Ohio Senate Killed New School Funding Plan: Now We Hear That Money Doesn’t Matter

Ohio Auditor Keith Faber explained on Tuesday that, “The Auditor of State’s Office recently completed a performance audit for the Ohio Department of Education.” Faber says that the purpose is to make recommendations about “economy, efficiency, and/or effectiveness in the areas reviewed…”

One of the subjects of the new report from the Ohio Auditor’s office is the correlation of school districts’ expenditure per pupil with their school performance as measured by standardized tests.  Here, from the Performance Audit Summary, is what the Auditor discovered: “Conclusion: Expenditure per pupil has a loose association with Achievement in Ohio, particularly at the high performing districts.  As total district spending increases, there is no single expenditure category driving this increase.”  Later in the body of the report, the Auditor states: “The analyses in this section indicate that it is not necessary for districts to spend more to get better results. The data show that lower spending districts can achieve at the same level as higher spending districts, a point which parents and taxpayers should take into consideration in their personal decision-making surrounding financial and performance issues in their district. ODE and LEAs should consider if there is a point of diminishing returns in spending, where additional district revenue and expenditures will not necessarily increase student success.”

The Plain Dealer‘s Emily Bamforth digs deeper, explaining to readers that one purpose of the Audit was to discover which practices in high spending school districts are most essential for raising test scores: “The research found there is a low correlation between per-pupil spending and success on the Performance Index, and often higher spending was correlated with a lower index score. The auditor’s report maps the analysis, which shows clusters of high spending compared to low index scores around urban areas, like Cleveland and Cincinnati. The conclusion was used to reinforce recommendations to the Department of Education to review the highest performing districts’ practices to see what could be applied to other schools, and for community members to question spending relative to student success.”

I give Bamforth credit for questioning the Auditor’s conclusions and highlighting some of what is missing in the auditor’s report: “(T)he state auditor’s office claims that spending-per-pupil in districts is not closely correlated with student success. However, this conclusion does not factor in socioeconomic data that might affect student performance. Socioeconomic standing affects outcomes in many areas of life, including education and health, according to the American Psychological Association.  Socioeconomic status includes household income, among other factors.”

Bamforth cites the American Psychological Association, but the body of research examining the correlation of school districts’ aggregate standardized test scores with family and neighborhood economics is long, deep, and overwhelming. Academic research in two areas—(1) the correlation of lower school achievement with socioeconomic opportunity gaps, and (2) the impact of per-pupil spending on student achievement—confirms Bamforth’s skepticism about the new report from Ohio Auditor Keith Faber.

The Research on the Difference Between School Achievement Gaps and Opportunity Gaps

In their 2014 book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, educational researchers David Berliner and Gene Glass explain: “For schools to be a powerful solution to the problems of poverty, it would help if an America absent of poverty already existed. We know that the socioeconomic status of students explains most of the variation in educational outcomes. Although there is evidence that some schools with many low-income students are academically successful, there is much more evidence that most schools do not overcome the barriers that stem from low income and low wealth. Health care, housing, stability, and a host of other out-of-school influences greatly affect a child’s academic achievement. Much of the achievement gap in test scores and much of the gap in graduation rates between racial and socioeconomic groups are due to opportunity gaps such as access to medical care, stable housing, and freedom from discrimination.” (Fifty Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 230-231. The authors cite the research report documenting this conclusion.)

Why Money Matters and Why One Should Not Assume that Successful Programs in “High Achieving” School Districts Are Simply Transferable Best Practices

Ohio’s A-rated school districts on the state’s Performance Index are mostly located in wealthy exurbs. Ignoring the correlation between family and neighborhood economics, the Ohio Auditor’s report seems to suggest that if the state can only identify best practices in high-achieving school districts, these programs can simply be moved to low-achieving districts as a strategy for raising overall achievement as measured by test scores..

In Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, the nation’s best known expert on school finance, Bruce Baker explains, for example, that in a school where student poverty is concentrated, students will always benefit from the most basic—and sometimes very costly—investments. We don’t need the Ohio auditor to tell us what a rich exurban district is doing; instead the state simply needs to budget the needed dollars: “Reducing class size is often characterized as a particularly expensive use of additional school dollars… What we do know… is that ample research indicates that children in smaller classes achieved better outcomes, both academic and otherwise, and that class size reduction can be an effective strategy for closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 98-99)

Baker reports that education costs more in schools serving poorer students or students with special needs: “(A) substantial body of research addresses how child poverty, limited English proficiency, unplanned family mobility, and school racial composition may influence the costs of achieving any given level of student outcomes. The various ways children are sorted across districts and schools create large differences in the costs of achieving comparable outcomes, as do changes in the overall demography of the student population over time. Rises in poverty, mobility due to housing disruptions, and the numbers of children not speaking English proficiently all lead to increases in the cost of achieving even the same level of outcomes achieved in prior years. This is not an excuse. it’s reality. It costs more to achieve the same outcomes with some students than with others.”(Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 198-199)

Ohio legislators, with expert guidance from educational leaders and school finance economists,  just spent over two years developing a new school funding plan. Howard Fleeter, an expert on Ohio school finance, criticized the plan 18 months ago when an early draft was released, because while the first draft addressed the reality that Ohio’s school funding has become increasingly inadequate through a decade of tax cuts, the new plan’s first draft did not invest enough in equity.

In a September 4, 2019 report, Fleeter explained: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”  In an appendix to the same report, Fleeter adds that over the past decade, Ohio has systematically reduced funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children:

  • “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

It is ironic that, right now, Ohio Auditor Keith Faber has been asked by the Ohio Department of Education to investigate “economy, efficiency, and/or effectiveness” of the distribution of school funding. After all, less than a month ago, the Ohio Legislature killed the proposed new school funding plan once it had been adjusted to meet Fleeter’s demand that the state would more equitably serve the needs of the school districts serving the state’s poorest students. The Ohio House of Representatives passed the new plan by an overwhelming margin, but the Ohio Senate killed the plan by refusing to vote on it before the session ended.  Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman claims that the Ohio Senate let the plan die because he estimates the plan would have cost $4 billion rather than the $2 billion the plan’s sponsors projected. And now the auditor has conveniently “discovered” that perhaps a school district’s level of expenditure doesn’t really affect student achievement after all.

I suspect that leaders of the Ohio Senate are beginning to lay out their case that we can simply get by by spending less money more efficiently. That’s nonsense. It is just the latest proof that the conservative Republican majority in the Ohio Senate lacks the will to invest in the school districts which serve Ohio’s poorest children.

