New Plan Tucked into Ohio Budget Creates a Path Out of State Takeover for Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland School Districts

Jeff Bryant introduces a special, back-to-school issue of The Progressive with a commentary, The End of School Reform.  Bryant’s piece narrates the quiet death of long running policies across the nation’s school districts, programs that were central to corporate, standardized test-based school accountability and the idea that punitive school turnaround plans would quickly raise overall test scores.

“It was telling that few people noticed when Chicago’s Board of Education announced in late May that it was closing down its school turnaround program and folding the thirty-one campuses operated by a private management company back into the district. The turnaround program had been a cornerstone of ‘Renaissance 2010,’ the education reform policy led by former Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan…. Another news event affecting Chicago public schools that got very little national attention was the decision by the Illinois state legislature to rescind mayoral control of Chicago’s schools and bring back a democratically elected school board… A third story from the Chicago education scene was that, in December, Noble Charter Network, the city’s largest charter school chain, disavowed its ‘no excuses’ approach to educating Black and brown students because of the racist implications… Each approach was among the pillars of ‘education reform’ favored by previous presidential administrations….”

This blog will take a late summer break.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, September 8.

In the same commentary, however, Bryant notes this year’s dramatic rush across state legislatures to expand private school tuition vouchers and increase the number of charter schools. Public schools remain threatened by some of the trends of the past two decades, but some of the corporate accountability ideology seems to be fading—not with a bang and with hardly a whimper.

These same trends are operating in Ohio, where—in the new state budget— the legislature found myriad ways to expand vouchers, introduce new tuition tax credit and education savings account neo-vouchers, and expand charter schools.

But at the same time, the legislature simply and quietly incorporated a plan to phase out one of Ohio’s worst school turnaround strategies: the House Bill 70 state takeover of so-called failing school districts by state appointed Academic Distress Commissions that oversee so-called “failing” school districts and push aside their elected boards of education. The legislature has created a path to end the Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland state school takeovers.

History of House Bill 70 and Ohio’s State School Takeovers

House Bill 70 was passed in the middle of the night just before the legislature’s summer recess in 2015. As the Ohio Senate considered a House bill to expand the number of wraparound, full-service schools that locate medical and social services in school buildings serving poor families, someone introduced an amendment for state takeovers of school districts with low test scores, and the amendment replaced the original bill’s purpose. The amendment was introduced; opponent testimony was not permitted; the bill passed; and it was immediately signed into law. At the time, accountability-hawk school reformers in the legislature and the Ohio Department of Education believed that state appointed Academic Distress Commissions would radically improve low scoring school districts.

As recently as 2019, the Ohio Senate even considered a plan to further expand state takeover of local school districts. A Senate proposal would have established a statewide School Transformation Board which would have assigned a state approved nonprofit or for-profit school improvement organization for any district with an “F” rating for three years running on the school district report card. The state’s School Transformation Board would then have appointed a  local School District Improvement Commission to serve the same function as the original HB 70 Academic Distress Commission and appoint a CEO for the district. The local CEO in the Senate’s proposed plan would have had the power to fire principals and teachers, charterize the schools, privatize the schools, abrogate collective bargaining agreements, and even shut down schools. The plan was never enacted, but debate continued from late spring into September.

New FY 2022-2023 Ohio Budget Provides a Path to End State School Takeovers

The phase out in this year’s state budget of what’s called “The Youngstown Plan” has received little press coverage. But the plan is significant, though it does involve a three year process and significant state oversight all along the way.

The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explains: “The new plan gives districts three years to meet state-approved benchmarks, with the option to apply for up to two years of extensions. During that time, the powers of the CEO (appointed by the district’s Academic Distress Commission) are reduced to those of a regular superintendent, and the locally elected school board regains its power. The academic distress commission would remain in place until the district is fully released from the state’s purview. If a district does not meet its goals, it will revert back to state control as outlined by House Bill 70.”

Awareness of the failure of HB 70 has been building within the Ohio Department of Education. The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben quotes the state school superintendent expressing his loss of confidence in a program he once supported: “In a 2019 report about Academic Distress Commissions, the state’s superintendent of public instruction criticized the existence of the commissions saying they lacked the input of the local education administration and tried to fit unique academic situations into a ‘one size fits all approach.’ ‘While an Academic Distress Commission approach may produce some positive results, the potential for significant opposition makes it tremendously challenging for it to function in a way that leads to successful district turnaround,’ Superintendent Paolo DeMaria wrote in the report.”

Today the mood in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland is hopeful. The Youngstown Vindicator‘s Raymond L. Smith describes the reaction of Youngstown’s current elected school board president, who will no longer be shunted aside by the Academic Distress Commission: “Youngstown school board President Ronald Shadd said the board will look at multiple ways of preparing to move forward.  It will wait for results of a state performance audit of the district and will be working with CEO Justin Jennings and the Academic Distress Commission in making a plan for the district’s future… Shadd expressed appreciation to all those in the community—including (Rep.) Michelle Lepore-Hagan and Sen. Michael Ralli… who have been working toward a goal of local control.  School board member Brenda Kimble, the previous board president, said she is overjoyed the three school districts will have paths forward to move from under that system. ‘We have to make our plan and focus on ways to make it successful,’ she said.”

East Cleveland, Youngstown, and Lorain are among Ohio’s poorest communities.  In Ohio, we have all watched years of upheaval as state appointed Academic Distress Commissions put in place arrogant CEOs—Krish Mohip in Youngstown and David Hardy in Lorain—who fought with parents, teachers and the community at large. The attitude of the legislators who rammed through this program was shameful. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quoted then-Senator Bill Coley, who mused: “I think its maybe the wrong people are running the show and we need to try something different.”

Woytech quotes Lorain School Board President Mark Ballard: “This was a hard-fought battle over the last six years to right what we believe was a flawed approach to trying to improve schools… Our community wants local control and local oversight of our schools and today, we now have a path to make that a reality. This legislation is the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes work, dozens of trips to Columbus, and hours of discussions with the state.”

Ohio education finance expert, Howard Fleeter reminds us all, however, that in the new state budget, the Legislature failed to fund a significant increase in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, despite that full funding of this program in FY2022 had been a central part of the Fair School Funding Plan whose methodology was adopted into the state budget. Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland are three of Ohio’s school districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty. While the Legislature has done a good thing by providing a path for these districts out of state takeover, the Ohio Legislature has a responsibility to fund these districts adequately to address the urgent needs of their students. These districts will need significant assistance to meet the state’s conditions for the phase out of state takeover.

Ohio has a history of aggressive punishment of poor school districts and a failed history of helping them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking to the issue from another point of view is Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on problems with standardized testing. In 2017, Koretz published The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a book length critique of our nation’s two-decades old, test-and-punish school accountability scheme—the basis of Ohio’s school district report cards by which the state identifies school districts for state takeover by academic distress commissions.  Koretz is an expert on the design and use of standardized testing as the basis for high-stakes evaluation of schools and schoolteachers.  He demonstrates that school evaluation based on high stakes testing unfairly penalizes the very kind of schools Ohio targets under HB 70: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

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

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

Finally, Koretz concludes: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.” (The Testing Charade, p. 191)

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

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