Ohio Senate Releases Detailed State School District Takeover Plan

Updated June 13, 2019

You will remember that on May 1, 2019, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers, which have been catastrophic failures in Lorain and Youngstown under HB 70—the law that set up the state seizure of so-called failing school districts. HB70 was fast tracked through the Legislature in 2015 without hearings. Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed CEOs for four years now; East Cleveland has been undergoing state takeover this year.

Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 six weeks ago to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular fashion, by a margin of 83/12.  The House was so intent on ridding the state of top-down state takeovers that its members also included the repeal of HB 70 in the House version of the state budget—HB 166.

Yesterday afternoon, the Ohio Senate released an amended, substitute HB166—the Senate’s proposal for the state budget.  Also released was a detailed 54 page School Transformation Proposal amendment to replace the House’s simple action to undo HB 70.  (The Senate’s School Transformation Proposal begins on p. 14 in the linked amendment.)

The three districts Ohio has already seized with HB 70—and 10 others slated to be taken over in the next two years—are all school districts that serve Ohio’s very poorest children. Last evening, as I plodded through the statutory language in the amendment being considered by the Ohio Senate, I found myself wondering if the people envisioning this laborious, top-down, state takeover plan—a plan that pretends not to be a state takeover—have spent time trying to transform a complex institution like a school in the kind of community where many children arrive in Kindergarten far behind their peers in more affluent communities.  And I wondered why the Senate’s plan relies on so many of the failed “turnaround” strategies of No Child Left Behind—the federal law that imposed imposed a rigid plan for raising test scores and that left an increasing number of American schools with “failing” ratings every year until the law was scrapped when it was itself deemed a failure. No Child Left Behind was a test-and-punish law; the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Proposal is also very much a test-and-punish law—at a time when extensive academic research demonstrates that standardized tests are a flawed yardstick for measuring the quality of a school.

We can only hope the Ohio House will determinedly oppose the Senate’s plan and stop it in the Senate-House Conference Committee.

Here is how the Senate’s proposed state takeover would work.

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three years or (under HB 70) been under an Academic Distress Commission, would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.” In other words, the consulting “school improvement organization” would diagnose why this school district has received three years of “F” ratings.
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent, the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here is where this plan copies No Child Left Behind—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”
  • There is also a long section on eligibility for EdChoice Vouchers, which I am not covering in this post.

This is the briefest summary of the 54 page, Ohio Senate School Transformation Proposal budget amendment released yesterday.  There will be more details and a deeper exploration of the plan in upcoming days, especially if Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner follows up as she has promised, with hearings at which the public will have the opportunity to provide testimony.

The Pennsylvania education writer, Peter Greene recently commented on such takeover plans as Ohio HB 70—Ohio’s current takeover of the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland in which the districts are operated by a czar chosen by a state-appointed Academic Distress Commission—and the kind of plan proposed in detail yesterday by the Ohio Senate in its proposed budget: “Takeover programs focus on school governance. The thesis of a takeover is that the school board, the administration, and probably the teachers, are the root of all the problems at the school. If we just take them out of the way and replace them… then everything will just fall into place. Somehow, all these people who work in the district either don’t know how to raise test scores, or they just don’t care.  Resources for the district, issues in the community, systemic lack of support for the school, poverty—none of that is on the table.  The belief is that when the old bureaucracy (including unions) is swept away and replaced… then everything will run so much better.”

What is clear from this very brief summary of the Senate’s School Transformation Proposal is that, although the Senate has proposed a state school district takeover plan with more local control over the members of the local School Improvement Commission, and while district and individual school improvement plans would have the input of community stakeholders, this is still a plan that puts all the power in a district School Improvement Director—a czar who can fire the principals and the teachers, charterize the schools, privatize the schools, abrogate collective bargaining agreements, and even shut down schools.  And the district’s School Improvement Director’s power grows in later years if the district fails to show progress.  In the fourth year of no progress, “A new board of education shall be appointed… However, the Director shall retain complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of the district.”

There is even some scary language as we move along through the process of reconstitution: “If at any time there are no longer any schools operated by the district due to reconstitution or other closure of the district’s schools… the school improvement commission shall cease to exist and the school improvement director shall cease to exercise any powers with respect to the district.”  While nobody would probably miss the School Improvement Commission or the School Improvement Director, the community’s children and their parents would likely regret the loss of their public schools.

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