Ohio’s Budget Bill Multiplies School Vouchers, Leaves Local School Districts in Crisis

On Tuesday afternoon, I went to a meeting of my monthly book discussion group—all of us retired and over 70.  But as we sat down with our coffee and before we discussed the book we had all been reading for the month, we found ourselves distracted by the topic that is tearing our community apart: the changes the Ohio Legislature made last summer in the fine print of the FY 20-21 state budget—changes that exploded the size of the state’s EdChoice school voucher program.

I wonder whether legislators have any real understanding of the collateral damage for particular communities from policies enacted without debate. Maybe, because our community has worked for fifty years to be a stable, racially and economically diverse community with emphasis on fair housing enforcement and integrated schools, legislators just write us off as another failed urban school district. After all, Ohio’s education policy emphasizes state takeover and privatization instead of equitable school funding. The state punishes instead of helping all but its most affluent, outer ring, exurban, “A”-rated school districts, where property values are high enough that state funding is not a worry.

What this year’s EdChoice voucher expansion means for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district where the members of my book discussion group all live is that—just to pay for the new vouchers—our school district has been forced to put a property tax levy on the March 17 primary election ballot. Ohio’s school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains that in our school district, EdChoice voucher use has grown by 478 percent in a single year.  Fleeter continues: “Cleveland Heights isn’t losing any students…. They are just losing money.’” “If this doesn’t get unwound, I think it is significant enough in terms of the impact on the money schools get to undermine any new funding formula.”

Ohio deducts the price of the vouchers students carry to private and religious schools from the local school district budget even though, in the case of Cleveland Heights-University Heights this year, 94 percent of those students have never attended the public schools in our district. The state counts the voucher students who live in our community as though they are enrolled in our school district and then deducts the voucher from the local school budget, but the cost of each voucher is more than the state allocates per pupil.  In fact, in the current Ohio biennial FY20-21 state budget, state public education basic aid funding is frozen, which means our district actually gets no new state funding for each voucher student, but one hundred percent the cost of each voucher is deducted anyway.

Why are the people in my book group so upset about the voucher explosion and another levy on the ballot in March?  We are not a bunch of old ladies grousing about the burden of our taxes.  Two of us co-chaired a successful school levy campaign back in 1993; one person served on the board of education; and the rest were teachers in our school district. As we read the conversation threads on Next Door, where people are accusing our district of mismanaging funds, or paying teachers too much, or hiring too many school psychologists, we worry about all the undocumented misinformation floating around. Members of our group are anxious about our grandchildren and our neighbors’ children who depend on the public schools we have spent our lives supporting and protecting.  But it is difficult to explain what happened in the budget, our plight this winter set in motion last June and July in the budget conference committee, when amendments were added to the state budget without debate. It was done so quietly at the time that people across the state only began to grasp the impact later in August when the Ohio Association of School Business Officials alerted school treasurers about the potential impact.

Fortunately the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District sponsored a special public meeting on January 9, 2020, to explain the changes in the EdChoice Voucher Program and begin quelling the anxiety that is tearing our community apart. The school district has posted the powerpoint presentation from the meeting, and at the meeting,  the school district distributed a clear, factual brochure about the legislature’s changes in the EdChoice Vouchers.  The brochure explains: “(T)he program was expanded to the point of unsustainability. Ohio had fewer than 300 buildings deemed eligible for vouchers in 2018-2019; that number has exploded to 1,200 for 2020-2021. When the Ohio General Assembly passed its biennial budget in July 2019, it froze receipts at 2018-2019 levels. This means that for every new voucher used, none of the cost would be offset by state aid. Legislators also removed the provision that required students to attend a public school prior to using the voucher. Unable to prepare financially for the change, the District was forced the following month to negotiate one-year contracts with the teachers union, as opposed to multi-year contracts. In CH-UH, approximately 1,400 students, 94% of whom have never attended our K-12 public schools, are taking scholarships to attend private schools. This has amounted to an actual loss of $4.2 million for us last fiscal year and an estimated loss of $6.8 million this fiscal year.” Each time a student secures an EdChoice Voucher, that student can keep the voucher, paid for by the school district deduction, every year until the student graduates from high school.

The school district’s information handout continues: “The CH-UH City School District will ask the community for a new 7.9 mill operating levy in March. The current funding issues with EdChoice are the major reason for this millage. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

School districts across Ohio are demanding that the Legislature do something about what has become a crisis for many school districts. It is important that the Legislature act quickly, before the February EdChoice Voucher enrollment period for next school year. The Heights Coalition for Public Education, a community organization, has prepared a list of short-term voucher fixes which the Legislature should consider:

  1. “Remove budget language from House Bill 166 (the current state budget) expanding vouchers in grades 7-8 and for high schools.  Restore voucher language to pre-budget language.”
  2. Limit state report card ratings on which EdChoice schools are designated to 2017-18 and 2018-19.  Currently districts are held accountable all the way back to 2013-14, and considerable changes in school programming have occurred in the seven ensuing years.
  3. “Restore funding for school districts that have lost funds to voucher students who were not part of their 2019 Average Daily Enrollment.”
  4. “Cut the loss of funds for high poverty (50% economically disadvantage) districts at 5% and other school districts at 10%.”
  5. Adopt the funding methodology for EdChoice Expansion (another Ohio voucher program) which awards vouchers to needy students and pays for the vouchers fully with state funds (not the school district deduction).

State Senator Matt Huffman has long been among the Ohio Legislature’s strongest proponents of school vouchers.  Earlier this week, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported that Senator Huffman himself supports the fifth voucher fix listed above: “State Sen. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, wants a bigger change. He is resurrecting his 2017 proposal to offer vouchers to any family in Ohio whose income falls under certain limits… His proposal would have the state, not districts, pay for the vouchers of $4,650 for grades K-8 and the $6,000 a year for high school. That would eliminate many district complaints that voucher costs are killing their budgets.  He said the state can control costs by limiting how many students can use vouchers in a given year. Some extra money is already available in the budget, he said. ‘That seems to be the only way, really, to do this in a fair way,’ he added.”

There is reason for caution here, even though Huffman’s assessment is correct that eliminating the school district deduction method for funding vouchers is the only fair way to address what has become an urgent crisis for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools and for many other Ohio school districts. We all remember Naomi Klein’s 2007 warning about the danger of adopting “shock doctrine,” privatization policies in a hurry in the midst of a crisis. We need to be sure that any so-called fix isn’t just an opportunity for the Legislature to grow the state’s voucher programs in some other way.  After all, in the case of Ohio’s current voucher mess, the Ohio Legislature itself created the crisis by expanding school privatization with explosive growth in the EdChoice school district deduction.

This blog has emphatically and consistently opposed private school tuition vouchers paid for with public funds, because vouchers undermine public funding for public education. Education privatization is never in the public interest.

