Presidential Candidate John Kasich: Delusional about Public Education Issues

Republicans have hardly been discussing education policy at all in this bizarre Presidential race, but last week in the Thursday night debate, Ohio’s governor, John Kasich lavished praise upon himself for what he believes are his accomplishments in reforming education. He also addressed something he clearly knows little about—the plight of Detroit’s schools.  Kudos to two reporters who jumped right in to expose the flaws in his arguments.

Kasich bragged about how school reform has led to the rebirth of Cleveland.  Many people would be surprised to view Cleveland as reborn.  It was  described in the NY Times last week by a new group of researchers to be the poorest large city in the United States. Whether one slices and dices the statistics the way these researchers do—calling Cleveland or Detroit the poorest—one thing is clear: neither Cleveland nor its school district has had a rebirth.

Plain Dealer education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell notes in his report on the Republican debate that Kasich bragged: “The African American Democrat mayor, the union, and business leaders came to see me and said, ‘Would you help us to pass legislation to really create a CEO environment so that we can take control of the schools?'” O’Donnell corrects Kasich’s memory of his own central role: “Cleveland has had a CEO—not a superintendent—as head of the district since 1998.  That’s when former mayor Mike White hired Barbara Byrd-Bennett (recently indicted in Chicago after heading the schools there) as the first CEO, following the state legislature voting in 1997 to place the district under mayoral control.  Kasich was chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee at the time.'”

O’Donnell explains that the Cleveland Teachers Union was not involved in the implementation of a “portfolio school reform” transformation plan in 2012 for the Cleveland District—a plan designed by the Boston Consulting Group and underwritten with a grant from the Cleveland Foundation. O’Donnell chides Kasich for misremembering: “While Mayor Frank Jackson, a black Democrat, and business leaders were behind creating the plan, the teachers union was not.  The union never ‘came to’ the governor seeking help, but was angry at being left out of the creation of the plan.”  When he heard Kasich’s comment in Thursday’s debate, CTU President David Quolke is reported by O’Donnell to have declared: “That’s an outright lie. That did not occur.” O’Donnell continues: “When Jackson announced his plan early in 2012, he had never consulted the union. That sparked weeks of long and tense negotiations between teachers, the mayor and city leaders about how teacher pay, duties, and layoff rules would be changed.”

As to Kasich’s debate claim that “Cleveland’s coming back. The Cleveland schools are coming back because of a major overhaul,” O’Donnell responds, “That’s still to be determined.”  The district was able to pass a school levy after the plan was introduced, but that levy must be renewed by voters next November, and the mass of Cleveland’s traditional public schools, including the city’s flagship high schools, are suffering from lack of investment.  Kasich and his all-Republican legislature have determinedly cut state funding for education during his term.

And on Friday, right after Kasich bragged about the transformation of Cleveland’s schools, O’Donnell reported: “The Cleveland Teachers Union had an overwhelming vote this week of ‘no confidence’ in school district CEO Eric Gordon and his understanding of issues facing students and teachers… The union said that of 3,153 members who voted this week, 97.3 percent voted ‘no confidence.'”  Under CEO Gordon, the district has withdrawn from ongoing contract negotiations with the Cleveland Teachers Union.

During Thursday night’s debate when he was asked about the current crisis in Detroit’s public schools, Kasich demonstrated that he has not been paying attention to what’s been happening in the state next door to Ohio. Seemingly unaware of catastrophic budget problems in a school district where teachers have been protesting rats, leaking roofs, and buckling floors and where the district’s financial crisis is so severe that it may miss a payroll in April, Kasich is described by Emma Brown of the Washington Post switching his response to what he believes are the redeeming qualities of mayoral control, a governance structure that operates in Cleveland but not in Detroit: “Leaving aside the question of whether mayoral control would really be enough to fix Detroit’s problems, there is this fact: Detroit is not under mayoral control.  The city’s schools have been under state-appointed emergency manager for years.”   Brown adds that Governor Rick Snyder’s, “state-appointed emergency manager of the (Detroit) school system was, until a few days ago Darnell Earley.  Earley previously served as the state emergency manager of Flint, Mich., from 2013-2015.  It was during that period that Flint began using the Flint River as its drinking water source, a move that led to elevated lead levels in the water and a public health crisis.”

In fact, last summer in Ohio, Governor Kasich and Beth Hansen—formerly Kasich’s gubernatorial chief-of-staff and now head of his presidential campaign—and her husband David Hansen—formerly head of school choice in the state education department until he was fired for designing a charter school rating system that favored the notorious online charters—worked together to design and fast-track a state takeover plan similar to the one that seems to be failing in nearby Michigan.  In a twenty-four hour period last June, the state takeover of the Youngstown school district and, in the future any school district with persistently low state rankings, was rushed without sufficient hearings through the Ohio legislature.

