Ohio Senate Releases Detailed State School District Takeover Plan

Updated June 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ohio Legislature Must Pass HB 154 to Eliminate State School Takeovers in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland

The members of the Ohio Legislature must pass House Bill 154, thereby repealing Ohio House Bill 70, which provides for the state to seize governance from locally elected school boards in the state’s lowest scoring school districts. HB 70 was passed in 2015.

House Bill 154, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Representatives Joe Miller (D-Amherst) and Don Jones (R-Freeport), would dissolve existing state-appointed Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed CEOs in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland.  By passing HB 154, the Legislature would restore the governance of these school districts to their locally elected school boards. HB 154 would also restore respect and collective bargaining rights for their teachers.

Under the current HB 70, Ohio identifies any school district which has received three years of consecutive “F” grades on the state report card as in academic distress and subject to state takeover. Youngstown and Lorain are now completing their fourth school year under HB 70 state takeover.  East Cleveland was seized at the beginning of the current school year. Other districts facing HB 70 state takeover in the near future are Dayton next year and Columbus, Canton, Mansfield, Toledo and several others the following year.

The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach describes the provisions of HB 154 which would offer broader support to districts deemed in academic distress: “Starting July 1, ‘failing’ districts under takeover would transition out of the Academic Distress Commission model and into a community learning center or other option. Starting July 1, 2020, districts that were not subject to an ADC but had received an overall F on the report card would begin to transition into an alternative model—including a community learning center… It also would allow for the Ohio Department of Education to provide support in creating the improvement plan and perform mid-and end of year-reviews of a district’s measurable benchmarks to make sure it is on the right track and provide feedback.”  (In Ohio, which formally names all charter schools “community schools,” the term “community learning center” describes the kind of school with wraparound social and medical resources that the rest of the nation calls “Community Schools.”)

Ohio’s HB 70 was passed suddenly at the end of June, 2015. The bill had been designed in secret by then Governor John Kasich, his appointed state superintendent Dick Ross, and some allies in Youngstown. It was fast-tracked after it was added suddenly as an amendment to a different bill.  Without committee hearings or any opponent testimony permitted, it was passed and signed into law within 24 hours at the end of the legislative session.

In Youngstown under its Academic Distress Commission, Krish Mohip has served as the appointed CEO of the school district. His tenure has been unhappy for Mohip and for the school community in Youngstown. Mohip hasn’t bothered to hide his disdain for the city. Last November, he announced he would not be re-applying when his contract runs out this coming July. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March, 2018 that Mohip felt he could not safely move his family to the community where he was in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewed for other jobs including school districts as far away as Boulder, Colorado and Fargo, North Dakota. And a succession of members of Youngstown’s Academic Distress Commission have quit.  As measured by the state report card, under Mohip and the Academic Distress Commission, Youngstown is still earning an “F.”

Youngstown’s state-appointed Academic Distress Commission named a new CEO just last week: Justin Jennings will leave his position as Superintendent of Schools in Muskegon, Michigan to lead the Youngstown Schools. Jennings may well be a good choice, but one wishes the choice could have been made by Youngstown’s elected school board. Jennings rose to the job of school superintendent from within the Muskegon system. In his first year on the job as superintendent in 2017, Jennings earned a “minimally effective” rating from the local school board, but he improved his performance rating to “effective” at the end of the school year in 2018.

In Lorain, the HB 70 state takeover has been a disaster.  The appointed CEO, David Hardy has refused to bring his family to live in Lorain. He has alienated the school community, the teachers, students at the high school, the police department, the elected school board (which HB 70 permits to exist but without any power), several members of the Academic Distress Commission itself who have quit, and virtually the entire community.  After the chair of the Academic Distress Commission resigned in the winter, Paolo DeMaria, Ohio’s state superintendent, appointed Randall Sampson as a new chair.  Sampson has initiated a formal evaluation of David Hardy’s performance.  The Chronicle Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explains that in mid-March at his first meeting as chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission, Sampson said, “he was working on evaluating the district leader. 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.” In Lorain, despite what has been described variously as months of confusion, rancor, crisis, and growing chaos, David Hardy remains on the job.  State Superintendent DeMaria and the president of the elected Lorain Board of Education are currently engaged in heated debate about the conditions in the Lorain City Schools as the state superintendent defends the ongoing HB 70 state takeover and the appointment of David Hardy.  As measured by the state report card, under Hardy and the Academic Distress Commission, Lorain is still earning an “F.”

It is too early to know how the state takeover of the East Cleveland schools will go. East Cleveland is the poorest community in the Cleveland metropolitan area and said to be one of the poorest communities in the nation. At least the newly appointed CEO is local; he is from Maple Heights, another inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. Henry Pettigrew was the former assistant superintendent in Maple Heights, and he promises quickly to raise East Cleveland out of academic distress. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quotes Pettigrew: “We are going to do the rebirth of an American urban school system… Some people have written us off. Some people said it couldn’t be done… open your eyes and watch.”   O’Donnell comments: “Whether Pettigrew retains support as more details of his plan unfold will be key to its success… He… asks teachers and district leaders, ‘What are YOU going to do… how are we intentionally changing our behavior?'”  O’Donnell continues: “His full plan is not yet available.  But he said he wants to make decisions and faster changes in classrooms to help kids.  An early goal: Increase the district’s ‘Performance Index,’ the state’s composite of all state test scores across all grades, from 56.4 to 66 out of 120 points next school year.  That would improve the district’s grade on that measure from an F to a D and likely jump over about 20 districts after having the second worst score in the state last school year.”  Pettigrew says he will improve school attendance by ensuring that teachers offer “more interesting lessons in class.”  He will affirm and encourage the students, monitor student progress by computer, and engage parents.

I will simply comment that living as I do in the school district next door to East Cleveland, I have known a number of extremely dedicated and experienced teachers over the years from both Shaw High School and Kirk Middle School.  Surely the district needs to reduce the high rate of chronic student absence, but I wish Pettigrew weren’t starting out blaming the district’s teachers by implying that the district’s low test scores are a result of uninteresting lessons.

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

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

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

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

And all this is most likely to happen in conditions like the ones created by Ohio HB 70, in which schools are threatened with state takeover if they do not quickly raise scores. The members of the Ohio Legislature must pass Ohio HB 154, which will repeal Ohio HB70, the state takeover of so-called “academically distressed” school districts.