However, currently in Ohio, an existential crisis for local school districts demands an immediate solution. The Legislature has saddled school districts with a school privatization program whose size the Legislature has no incentive to control because the money quietly washes out of local school district budgets. Neither can school districts control what is happening to their local budgets when the Legislature has set up an uncontrollable flow of dollars into the vouchers.

Huffman’s proposed solution would not solve the bigger problem of Ohio school vouchers. On the other hand, Huffman’s plan would pay for the vouchers out of the state budget, and as he points out, if it were to be so inclined, the Legislature could control costs by limiting how many students can use vouchers in a given year. Huffman’s idea would address the immediate school district financial crisis. It would then be up to all of us to pressure the Legislature to control the size and number of Ohio school vouchers awarded each year. Perhaps we can motivate a future legislature to eliminate vouchers entirely and return to a system where public dollars serve the mass of our children in the public schools.

If you are looking for the facts about Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers, here are some resources:

You can watch the video of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District’s recent meeting (January 9, 2020) to explain the alarming, rising cost of EdChoice Vouchers for the school district due to changes in the FY 20-21 state budget passed last summer.

The Heights Coalition for Public Education has  created materials to explain the impact of EdChoice on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School district. You can access them in a number of formats:  Slideshow (PDF); Slideshow (Powerpoint); Narration only for slideshow (PDF); Slides and narration (PDF); Video of slideshow with commentary (Youtube); and Handout for slideshow (PDF).

Ohio Senate Education Committee Blames Educators While Underfunding Schools in the State’s Poorest Communities

Members of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, who have been holding hearings on a new state school district takeover plan, continue to scapegoat the teachers and educational leaders in the school districts which serve concentrations of our state’s poorest children.

Despite a large body of research correlating standardized test scores with aggregate family and neighborhood income, Bill Phillis reports that twice last week at a hearing convened by the Senate Education Committee, one senator repeatedly asked: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?”  The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quotes Senator Bill Coley, who mused: “I think its maybe the wrong people are running the show and we need to try something different.”

I guess these guys adhere to the old idea that if we were merely to exchange the staffs of the richest and the poorest school districts in the state, the challenges for students in poor communities would magically disappear.  Instead, research shows that economic segregation—where wealthy families are moving farther and farther into the exurbs—has been rapidly accelerating.  Our senators must imagine that public school educators can, on their own, swiftly erase the alarming and growing economic gap between children growing up in pockets of extreme privilege and children segregated in our most impoverished city neighborhoods or living in remote rural areas.

There is a lot of evidence, however, that Ohio’s state senators are mistaken when they blame schools and public school educators.  The state takeovers are based on a set of overly complex and opaque calculations that yield the  school district grades on a state report card.  This year’s state report card ratings were released just last week.  It is not surprising, given what is well known about the correlation of standardized test scores with family and community wealth, that nine of the top ten report card scorers in Ohio are wealthy suburbs of Ohio’s big cities: Solon, Rocky River, Chagrin Falls, Beachwood, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, and Bay Village—suburbs of Cleveland; Madeira and Indian Hill—suburbs of Cincinnati; and Ottawa Hills—a suburb of Toledo.

In fact, yesterday, the Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner published a stunning story on the correlation of Ohio’s report card grades with family income.  Here are his findings: “The latest set of Ohio school report cards not only provided a scorecard for each district statewide – they once again drove home the point that wealthier districts do better on such reports. For example, incomes in the “A” districts were three times higher than those in the “F” districts, and the child poverty rate was 13 times higher in the worst performing districts, cleveland.com found. To get an idea of how closely report card grades from the Ohio Department of Education follow demographic factors, cleveland.com compared those grades to U.S. Census Bureau community data for household income, child poverty and the education level of the adults. In nearly every key report card category, the trends followed census data closely. For example, taking the median household income for each district, the average among those getting “A” overall grades was $95,423. It was $65,307 for B-graded districts, $54,058 for C-graded districts, $44,428 for D-graded districts and $32,658 for F-graded districts. In the A districts, 58.5% of the adults age 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. That share drops to 17.1% for D-graded districts and 16.3% for F-graded districts. There are outliers, of course. They will be highlighted in an upcoming story. But overall, the trends hold true.”

An enormous body of academic research confirms Exner’s finding that those who judge the quality of public schools by their standardized test scores fail to consider the enormous consequences of economic inequality and poverty. The problems have been exposed by research in a number of disciplines.

In an exhaustive book-long analysis in 2017, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the design and use of standardized testing, demonstrates the many ways standardized-test-based-accountability distorts and undermines the educational process itself and the reasons why standardized tests are an inappropriate way to measure the quality of schools. Koretz explains that school districts serving primarily privileged students and school districts serving concentrations of poor children cannot be held to the same timelines for meeting specific standards: “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…. 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. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. 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.” (pp. 129-130)

In Ohio, in a September 4, 2019 report, economist Howard Fleeter explains: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”

In an appendix to the same report, Fleeter adds that over the past decade, Ohio has systematically underfunded the very school districts that Ohio’s state senators propose to try to address with governance changes through state takeover:

  • “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

The National Education Policy Center’s  Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel summarize the research: “(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.”

What is the punitive state takeover plan currently being considered by the Ohio Senate Education Committee? The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports that the plan closely resembles the plan the committee failed to negotiate into the biennial budget passed in July.  O’Donnell writes: “The latest plan… is similar to plans floated by the Senate last spring, but which never won enough support to pass… The plan… eliminates the controversial ‘Academic Distress Commissions,’ and CEOs that take over for local school boards today after three years of failing grades on state report cards. In their place would be a new State Transformation Board that oversees improvement efforts across the state, and new School Improvement Commissions… for each district that does not improve. Those commissions would have many powers similar to the Academic Distress Commissions today.”  For example, the School Improvement Commissions would still have the power to overrule a school district’s elected board of education.  (Here is a detailed description of the School Transformation Plan the Senate proposed last spring.)

Last week, Ohio State Senators Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) and Tina Maharath (D-Columbus) formally called for an overhaul of the way the state calculates the report cards on which the state takeovers are based.  Fedor, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, explains: “There are serious flaws in the way we calculate districts’ grades… Report cards don’t reflect the quality of the education children receive nor the progress they make. The current measures are not meaningful for the purpose of assessing the district contribution to learning. They penalize large and high-poverty districts, which they threaten with state takeovers. The State recognizes the report card is flawed and depicts a false narrative for our communities and school districts. The legislature has the power to fix these mistakes, and we need to do that immediately.”  Fedor and Maharath explain: “The Progress grade, which represents 20 percent of a district’s total grade, is particularly unfair because the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) uses a formula to adjust for the district’s size that penalizes the grade of large school districts… If a district makes progress, but not as much as the average school district in the state, their grade will be low – not giving credit for actual percentage growth.”