As Kasich bragged about his education policies in last Thursday’s televised debate, he demonstrated that he is not aware of problems in Michigan caused by exactly the kind of policy he has most recently been pushing through Ohio’s super-majority Republican legislature.  The Kasich brand of school reform is ideological: cut taxes and hence school funding; privatize by expanding charters; impose state takeover of public schools in the poorest cities. Kasich may like to believe his ideas will bring back Cleveland and Youngstown and Lorain, but there are a lot of people in Ohio who don’t believe his self-congratulatory myth.


We Like to Believe Our Story About a Generous Society, But the Plot Has Shifted

Let’s just suppose you are watching one of those TV movies for the holidays.  Or maybe you are reading a novel by Charles Dickens or going to the theater to see A Christmas Carol.  Generosity of spirit is a theme you will encounter especially in this season.  Throw an extra crust of bread to Jo the Crossing Sweeper, living in the street; help Tiny Tim.

What if our society were to try out that idea on a scale that might matter?  What if, instead of spending more tax money on schools for children in rich suburbs, we were to fix state school funding formulas to spend even a little more on schools for children in, say, Philadelphia or Cleveland or Dayton or Detroit?  It isn’t something that has been talked about much lately as we continue to focus on punitive policies for big-city school districts—policies like closing “failing” schools, opening privatized charters, and blaming teachers.  Maybe we could consider it as a sort of fresh idea in the spirit of the season.

Interestingly three school finance experts this week have raised the issue of adequate and equitably distributed school funding.   Yesterday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss features Matthew P. Steinberg and Rand Quinn, professors and researchers in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, writing about Surprising New Research on School Funding.  Noting that the School District of Philadelphia (SDP)  is regularly condemned as a low-performing district, Steinberg and Quinn share, “preliminary findings from an ongoing study of school funding suggest(ing) that the SDP does more, per pupil, with its current resources than its closest counterparts in terms of student poverty and achievement. Indeed, we believe that the SDP, rather than a story of failure, is a story of possibility.”

Steinberg and Quinn explore what they call an adequacy gap, “the extent to which actual spending falls below the level necessary to provide adequate educational services to all students.”  They continue: “Of course, the fact remains that neither the SDP nor its nearest counterparts are even close to adequate levels of achievement…. So our findings should in no way be interpreted as a call to slash funding for any of these districts.  If anything, we see this as evidence in favor of reinstating a statewide fair funding formula, which takes into consideration differences across districts in the characteristics of the students served—such as poverty, English language learners, and special education—as well as characteristics of the district itself, such as local labor market conditions and cost of living, among other student and district factors.”

And in Ohio, Dr. Howard Fleeter of The Education Tax Policy Institute has taken a new, comparative look at school expenditures per pupil.  Fleeter’s topic seems particularly important to me because I have on at least two recent occasions been surprised to be told by members of the Ohio legislature that Ohio’s urban districts are spending more per pupil in some cases than wealthier suburban districts and not getting anywhere near the same test scores.  These legislators have, of course, bought the simplistic notion that expenditure of money can purchase test scores as though this were some sort of market transaction without much worry about the other factors that are likely to affect education.

Dr. Fleeter, however, noticed that standardized test scores across Ohio are highly correlated with the level of family poverty or wealth in our over 600 school districts.  Fleeter writes that his review of poverty data caused him to undertake a new study of Ohio’s school funding, a study whose results suggest that Ohio’s formula grossly under-calculates the amount of money school districts need in order to serve children in concentrated poverty.  It is not surprising then that, in Fleeter’s spreadsheet, the eight districts whose funding would be most significantly raised by increasing the poverty weight in our formula are Cleveland (100 percent of children in poverty), Dayton (94.05  percent poverty), Youngstown (93 percent poverty), East Cleveland (91.81 percent poverty), Lorain (88.31 percent poverty), Akron (86.61  percent poverty), Mansfield (84.35  percent poverty), and Warrensville Heights (83.9 percent poverty).

The narratives we tell ourselves about our society do matter.  We like to feel we are characters in one story—the one about the American Dream of generosity and opportunity and meritocracy—when our lives are part of a much sadder story.  I wonder when we will wake up and realize the plot has shifted.  I am so glad this morning to report on these three researchers—Dr. Steinberg, Dr. Quinn, and Dr. Fleeter—who are trying to show us something about the real story of America these days.