Wealth and Power Undermine Equity and Democracy Across Ohio’s Public School Districts

The operation of wealth and power has never been more evident in Ohio school politics than it is this month.

HUNTING VALLEY   In an op-ed this week, the retired editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin describes  an attempted state budget amendment that would have let residents of wealthy Hunting Valley in greater Cleveland off the hook from paying school taxes: “There are few wealthier towns in the country than Hunting Valley, a lovely little place with meandering streams, dense forests, winding roads and gorgeous homes, snuggling along and across Cuyahoga County’s eastern border. With a mean household income of $507,214 and average home value of about $1.3 million, the Higley 1000, using 2010 Census data, ranked Hunting Valley Ohio’s most affluent place and the nation’s 17th richest community… What a small minority of the 700 or so who live in Hunting Valley want is special treatment so recklessly selfish it would devastate the Orange public school system. Worse yet, it might just ignite a backlash in the 615 school districts throughout Ohio, perhaps harming 1.7 million public school children in the process.”

Last spring, Hunting Valley hired former speaker of the Ohio House and now lobbyist, Bill Batchelder to insert a tiny amendment into the huge Ohio budget to permit Hunting Valley to limit payment of school taxes to the Orange school district of which it is a part only to the amount required to cover the tiny number of the village’s children who enroll in Orange schools. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, alerted to Hunting Valley’s search for a way to help its residents avoid paying taxes, vetoed the amendment, but Larkin reports that some of Hunting Valley’s residents haven’t given up.

What alarms Larkin is the absence of civic responsibility among some of Hunting Valley’s privileged residents: “Millions of Ohioans with no children in the school system in which they live pay these property taxes—not necessarily because they like it, but because they understand it is the right thing to do, because they embrace the notion that educating our children is an essential element of sustaining our democracy.”

HILLS AND DALES   Then there is the amendment that did make it into the Ohio budget without a veto.  The Plain Dealer‘s Andrew J. Tobias reports this week that, “Ohio has lowered the bar communities must meet if they want to break away from their assigned school district and join another one. The little-noticed change was added as an amendment to the 3,000-page state budget bill signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in July. It’s drawing sharp criticism from public school officials lobbying to repeal it, and prompted a lawsuit from a Stark County school district that’s pledged to fight it from taking effect… Under the new law, people who live within a township containing more than one school district now can hold a vote on which district they want to send their children to. It supersedes the existing system that requires approval from the state board of education, which used to have to consider factors including the impact of the transfer would have on students.  School officials say the change will lead to more inequality in how schools are funded by making it easier for richer communities to break away.”

Tobias fills in the background of this new provision quietly slipped into the state budget: “(T)he request seems to trace back to Hills and Dales, an affluent Stark County village of about 200 people that for years has fought to change districts from its current Plain Local Schools to nearby Jackson Local Schools.  A group of Hills and Dales residents, including W.R. Timken, the politically connected ex-chairman and CEO of the Timken Company, in July wrote a letter backing the change to six lawmakers tasked with finalizing the state budget… (V)illage council minutes show Hills and Dales began its latest push to change school districts in February 2018.  They wanted an alternative to the existing process for changing schools, under which the State Board of Education in 2005 denied the village’s request to switch to Jackson Local Schools.  A state hearing officer ruled the move from Plain schools, where student enrollment was 74% white and 15% black, to Jackson Local Schools, which was 87% white and 2% black, would harm students because it would increase racial and socioeconomic isolation and financially hurt Plan schools.”

Tobias quotes Will Schwartz of the Ohio School Boards Association raising concerns about Hunting Valley’s and Hills and Dales’ attempts to change the law on behalf of powerful local residents: “These things are kind of popping up, sidestepping those good-government due process provisions… And we’re concerned.”

YOUNGSTOWN CASE HEARD THIS WEEK BY OHIO SUPREME COURT      Ironically other recent Ohio headlines capture urgent problems for school districts whose residents are less powerful. On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court held oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging Ohio’s 2015 law that set up state takeover of the state’s school districts with persistently low standardized test scores.  Despite that decades of research and a simple set of graphs from the Plain Dealer‘s data wonk Rich Exner demonstrate conclusively that a school district’s aggregate standardized test scores are a poor way to measure school quality because of their almost perfect correlation with the community’s median income, the state of Ohio has for four years now been punishing low scoring school districts with autocratic state takeover. Describing the case considered on Wednesday by the Ohio Supreme Court, the Associated Press reports: “At issue is a state law that shifted operational control of such districts from locally elected boards to unelected CEOs hired by state-appointed academic distress commissions, starting with one in Youngstown.  The Youngstown school board and school employees’ unions challenged the law, arguing it violates the Ohio Constitution by stripping school boards of their authority.  They also contend lawmakers violated a procedural rule—the “Three Reading Rule”—and skirted more thorough debate about significant changes made to the divisive House Bill 70 when it was pushed through the Legislature in one day in 2015.”  We will await the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, but even as the Court is considering the constitutionality of the law creating state school takeovers, the consequences in Youngstown and Lorain continue to play out.