The state report cards not only target the school districts serving very poor children with state takeover but they also feed racial and economic housing segregation by encouraging families to avoid poor and mixed income communities where the schools may be serving their students well despite overall lagging scores. The state report card grades are an example of state-sponsored educational redlining.

And like the legislators on the Senate Education Committee who blame teachers and school administrators for school districts’ aggregate test scores, the state report cards encourage the scapegoating of the dedicated educators who choose to serve the children living in Ohio’s poorest communities.

New Ohio Report: Cupp-Patterson Plan Creates Adequate School Funding but Must Be Corrected for Equity

Ohio’s legislature will soon hold hearings on a new, much touted, desperately needed, bipartisan school funding plan. The plan was developed and proposed by Rep. Robert Cupp (R) and Rep. John Patterson (D), and has now been formally introduced as House Bill 305.

Ohio’s current school funding formula is so dated and so badly underfunded that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts are currently either capped or on guarantee; they have been receiving from the state just what they got last year and the year before and the year before that.  The new Cupp-Patterson plan was designed to flip that situation and restore the awarding of formula-calculated funding to at least 510 districts.

The new formula was developed to establish a base cost per enrolled student, an amount which every district would receive through combined state and local funding. Everybody agrees that the new formula would begin to create an adequate funding floor.

But huge concerns have arisen since last spring when the formula was first announced. Once the computer runs were released to show how the new formula would treat each of the state’s 610 school districts, it became apparent that many of the state’s very poorest districts—especially poor urban districts with concentrated poverty and rural districts—would end up with meager funding increases, or, in some cases, no additional funding at all, while some of the state’s wealthiest exurban school districts would receive huge increases in state funding.

While the new Cupp-Patterson Plan produced an adequate school funding floor, it failed to achieve equity. Part of the reason is obvious: the outer ring suburbs are rapidly growing, and a higher per-pupil state funding system will add funding as students move to a school district. But until now, nobody has clearly explained what is causing the proposed formula to deny additional funding to the state’s poorest school districts—three of them currently being punished by autocratic state takeover, ten of them threatened with state takeover, and Cleveland under its own form of state supervision.

Last week, however, Howard Fleeter, an expert on Ohio school finance since the early 1990s, published a report for the Ohio Education Policy Institute to evaluate the proposed Cupp-Patterson formula.  In his new paper, Fleeter dissects the history and complexity of the state’s foundation formula along with the history and complexity of the way the state calculates categorical funding—the special funds the state awards to school districts in addition to basic aid for special services—special education, gifted, English learners, transportation, career-technical, and students in poverty.

Fleeter’s paper is extremely technical.  Even as a non-expert reads the new report, however, what becomes clear is that the very complexity of the calculations and the choice of particular factors has disadvantaged the state’s poorest school districts.

One Problem with the Foundation Base Cost Calculation

Any school funding formula is comprised of a state contribution and a local contribution which together add up to a base cost amount. The purpose of the formula is to deliver additional state aid to school districts whose fiscal capacity is lower. While he affirms much of the way the basic aid formula is calculated, Fleeter criticizes one area of the calculation. His concern is the way community median income is being used to calculate the local contribution to the formula. The proposed formula considers the size of the school district’s property tax base and also measures community income as a proxy for the community’s capacity to pass local operating levies.  The assumption here is that wealthier voters will more easily be able to afford to vote for tax levies.

The proposed formula measures income through a complicated calculation called local capacity percentage which is based on median income. Fleeter explains that the way the tiers are set fails entirely to distinguish high income from very poor communities. Fleeter provides an example: “Northern Local School District in Perry County has a median income of $41,826 while Orange City School District has a median income of $93,421 (more than twice as much), and yet both have the same local capacity percentage, which is clearly inequitable.”  The Northern Local School District in Perry County is the extremely poor rural school district where the DeRolph school funding equity lawsuit originated.  Orange City School District includes the very wealthiest communities in Cuyahoga County—greater Cleveland.

Problems with the Calculation of Categorical Funding

Fleeter also considers the mass of calculations which determine categorical funding levels, and he devotes much of his analysis to the way the proposed formula treats the school districts which serve a large number or a concentration of students living in poverty. Ohio’s current formula fails to support these districts even as the state punishes them with punitive measures—most notably state takeover.  Fleeter believes Ohio needs to assist these school districts with significant additional resources: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”

In an appendix, Fleeter traces a history of state funding problems for school districts serving children in poverty: “The following points provide a summary of the main issues relating to funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio:

  • For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

Fleeter examines several reasons why the new school funding plan does not solve the problem.

Historically, the state directed assistance to school districts serving very poor children with what was called Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid—later replaced after the DeRolph litigation with Targeted Assistance and Capacity Aid. In a series of calculations, Fleeter demonstrates that under the new Cupp-Patterson plan, the total of $987.3 million for these two programs, “would still be 20.3% below the actual FY 19 post-cap funding levels for Targeted Assistance and Capacity Aid.”

In the first place, the targeting of funding for disadvantaged students is part of the plan’s six-year phase in.  Over the period of the phase in, school districts would not receive all of the money until the whole plan were fully phased in. “Additionally, the state average base cost amount would increase to $7,190 in FY 20 under the Cupp-Patterson plan. Thus, the per-pupil amount of economically disadvantaged funding received in FY 20, even if there were no phase-in, would only be 25.6% of the new base cost.”

Problems with the proposed formula also derive from the way it counts students for Targeted Assistance. The plan uses overall enrollment instead of Average Daily Membership to calculate Targeted Assistance. (Overall enrollment counts students in charter schools and students receiving vouchers.)  The substitution of overall enrollment for ADM affects the mathematical calculation, making urban districts look wealthier than they actually are. Changing the method of counting students deprives school districts of millions of dollars annually.  For example, Cleveland would lose $27.6 million from the amount of Targeted Assistance it currently receives; Columbus, $27.1 million; Dayton, $21.0 million; Toledo, 19.1 million; Youngstown, $13.54 million; Cincinnati, $11.4 million; Lorain City, 10.1 million; Euclid, $4.7 million; Lima, $4.0 million; and Mansfield, $3.0 million.

Fleeter comments “When providing testimony in support of their plan, members of the Cupp-Patterson work group explained the above outcomes by saying that the number of students educated in the district is in fact the more appropriate measure for determining wealth than is the number of students who live in the district. While this is certainly true for the calculation of an input-based base cost measure, it is less clear for a measure that is designed explicitly to help less wealthy districts keep pace with their wealthier neighbors in providing educational opportunities for their students. Moreover, regardless of the theoretical merits of one student count versus another for making a per-pupil wealth calculation, the funding impact was clearly that high poverty urban districts lost so much revenue from Targeted Assistance under the initial Cupp-Patterson proposal that most of them ended up on the guarantee or with much smaller revenue increases than did the wealthier districts in the state.”

