take his outrage straight to the university’s administration… in an attempt to force the faculty member to change, be harassed, or… fired.” “Always looking for ways to keep faculty in line, colleges and universities would be required to discipline professors who ‘interfere’ with anyone’s ‘intellectual diversity rights’ (which are defined as perspectives on public policy issues that are ‘poorly represented on campus’)…. Faculty members would receive numerical scores based on student evaluations… New post-tenure review policies would be instituted, with department chairs, deans of faculty, and provosts retaining the right to request them at any time… Strikes by all members of public institutions would be prohibited… The state chancellor of higher education would help create the ‘educational’ programs to train members of boards of trustees (and) the state chancellor would create new questions for student course evaluations aimed at ensuring that no violations of the bill are happening in the classroom.”

Finally, The original bill bans state colleges and universities from accepting any funding from China or “organizations or individuals acting on the country’s behalf… including family members who pay for their Chinese student’s tuition.”

The Statehouse News‘s Karen Kasler reported last Tuesday that while the original bill mandated all these regulations for any private college located in Ohio that takes even a dollar from the state budget, “The amended bill… eliminates regulations for private colleges.”  Kasler also notes that in the revised bill, “the ban on financial partnerships with China doesn’t include tuition from Chinese students.”

The Dispatch‘s Anna Staver explains how the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jerry Cirino, described his amended version of the bill last week: “I think between the accommodations and clarifications that we’ve made, we’re really in a good place… My overall objective is to set up our institutions of higher learning as beacons of free speech and study and analysis.”  Staver points out that, “Critics of the original Senate Bill 83 have said the legislation would do the opposite and make professors at Ohio’s public colleges and universities more—not less—wary about sharing personal opinions or encouraging classroom debate… (W)hether SB 83 can get a single Democratic vote remains doubtful.”

Here is how Cirino’s amended version describes free class discussion: “Nothing in this section prohibits faculty or students from classroom instruction, discussion or debate, so long as the faculty remains committed to expressing intellectual diversity and allowing intellectual diversity to be expressed.” The lack of clarity about how such vague provisions would be interpreted is one of the bill’s problems.  On diversity training, Staver describes another change: “Mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training was banned in the original version… but the new sub-bill would permit it if the training was necessary for the school’s accreditation, to fulfill a federal requirement, maintain a professional license, or secure a grant.” So… diversity training is banned and considered worthless unless someone else tells the university it has to do it.

In the amended bill, Senator Cirino clarifies “that segregation of faculty and students (by gender, race, or other characteristic) is  prohibited only in class settings and formal events like orientation and graduation. Staver notes that, “ACLU of Ohio policy strategist Sean McCann previously said that the original language could have banned single-sex dormitories, Black fraternities, and clubs for particular nationalities, religions or sexual orientation.”

Strikes by professors are still banned.  Faculty would also still be required to publish their syllabi online, but, to prevent potential online harassment, faculty biographies would now include only their academic credentials but not any personal information. Now, however, according to Staver, in students’ faculty evaluations, “Students would judge professors on whether they created an ‘atmosphere free of political, racial, gender and religious bias,’ and it would count for 50% of their teaching score.  That remained in the sub-bill, but a requirement to publish those scores was cut.”

Staver quotes the response of the director of Ohio’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Sara Kilpatrick, to Senator Cirino’s  amended SB 83: “They know that the changes that were made were not sufficient… They know the stakeholders still oppose the bill, and I think they intend to push forward anyway… They don’t seem to care.”

Oberlin College’s Volk, the retired professor of history, is particularly concerned about the proposed law’s assumptions about what today’s college students need to learn about the impact of history on our world today. He also worries that the law would prohibit legitimate critical debate:  “To graduate, all students would have to pass an American history or American government class; the bill stipulates what readings must be included in the course: the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, five essays from the Federalist Papers, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and a few others.  History, for the drafters, is best left in the distant past and not brought up to consider the persistence of systemic inequities.”  “By forbidding students from engaging in an honest study of the complex past, they won’t make that past—and its ongoing impact—magically disappear. By denying that our educational system is shaped by inequity, they won’t prevent marginalization from impacting student lives. By preventing colleges and universities from partnering with Chinese institutions, they will not equip our graduates with the knowledge that can help this country navigate an increasingly complicated world. And by placing faculty under the hawkish supervision of administrators, trustees, and private citizens, they are certainly not going to enable Ohio to hire the best faculty and attract the most curious and committed students.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A year ago as the Ohio Legislature considered a bill similar to HB 117, the Akron Beacon Journal Editorial Board pressed the legislature to end mandatory third-grade retention based on a single test score: “Unfortunately, the policy of holding struggling readers back in third grade shows that an aggressive tactic can create unintended consequences… Some 39,000 children have failed the statewide reading test since 2014, with most being forced to repeat third grade…. Politicians 10 years ago clearly overstepped in setting up this requirement. They apparently didn’t listen closely to educators who know that children feel stigmatized by being held back, and as Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro told a reporter, can come to hate reading.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the Ohio Legislature Must Make PUBLIC School Funding It’s Top Priority This Year