STATE NOW TRIES TO REMOVE ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD IN YOUNGSTOWN     Earlier this month we learned about one more extension of autocratic state power, hidden in the fine print of HB 70 when it was passed in 2015. Even though HB 70 sidelines the locally elected school board when the state takes over, in Youngstown and Lorain, the law has permitted the election of a locally elected local school board. But there is another provision in HB 70 that has gone unnoticed until now: At the end of four years of state takeover, because the Youngstown school district earned another “F” on the state report card, the state will now replace the elected school board in Youngstown with a state-approved, mayoral-appointed school board.  This is to punish Youngstown for not raising its grade to “C” during four years of state takeover, a period when, ironically, the locally elected school board has had no role to play in the operation of Youngstown’s schools.  Since 2015, the state has been running the district through a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO to lead the school district.  The state’s operation of the school district has earned four years of “F” grades on the state report card, but HB 70 now triggers the state’s elimination of the locally elected school board.

LORAIN’S STATE TAKEOVER CEO, DAVID HARDY, IS BEING TERMINATED—FINALLY     The HB 70 state takeover has been a disaster in Lorain, the other Ohio district now four years into state takeover. Last week, members of the the state-appointed Academic Distress Commission in Lorain announced that their appointed CEO, David Hardy is being fired after four chaotic years. There have been problems from the start. The chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission quit last winter.  Last spring, after the state appointed a new chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission, the Elyria Chronicle Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explained: “Per Hardy’s contract, the commission was required to evaluate him after his first 180 days in the district, 365 days in the position and thereafter on a yearly basis.  None of those evaluations were completed.” The new Academic Distress Commission chair formally evaluated Hardy over the summer, and Woytach reported last week: “In August, Hardy received an ineffective rating from the commission for the 2018-19 school year.” His termination is currently being negotiated.

SCHOOL CLOSURES ANNOUNCED IN CLEVELAND     In the Cleveland school district, under another form of two-decades-old state takeover—state established mayoral governance and an appointed school board—the district announced a downsizing plan this week, a plan based on closing the storied Collinwood High School and ten other schools. Under-enrollment is the rationale.  The District says its schools now have 7,000 unused seats. At a hearing, Ohio state school board member Meryl Johnson raised concerns about the imbalance of closures affecting the city’s historically black East Side.

EQUITY CONCERNS ARISE AS NEW STATE BUDGET RADICALLY EXPANDS SCHOOL VOUCHERS     Buried in the new Ohio state budget is explosive growth of school vouchers for students to carry to private and religious schools. Students qualify for EdChoice Vouchers by living in the neighborhood school zone of a public school posting a low grade on the state’s report card. The number of such schools has ballooned, explains the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell, from 218 last year to 475 this school year.  Because Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers deduct the voucher directly from a school district’s budget, and because the new state budget expanded eligibility to include all of the state’s high school students enrolled in EdChoice designated schools—even students who have never previously been enrolled in a public school, some school districts are assuming an unbearable burden imposed unexpectedly in the state budget.

A new report from the Heights Coalition for Public Education, with information verified by the Ohio Legislative Services Commission, describes the plight for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School district, where many families who were already using religious schools are taking advantage of the new rules established in the budget.  The problem is made more serious because the school district’s state funding is capped at the 2019-2020 level due to revenue restrictions also set by the new state budget. The Heights Coalition’s report explains:  “The 2020-2021 biennium budget froze budgets at the FY 2019 level. Inadequate state aid will be stretched to cover a growing number of public school students and an avalanche of new voucher students. In CH-UH district, vouchers increased by 600 in FY 2020, of whom only 25 students left (were previously enrolled in) the CH-UH system.  At a minimum, the unfunded cost of vouchers for FY 2020 will be $7.28 million, an increase of $2.92 million in one year. This is not sustainable.”

Ohio operates four statewide voucher programs that eat up state and local funding for public schools. The Heights Coalition’s report explains how the funding mechanism for the EdChoice Vouchers program raises equity concerns: “The deduction method counts voucher students as if they are enrolled in the district where they reside. They generate for that district the same amount of state support as public school students. In CH-UH and most other districts in the state, the cost of a voucher is significantly more than the per pupil funding that voucher students generate. To cover the ‘unfunded’ part of each voucher, payments are transferred from state funds generated by that district’s public school students, creating an over-reliance on local property tax.”  This is complicated further when, as in the new budget, so many school districts’ state revenue is capped at last year’s level due to a state school funding formula which, most people agree, has been underfunded for so many years it has become unworkable. This year, without any additional money from the state, the
Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district will suddenly be paying for private school tuition vouchers for hundreds of new students who have always attended private schools.

Ohio’s school funding challenges are overwhelming. Funding from the state has been inadequate for years. But it isn’t merely a lack of investment in the state’s public education system. Dangerous challenges result from manipulation of power in Columbus and policies imposed autocratically to deny democratic participation in the school districts serving families in poverty. Communities with wealth and power have also been shameless in trying to protect their own interests.