Again and again, Fleeter emphasizes the urgent need for the state to address the needs of school districts serving concentrations of poor children. He castigates legislators for proposing a formal study of the needs of students in these school districts but failing to fund such an investigation: “Finally, HB 305 would direct the state to undertake a study of the true cost of educating economically disadvantaged students in Ohio. Such a study has never been undertaken in Ohio. The final version of the FY 20-21 state budget did include a provision directing the Ohio Department of Education to oversee such a study; however, no funding was earmarked for this purpose. The state needs to be encouraged to find a way to fund and complete these studies in the FY 20-21 biennium.”

It Looks As Though Proposed Ohio School Funding Overhaul May Have to Wait Two More Years

There was a sense of hope on March 25th, when Ohio State Representatives Bob Cupp and John Patterson proposed a new, bipartisan school funding plan for Ohio, a plan that was intended to serve as the House’s education proposal for the 2020-2021 biennial budget, which must be passed by June 30.  We owe these two legislators enormous thanks for overcoming partisan rancor and setting out to try to address school funding injustice in our state.

Under a patched together mess of additions to old formulas, Ohio’s school districts have suffered for years from state funding that hasn’t met the state’s constitutional obligation. The problem has become more serious as state revenue for schools has declined. Following the Great Recession a decade ago, Governor John Kasich and his all-Republican legislature continued the phase out of local business taxes, eliminated the state estate tax and reduced state income taxes. In a state where all tax increases are required by law to be voted, school districts have been forced to ask their residents to increase local property taxes and at the same time to cut programming.  Just as school teachers have been striking all year across other states to highlight outrageous problems with large classes and shortages of counselors, social workers, nurses and librarians, Ohio’s students and teachers have been experiencing the same funding inadequacies.

The proposed Cupp-Patterson Plan was supposed to fund schools adequately—according to a calculation of what it actually costs to provide required services.  It was supposed to be stable without the kind of quirks and changes Ohio school districts have noticed recently in their state funding.  And it was supposed to be equitable by considering not only a district’s property valuation but also the community’s aggregate income in calculating what Ohio calls the local chargeoff—the calculation of what a school district has the capacity to generate in local taxes. Currently in Ohio, 503 of the state’s 610 school districts are on guarantee; they have been getting from the state just what they got last year and the year before and the year before that.  The new Cupp-Patterson plan was designed to flip that situation and restore the awarding of formula-calculated funding to at least 510 districts.

The only problem was, once the computer runs for the state’s 610 school districts were released, it became apparent that many of the state’s very poorest districts, especially poor urban districts with concentrated poverty, ended up with zero new funding—at the same level where they were last year.

This past weekend, the Speaker of the Ohio House, Larry Householder told the Columbus Dispatch that the new plan probably cannot be adjusted quickly enough to be part of Ohio’s 2020-2021 biennial budget:  “I think Cupp-Patterson needs a lot more work… I don’t think it can be done in the time frame for this budget.”

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel explains the problems with the plan and Householder’s concerns: “Over two years, the plan would mean a $280 increase per pupil on average for districts with student poverty rates of at least 60 percent.  Meanwhile, the increase is $392 per pupil for districts with poverty concentration of less than 15 percent.  Several urban districts get little or no additional money.  For Householder, that means more new money for districts that, thanks to local tax revenue, are already funded at an ‘excellent level,’ while less is going to schools where kids have ‘tons of disadvantages.’ That, he said, compounds a revenue imbalance that already exists between poor and wealthy districts. ‘It’s going to create a funding system that’s going to bring a greater amount of inequity between school districts… And there’s no way that it doesn’t.'”

For a fascinating analysis of the complexities that must be addressed by any Ohio school funding plan, I encourage readers of this blog to listen to Jim Siegel’s podcast from last Thursday: Why Is School Funding Still Broken? Siegel talks with two people who bring very different experiences to the conversation. Howard Fleeter, Ohio’s school funding expert has been tracking and advising the legislature about Ohio school finance since 1991.  Julie Wagner Feasel is a member of the school board in Olentangy, a suburban school district just north of Columbus and the fastest growing school district in the state in terms of families moving in.

We learn from Julie Wagner Feasel that even the state’s wealthiest school districts—as measured by property valuation and family income—have been ill-served by our current formula. Olentangy is a wealthy suburban district that for several years has been receiving less state funding than the amount the state awards to private schools for auxiliary services.  Between 2009 and 2014, Olentangy gained 6,000 students at a time when the formula was frozen and the district was on guarantee.  Between 2014 and 2019, the district has been under a “gain cap,” freezing the district’s state funding as it gained another 4,000 or 5,000 students.  Under the proposed Cupp-Patterson formula, which awards what the district needs as measured by its rapid growth, Olntangy will get a significant boost just because its state revenue has been frozen for over a decade.

In the podcast, Howard Fleeter defends the needs of the state’s poorest school districts, those which have lost population but still need additional funds to address the barriers that confront the school districts serving the state’s poorest students. Fleeter suggests that districts serving a high concentration of student poverty need a third more revenue per pupil.  Fleeter disputes Wagner Feasel’s worry that more money would just be absorbed by teachers’ salaries: “Putting resources into classrooms is important. There is important value in teaching, and with salaries, you get what you pay for. To attract good teachers and keep them, you must pay them well… Stability in staff makes a successful school.”

Fleeter also explains why it is enormously complicated to create a state school funding formula that addresses the needs of all 610 of Ohio’s school districts.  We have more big cities than any state except California or Texas—Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus, and then a bit smaller—Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown, and then a couple of tiers slightly smaller but still big cities.  We have rural Appalachian poverty and then a whole different rural economy on the west side of the state. Then there are the growing outer suburbs and the inner suburbs that are more urban.  How do we calculate equity and adequacy across this array of very legitimate needs?

In his report on the plan’s likely delay, Siegel quotes Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder commenting on the complexity of the problem: “If all we had to do was worry about poor, rural school districts, we could fix that in a heartbeat… But we’ve got everything under the sun in Ohio.”

It will perhaps take another biennial budget cycle before Ohio can create the political will to pass a truly equitable new school funding plan.  In the meantime, however, the Cupp-Patterson plan addresses one concern that could and should be resolved in a stand-alone bill. Ohio has been operating for years with a punitive accountability system beginning with the state report cards that brand the poorest school district with low grades, the third-grade guarantee, the location of charter schools and the EdChoice voucher eligibility in what the state consider academically distressed (low-scoring) school zones and districts, and finally the state takeovers that are currently being seriously challenged in other stand-alone bills.