In January of 1960, when I was in the seventh grade, I learned about the meaning of public education in the United States.  Just out of graduate school, my father had secured a job teaching history at a small teachers college in Havre, Montana. Mid-year, he was to replace a professor who had been killed in a hunting accident.  On January 20, a day when the temperature hovered at minus 35 degrees, my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School, and while she filled out the paperwork, I was sent right to class.

The public schools in that town of 10,000 people were were solid and strongly supported by the community. The Havre Daily News regularly published the high school honor roll and dutifully covered Havre Blue Pony sports; high school drama productions including Inherit the WindA Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Crucible, and South Pacific; and the high school band’s trip to a competition in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  Schooling definitely wasn’t perfect in Havre’s public schools, with too much tracking and not enough challenge in the core curriculum for many of the students.  The schools failed to reach out effectively to students at the nearby Rocky Boys Indian Reservation and in Havre, we didn’t learn anything about those students living only a few miles away.  While inclusion and welcome were improved in Havre’s schools after a 1972 state constitutional convention mandated American Indian Education for All, implementation of that program across the state has not yet been fully accomplished. Our challenge as a society is to keep on improving access, equity and academic excellence in the public schools that serve 50 million of our children and adolescents. In small towns like Havre and across our nation’s vast rural areas, the public schools are what families count on; there will never be many school choices.

What I learned in a very personal way that winter was that there was a place—well established by a state and a community—awaiting me on the cold morning when I showed up. I was well-served by our nation’s system of universally available, publicly accountable and publicly funded schools—an institution with the capacity to balance the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students. Across the states we continue to strive more fully to realize these principles, but the public schools are the only educational institution where fulfillment of these promises is possible.

I suppose my experience all those years ago is why I am so utterly dismayed that legislators in my state today, Ohio, seem dead set on privatizing the public schools.  In recent a Plain Dealer column, Policy Matters Ohio’s Piet van Lier captured the essence of what’s going on: “Ohioans know that honest, inclusive education is the foundation on which our state’s future will be built. But certain politicians are all too eager to copycat the most destructive ideas being pushed by ideologues nationally—especially in Florida… from tax cuts for the wealthy and school voucher programs, to education gag orders and attacks on the rights of young people in the LGBTQ+ community. Some Ohio policymakers have the right idea, pushing to implement the Fair School Funding Plan, which would keep our local public schools on a path toward constitutional funding.  But there’s little else happening in the Ohio Statehouse to give public schools supporters much hope.”

Full funding of the Fair School Funding Plan should be the Ohio Legislature’s top budgetary priority as it plans for the Fiscal Year 2024-2025 biennium.  Two years ago, as part of the FY 2022-2023 state budget, the Ohio Legislature launched a new school funding formula, designed to be phased in over six years—three biennial budgets—to fund the state’s public schools adequately and distribute state dollars equitably to ensure that students in poor as well as wealthy communities can thrive academically. The new formula’s stated purpose was to identify and pay for the per-pupil cost of essential services needed by our state’s typical student and to add categorical funding to support students with special needs.  Two years ago, however, the Legislature embedded the Fair School Funding Plan into the state budget without establishing the new school funding formula in a stand-alone law.  In June of 2021, the Legislature basically funded the first two years of the Fair School Funding Plan.  Today, as part of developing the new budget, the Legislature should take advantage of the state’s strong financial situation by fully funding the formula’s phase-in.

On Tuesday of this week, the Ohio House Finance Committee introduced its version of the biennial state budget for Fiscal Years 2024-2025.  Although public school supporters had hoped the legislature would fully complete the phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan during this biennium, the House budget, expected to be passed by next week and sent forward to the Ohio Senate, at least covers the second step of the phase-in of the new formula. It also addresses some of the current problems lingering from the plan’s original phase-in.  The plan is currently being calculated on old student data from Fiscal Year 2018, and the budget introduced this week in the  House Finance Committee would calculate the statewide student average base cost per pupil using more current FY 2022 data.  Two years ago, the Legislature promised to investigate the added cost the state needs to provide to adequately support school districts serving concentrations of students living in poverty, but that research was neither funded nor accomplished. The new House budget calls, finally, for that research to be conducted. But the Legislature began the phase-in of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a significantly slower rate than the rest of the plan was phased in.  That problem isn’t mentioned in the House’s proposed budget.