The Cupp-Patterson Plan proposes to substitute full state funding of school privatization—vouchers and charter schools—for what is now a school district deduction plan.  While today, the child who secures a voucher or leaves for a charter is counted in a school district’s Average Daily Membership, and then carries the voucher or charter amount out of the school district’s budget, in the Cupp-Patterson Plan the state would fully fund the cost of these privatization schemes. In a number of school districts today, the child carries away more in the school district charter school or voucher deduction than the state’s per-pupil funding to that district. Because standardized test scores correlate, in the aggregate, with family and neighborhood economics, the current plan punishes the state’s poorest school districts by locating voucher and charter eligibility in those districts and then extracting the funding for the vouchers and charters from their local budgets. The current plan exacerbates inequity by further reducing the school district budgets in already poor school districts.

The state should not wait two years to address this inequity in the next budget. If the legislature is going to privatize education, the full expense should fall on the state budget and not on the already meager budgets of the state’s poorest school districts.

Schools Serving Very Poor Children Need Financial Assistance. Instead Ohio Beats Them Up.

Ohio operates a test-and-punish accountability scheme that ranks and rates schools and school districts, and punishes school districts whose scores are low.  All the while, the state has diminished its effort to support public education and equalize funding.

In mid-September, for example, the state released school report cards awarding schools and school districts letter grades—“A” through “F.”  Like two other districts recently taken over by the state after receiving a series of “F” grades, East Cleveland will be seized by the state and assigned a state-appointed overseer CEO to replace its school superintendent and an appointed commission to replace the local school board.  East Cleveland—an economically and racially segregated inner-ring Cleveland suburban school district—is among Ohio’s very poorest.  Historically the residents in the community have voted high millage relative to their incomes to pay for their public schools despite the closure of local industry and the collapse of the economy.  The school districts in two other impoverished communities, Youngstown and Lorain, were taken over in recent years without a subsequent rise in test scores, the state’s chosen metric. Both received “F” grades again this year. The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March that Krish Mohip, the state overseer CEO in Youngstown, feels he cannot safely move his family to the community where he is in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewing for other jobs. Lorain’s CEO, David Hardy tried to donate the amount of what would be the property taxes on a Lorain house to the school district, when he announced that he does not intend to bring his family to live in Lorain.

EdChoice vouchers are a second high stakes punishment in the school attendance zones of “F”-rated schools. EdChoice gives families the opportunity to opt their children out of “failing” public schools by granting their children a chance to leave at public expense.  Writing for the Heights Observer, Susan Kaeser describes how this works in another Cleveland inner-ring suburban school district: “Access to EdChoice vouchers is tied to Ohio’s deeply flawed education accountability system.  If the aggregate test score data for an individual public school falls short, the school is defined as an EdChoice school.  Anyone residing in the attendance area of that school who could have attended that school is eligible for an EdChoice voucher… Nearly every district that has EdChoice designation serves many high-need students.”

Most students using EdChoice vouchers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District which Kaeser describes are attending religious schools, and in fact real estate companies have been marketing houses in the state-designated neighborhoods as qualifying for EdChoice vouchers. Children can qualify for one of these vouchers as Kindergartners, without ever attending or intending to enroll in the public school that anchors the neighborhood. As Kaeser explains, “Once a student receives a voucher it can be renewed until the student graduates… Voucher use has grown exponentially as more schools were designated EdChoice and as recipients renew their vouchers.  This year, 176 Kindergarten students received first-time vouchers (without previously enrolling in a public school), adding to the total of more than 650 recipients.  The expected loss to the CH-UH district this year from EdChoice is $3.7 million….”  The rapid expansion of this program is fiscally unsustainable.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter tracks the impact statewide of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers. Over the ten years since the program’s inception, it has grown from 3,100 to 22,153 students.  Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid.  This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.”  While in FY 2007, $10,368,839 was spent statewide for EdChoice vouchers.  By FY 2017, the amount statewide had climbed to $102,688,259.  Over the decade, a total of $649,158,483 of state and local tax dollars was diverted from public schools to private school tuition through EdChoice vouchers.

All of Ohio’s school districts where students qualify for EdChoice vouchers are districts serving very poor children. And yet, last month in a new report Howard Fleeter explains: “(R)esidential taxpayers in the low wealth districts are paying taxes at nearly the same rate as are their higher wealth counterparts… The Tax Effort measure shows that when ability to pay is taken into account, the low wealth districts are levying taxes at the highest rate relative to their income, while the highest wealth districts are levying taxes at the lowest rate relative to income.”  Fleeter continues: “(T)he lowest wealth… districts have seen their share of total state and local resources fall from 26.4% in FY99 to 23.1% in FY19, while the highest wealth… school districts have seen their share of total state and local resources increase from 22.2% in FY99 to 23.4% in FY19.  Unsurprisingly… a variety of equity measures indicate that equity in state and local school operating revenues improved from FY99 to FY 09, but regressed somewhat from FY09 to FY19.”

When he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Fleeter was less technical and more candid about the state’s school funding formula: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Siegel reminds readers about the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, compounded by state tax cuts promoted by Governor John Kasich and passed by the legislature: “GOP leaders… eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools.  For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out… And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities, including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year… Kasich crafted a new formula designed to drive funding to districts with the least ability to raise their own local funds, but Fleeter and public education officials have argued that it doesn’t quite work properly.”

Through various schemes to privatize education—EdChoice and several other voucher programs along with a large charter school sector—Governor Kasich and the Republican legislature have found another method, in addition to the flawed school funding formula, to divert needed state dollars out of public schools across the state.  State takeovers of struggling school districts and EdChoice vouchers are the clearest examples in state policy of punitive, top down programs that blame and punish local educators in poor communities instead of driving resources and support to communities serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Once again, it is appropriate to quote Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explaining in The Testing Charade just how high stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face the overwhelming challenge of student poverty:  “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. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… 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.” (pp. 129-130)

Ohio Releases 2018 School Report Cards, Brands Poorest School Districts with “F”s

Yesterday, Ohio released school district report cards that reflect the test-and-punish theory that if we hold schools accountable for raising students’ test scores and graduation rates, teachers will somehow rise to the occasion and find a way to raise measured achievement to high levels.  Instead, the new state report cards demonstrate just what we already knew they would.  While the 2018 school report cards in Ohio have now become official and will subject the school districts branded with “F”s to punishments like state takeover, the state has been releasing unofficial, trial-balloon school and school district grades for several years now, and every time, the school districts in the state’s wealthiest communities got “A”s while city school districts, and inner-ring suburbs got “D”s and  “F”s.

This year, 28 school districts across Ohio earned “A” ratings. Twenty-three “A”-rated school districts are located in the state’s wealthiest suburban and exurban areas surrounding Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo. Eleven of the A-rated suburban districts are located in greater Cleveland, including five of Cuyahoga County’s privileged suburbs and six exurbs in the surrounding Geauga, Summit, Portage, Lorain and Medina Counties.  Five “A”-rated school districts are located in small towns—four in prosperous farming country in western Ohio.

Fourteen districts across Ohio received “F”s yesterday. These include the majority of the state’s largest cities: Cleveland, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.  Ohio’s other two big-city school districts—Cincinnati and Akron—earned “D” grades. The list of so-called “F” school districts also includes a number of very poor, segregated inner ring suburbs including East Cleveland and Euclid in greater Cleveland and North College Hill in greater Cincinnati. The two Ohio school districts currently under state takeover—Youngstown and Lorain—did not improve this year under state management; both earned “F” grades. Three school districts were waiting to learn whether the state would take them over if they earned an “F” again for the third time this year: Warrensville Heights in greater Cleveland and Trotwood-Madison in greater Dayton raised their scores to “D” and avoided the takeover. East Cleveland, among the very poorest and most racially segregated school districts in Ohio, will face state takeover, as its 2018 grade adds a third year to the district’s “F” ratings.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell has been reporting since 2013 (here and here) on what many Ohio researchers and educators believe is the correlation of the state’s school and school district grades with aggregate family income in the communities served by particular school districts.

More broadly, academic research, for half a century since the 1966 Coleman Report, has confirmed the correlation of school achievement—measured by standardized achievement tests and graduation rates—with aggregate neighborhood and family economic circumstances.  More recently, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon has shown that our society is resegregating by income with wealthy families and poor families moving to separate communities. Reardon also demonstrates that the number of mixed income communities is declining. Reardon has also shown that as our society is becoming more residentially segregated by family income, there has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  The geographic distribution of Ohio’s 2018, “A”–“F” school grades demonstrates the growing residential segregation of our state’s metropolitan areas and the kind of economic achievement gap Reardon has identified.

In his important new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz describes the testing regime formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act: “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. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… 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.” (pp. 129-130)

A new report this week from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools additionally indicts what remains very unequal school funding.  While it has been repeatedly demonstrated that school districts where poverty is concentrated need extra money to meet their students’ many needs, these school districts across the United States have fewer dollars per pupil once state and local funding is combined: “Districts serving white and more affluent students spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more, per pupil, than high poverty school districts and those serving majorities of Black and Brown students. The challenges faced by these schools—larger class size, fewer experienced teachers, the lack of libraries, science equipment, technology and counselors—all reflect a lack of resources.”  The report adds, “The Education Trust found that in 2015, on average, districts with large majorities of students of color provided about $1,800 (13 percent) less per student than districts in the same state serving the fewest students of color.”  Howard Fleeter, an economist and school funding analyst at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, confirmed in a recent report that Ohio’s current school funding formula fails to compensate for vastly unequal local fiscal capacity across Ohio’s school districts.

There are many reasons to be concerned about the broader implications of Ohio’s policy of awarding “A”–“F” grades to the state’s very unequally funded school districts—places which also reflect the geographic distribution of our society’s massive family economic inequality. While the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools and publish the results, and while ESSA says that standardized test scores and graduation rates must be part of the calculation, Congress does not require states to award a single “summative” grade to each school and school district.  Several years ago in greater Cleveland, a local fair housing agency, Heights Community Congress sponsored a well-attended program on how real estate websites—like Great Schools, which at the time published A-F grades for public schools (Great Schools now uses numerical ratings.)—have been redlining particular school districts and the neighborhoods in the attendance zones of particular schools. You would think these real estate websites have been violating the Fair Housing Act by steering families away from particular school districts, but they have been, in fact, merely using the information provided by the state of Ohio in the school report cards. The branding of public schools with “A”–“F” grades (or today’s Great Schools’ numerical system) encourages families who can afford it to avoid poor and mixed income school districts and buy homes in homogeneously white and wealthy exurbia.

Instead of branding Ohio’s poorest African American and Hispanic school districts with “F”s and punishing the state’s very poorest school districts with state takeover, the state should significantly increase its financial support for public schools in poor communities and encourage the development of full-service wraparound schools that provide medical and social services for families right at school.  Ohio’s system of branding the state’s poorest schools with “F” grades and imposing sanctions like state takeover undermines support for public education in school districts that desperately need strong community institutions.  The school district report cards also encourage segregation of the state’s metropolitan areas by race and family income.

How Educational Redlining Works in Ohio

In an extraordinary indictment of the test-and-punish regime imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind and renewed last December in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo of the National Education Policy Center decry the kind of rating and ranking of schools that was reproduced on September 15 in its 2016 version here in Ohio:  “The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing. This system has inadequately supported teachers and students, has imposed astronomically high goals, and has inflicted punishment on those for whom it has demanded impossible achievements.” “This diverse nation and our common good require all students to be well educated. Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and poor families. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than providing a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all. And we do not hold ourselves responsible for the basic denial of equal opportunities.”

Yesterday, Rich Exner, the data analyst for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, examined the newest Ohio school district report cards that award letter grades to school districts based on their students’ test scores: “The Ohio school report cards released earlier this month were nearly perfect in following an established trend—higher income districts on average scored better than those with lower household incomes. This was the case for five of the six overall categories in which the Ohio Department of Education issued grades…. The incomes were typically higher for the districts getting As, and the incomes were typically the lowest for those getting Fs.  Incomes for Bs, Cs and Ds correspondingly declined.”

How the state came up with each of its graded categories is not entirely clear, but for five of the categories there can be no confusion about the correlation of the state’s letter grade with each school district’s median income:

  • In the category of ACHIEVEMENT, A-rated districts’ median household income is $69,286, while F-rated districts’ median income is $27,090.
  • A-rated districts in the category of GRADUATION rates have a median household income of $43,075, while median income in F-rated districts in this category is $26,406.
  • In the category of GAP CLOSING, the median family income in A-rated districts is $63,191, while in F-rated districts the median income is $36,989.
  • In the category of PROGRESS, median income in the A-rated districts is $41,881, while in F-rated districts, it is $37,119.
  • In a final category, PREPARED FOR SUCCESS, A-rated districts boast median family income of $74,508 while families in F-graded districts struggle at $27,389.

Howard Fleeter, analyst at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, examines the same data, and despite that Ohio used a new and different test last spring, his overall conclusion replicates what he has written now for several years running: “This analysis is far from the first to demonstrate a strong negative correlation between student achievement and socioeconomic status. However, this data shows that in Ohio, the negative correlation between socioeconomics and student achievement has proven all too persistent over time.”