It is clear that while the state’s financial circumstances appear to be solid this year—partly due to remaining one-time American Rescue Plan Covid-relief dollars, Ohio legislators seem to have other priorities.  We’ll have to watch carefully to see whether legislators carry through on fully funding the phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan.

First is the problem of tax cuts. The House had been moving forward with a proposed substitution (in House Bill 1) of a flat tax for the state’s graduated income tax, a convoluted and flawed proposal which, thankfully, the House seems to be casting aside.  However, the House budget released this week substitutes another very significant state income tax reduction.  At least this one features cutting taxes for low and middle income Ohioans, instead of cutting taxes for the wealthy like the previous flat tax proposal, but the House tax cut is projected to reduce overall state revenue by $1 billion and make it harder to fund the public schools.

And, to make it even harder to invest in the Fair School Funding Plan, legislators are holding hearings on several different and very expensive school voucher proposals:

The Ohio House of Representatives has been holding hearings on House Bill 11—a universal (including for private schools, homeschooling and family micro-schools) “Backpack” Education Savings Account school voucher plan, which the Legislative Service Commission estimates would cost $1.3 billion in its first year of operation.

The Ohio Senate, on the other hand, in a proposed Parent Educational Freedom Act (Senate Bill 11), would offer all students in grades K-12 a voucher—worth $5,500 for elementary school and middle schoolers and $7,500 for high school students—an investment which the Legislative Service Commission (LSC ) costs out at an additional $528 million in each year of the FY 2024-2025 state budget. Senate Bill 11 would also increase the homeschooling income tax credit from $250 to $2,000 (which the LSC estimates would cost an additional $38 million in FY 2024 and $44 million in FY 2025).

And in the House budget released this week, the House tops the school voucher plan the Governor proposed in his FY 2024-2025 state budget. While right now Ohio families living at 250 percent of the federal poverty line can qualify for EdChoice vouchers, the Governor had planned to expand EdChoice eligibility to include students whose family income is up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line, or $120,000 per year. The Legislative Service Commission said this might cost the state $172 million every year.  The new House budget would instead qualify all students in families with incomes up to 450 percent of the federal poverty line—incomes of $135,000 per year for a family of four—for EdChoice vouchers.

With Ohio’s gerrymandered, supermajority Republican legislature, citizens can be pretty sure one of these school voucher expansions will move forward.

The leader of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, former assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction, and longtime warrior for justice for Ohio’s public school students, William Phillis commented last Friday on an article published in the Columbus Dispatch by Ohio Senator Sandra O’Brien, in favor of Senate Bill 11,  the school voucher bill she has sponsored.  Phillis dissects her logic and condemns her justification for the law she has proposed:

“The sponsor of SB11 supports the perception that parents and students deserve the choice of a private education at public expense. The gist of the sponsor’s thought process is that public schools are well-funded (‘The Ohio taxpayer has done a fantastic job in making sure that our schools are funded.’); that public schools will not lose funds as a consequence of SB11; that school privatization is a national movement; that two-thirds of property tax dollars go to public schools; and ‘Why can’t parents spend their tax dollars at the school they choose for their children?'”

Phillis continues: “Possibly the sponsor is not aware that the… Fair School Funding Plan has been only partially funded and that the system was (and still is) ruled unconstitutional 26 years ago (in DeRolf v. Ohio). Just maybe the sponsor is not aware that the voucher funds are taken from the same state budget line item that funds school districts.  The fact that two-thirds of local (property) tax money goes to school districts has no relevance to the voucher issue. Neither is the fact that voucher advocacy is nationwide relevant to the Ohio issue.”

Phillis concludes: “The notion that a person’s tax payment belongs to him/her after the tax payment is made is the most interesting, revolutionary idea. So the tax one pays does not belong to the government to use for the common good? It really belongs to the taxpayer for a ‘private benefit’ of the taxpayer’s choosing?”

I am grateful to Bill Phillis for insistently declaring the importance of protecting public education—our nation’s system of publicly funded, universally available, and publicly accountable schools. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students.