Exner and Fleeter demonstrate what sociologists have been explaining for fifty years: the well known correlation of standardized test scores with inequality of family income, not school quality.  These analysts, however, do not comment on the effect: Such rating systems drive economic segregation. And the impact of such school district grades is reinforced when real estate services like Zillow promote the ratings to emphasize the desirability of moving to districts with “high-rated” schools.

States like Ohio, that brand schools in wealthy communities with As and brand school districts serving poorer children with Fs, are resurrecting the practice of redlining by creating incentives for families with means to abandon poorer communities and move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts in outer ring suburbs.  Such educational redlining promotes racial and economic segregation.

Ohio Researcher Proves–Yet Again–That Test Scores Measure Primarily Family Income

Like the rest the country, Ohio is trapped in a test-and-punish education accountability system that castigates public schools when students’ test scores are persistently low. It is a system that punishes already vulnerable institutions—closing and charterizing schools in the places where scores are low, giving vouchers to help children “escape” so-called “failing” schools, and rating teachers by students’ scores. Ohio practices all of these policies.  The flaw inherent in such a system is that standardized test scores continue to correlate with the aggregate income of the families whose children are enrolled in schools and school districts.  Researchers have demonstrated again and again that, despite that poor children surely can learn and many do thrive academically, aggregate test scores are pretty much an economic indicator, not a measure of the academic quality of the school.  Test score gaps are in place before children enter Kindergarten, and they rarely close as children move through the grades.

Now, once again, Howard Fleeter of Ohio’s Education Tax Policy Institute, has documented that in Ohio, the schools that can brag of the highest test scores are located in the wealthy suburban school districts and the so-called “failing” schools are those that serve children living in poverty.  The ratings attached to school districts by the state based on test scores thus create further incentives for more families to abandon poorer and mixed income communities and move to expensive outer ring suburbs. This blog recently covered how school ratings by Zillow, the online real estate guide, contribute to segregation in the same way.

Here is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes Fleeter’s findings: “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase….  Ohio may have changed academic standards and its state tests last school year, but the recurring relationship between test scores and poverty remains the same…. Fleeter has reported the relationship between test scores and family income on an annual basis the last several years…. He repeated that analysis this week using preliminary test scores from the spring on Ohio’s new math, English, science and social studies tests…. As he does each year, Fleeter compared the percentage of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better on state tests in each school district to the percentage of students considered ‘Economically Disadvantaged’….”  And just as he has found previously, aggregate test scores correlate with the income level of the families who reside in the school district.

Fleeter’s analysis, according to O’Donnell, demonstrates that last spring when Ohio administered PARCC tests of language arts and math and tests designed by the American Institutes for Research to measure science and social studies, the highest-scoring 20 percent of districts (serving only 17.4 percent of students who qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch) had 86.2 percent of students scoring proficient in math.  The bottom-scoring 20 percent of school districts (serving 77 percent of students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch) had only 44.3 percent of students scoring proficient in math.

The press release from the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials (who sponsored the new study) quotes Fleeter: “This means that those districts performing the best on the tests have the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, while districts with the lowest performance have the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students.”  Posted with the press release are the tables that represent Fleeter’s analysis.

While Fleeter’s conclusions should sound an alarm in a state that uses test scores as the primary factor to determine “A” through “F” grades in a punitive accountability system for schools and school districts, Fleeter merely proves once again what researchers have been demonstrating for half a century.  Last year, for example, in Our Kids, after exhaustively examining the experiences of children in schools through the lens of wealth vs. poverty, Harvard’s Robert Putnam concludes: “(T)he gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.” (p. 182)

Here are the words of the respected researcher David Berliner, in a 2014 article published by the Teachers College Record: “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… (S)tories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives about our land and people, celebrated in the press, on television, and in the movies. But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American.  These stories of success reflect real events, and thus they are certainly worth studying and celebrating so we might learn more about how they occur.  But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students… (O)ut-of-school variables account for about 60% of the variance that can be accounted for in student achievement.  In aggregate, such factors as family income; the neighborhood’s sense of collective efficacy, violence rate, and average income; medical and dental care available and used; level of food insecurity; number of moves a family makes over the course of a child’s school years; whether one parent or two parents are raising the child; provision of high-quality early education in the neighborhood; language spoken at home; and so forth, all substantially affect school achievement.”

In the 2013, Closing the Opportunity Gap, two researchers—Christopher H. Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112)

When are we going to pay attention to what has been conclusively documented?  Instead in Ohio, public school districts serving poor children are punished in several ways by state policy.  Children in so-called “failing” schools qualify for EdChoice vouchers that extract money from a school district’s budget for every child who takes a voucher to a private or parochial school.  The new Youngstown Plan, quietly fast-tracked through the legislature in June, permits the takeover and charterization of so-called “failing” school districts. It is aimed at Youngstown schools this year, but any district with three years’ of “F” ratings will be targeted in the future.  And Ohio, like all the other states that applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, had to incorporate students’ test scores as a significant part of state teacher evaluations. We don’t merely blame the teachers; these days we formalize our blame right into each teacher’s personnel file.

Describing Fleeter’s new data connecting Ohio students’ test scores to their families’ economic circumstances, O’Donnell quotes the press release from the study’s sponsoring organizations, who say they will use Fleeter’s new data as a way, “to push for more focus on the educational needs of these students by urging lawmakers to look for additional ways to address these significant disparities.”  O’Donnell notes that in the past these organizations have used Fleeter’s research to advocate (unsuccessfully) for changes in the state funding formula to help poorer school districts.

What, to my knowledge, has never been seriously contemplated by Ohio’s legislature or state department of education is changing the state policy that, based on students’ aggregate test scores, punishes poorer school districts (with low state ratings and rankings, vouchers, and threatened state takeover) and punishes their teachers for choosing to teach in low-wealth school districts.  In an ironic twist in Ohio, this month the charter schools Ohio dubs “dropout recovery schools” are campaigning to do just that.  Ohio judges charter schools by aggregate test scores as well, and these schools allege Ohio should change the system that punishes them for serving students who come from so-called “failing” schools in the poorest urban school districts.

I would certainly be satisfied if Ohio found a way to design a new evaluation system that accurately examined schools themselves apart from the income-correlated test scores of the students.  But any new system must decouple state evaluations of schools from standardized test scores in both traditional public schools and charter schools. Any new system also needs to put the spotlight on disparities in inputs, not just on test score outcomes.  How much revenue is each school district capable of raising from its tax base?  How well is the state compensating for inequity?  What about small classes, access to advanced curricula, guidance counselors, art and music?