Ohio’s Poorest School Districts Need Support Instead of Punitive HB 70 State Takeover

Ohio is in the midst of a big fight about the state takeover of its lowest scoring school districts.  If a school district gets an “F” grade for three years running on the state’s school district report card, the state takes over the district under House Bill 70 and appoints an Academic Distress Commission, which appoints a CEO. The CEO, with almost complete control of the district, can fire and hire at will.  He or she is supposed to turn around the district. The community continues to elect a school board, but the elected school board has no power.

Youngstown and Lorain, the two school districts taken over three years ago, are still earning “F” ratings. Today in Lorain, there is a state of emergency because the community has entirely lost confidence in the CEO, David Hardy.  He has arrogantly refused to bring his family to live in the school district, and he has refused even to meet with the elected board of education. Peter Greene, who once taught in Lorain, has traced some of this ugly history in his blog and in Forbes Magazine.

The 2002, federal law, No Child Left Behind imposed a regime of standardized testing on America’s public schools. It outlined punishments for the schools that could not raise scores, with some pretty serious punishments if, after several years, a school could not demonstrate improvement. These prescribed punishments were called “turnarounds,” and the assumption was that it is possible just to turn around a school in a relatively short time. The federal turnaround sanctions included firing the teachers and half the staff, charterizing the school, turning the school over to an Education Management Organization (EMO), or closing the school.  Arne Duncan, who became Education Secretary in 2009, intensified emphasis on turnarounds in programs like Race to the Top.

While state takeover was not one of the  prescribed turnarounds in federal law, it has been a favorite in many states. Like many of the other turnaround strategies, it imposes a change in school governance. The assumption behind governance changes is simple: The people running the so-called failing school or so-called failing school district don’t know what they are doing and must be replaced by the appointees of federal or state politicians who know better. State takeover incorporates another assumption: The voters in the so-called failing school districts don’t know enough to elect a good school board whose members will choose a good superintendent.  So… the state must appoint someone from outside who will come in and oversee some major and possibly difficult changes to correct the failure of the district.

State takeovers have been tried for years across a number of states. They have never worked.  In New Jersey, for example, Newark’s schools and Camden’s schools have been returned to the local school boards after decades of failed state takeover. Michigan specialized in state takeovers—imposing “emergency fiscal managers” on local cities and school districts. The lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply was a program overseen by one emergency manager, a man who later moved on to be the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. Finally, Michigan has returned Detroit’s schools to its elected local school board, which has appointed a new and promising superintendent.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools explains that state takeovers are almost always imposed on communities like the three currently under state takeover in Ohio—Youngstown, Lorain, and (this year) East Cleveland: “These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency, and self-determination.  In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.”

In a recent interview with the Youngstown Vindicator, Ohio’s new governor, Mike DeWine acknowledges that something needs to be done, because the state school takeovers in Youngstown and Lorain don’t seem to be working out. He emphasizes again and again, however, that the state must intervene.  And I suspect that DeWine, like many in our punitive test-and-punish era, favors some sort of governance change.

But what if the problem is not governance? What if the people in charge of the schools in Youngstown and Lorain and now East Cleveland did know what they were doing, but the challenges they faced were daunting.

In Ohio, school funding fails to provide what people in even more affluent communities feel is essential. There are hundreds of moderate-income school districts in Ohio that must choose these days between nurses and certified school librarians and counselors and music programs.  Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are all communities, however, where over time the local tax base has collapsed as industry has shut down. These are communities of desperate and concentrated family poverty, places where virtually all of the students are poor. Ohio’s state basic aid and poverty assistance is far too meager to provide enough assistance.

Governor DeWine says he believes we must do something to improve opportunity for the children in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  Let’s suppose we try a different kind of experiment, and add the kind of resources striking teachers have been demanding  from West Virginia to California.

What if every child in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland were provided enriched Pre-Kindergarten? What if all the children in these cities were provided enriched all-day Kindergarten in classes of 15 children? What if class size in the elementary grades in these communities were limited to 15 children in Kindergarten through third grade and classes in fourth through sixth grade were limited to 18 students?  What if every one of the schools in these communities had a nurse, a counselor, a social worker, a school psychologist and a certified librarian? In addition, what if the state supported wraparound health and human service supports for the children in these schools and their families?  What if all students whose primary language is not English were part of enriched bilingual programs?  What if the entire curriculum were made language-rich with reading and writing infused across all the classes? What if every child were engaged in accelerated conceptual mathematics? What if, after third grade, every one of these schools had an instrumental music program? What if every school had an art teacher and every high school a theater program? What if the elementary school libraries—many of them shuttered today across Ohio—were reopened and new books added? And what if the elementary school children in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland had a story-hour every week and, with the guidance of a certified librarian, a chance to choose books to check out?

Ohio prefers punishments as a response to its low-scoring public schools—the third grade guarantee—state report cards that rate schools and school districts with letter grades—the diversion of school funding out of low-scoring school districts to send children to charter schools and give them vouchers for private school tuition—and the ultimate punishment, state takeover. The federal government isn’t prescribing punishments like these any more, because it’s clear No Child Left Behind and its high-stakes testing strategy didn’t work. But Ohio continues to double down on  test-and-punish.

In an excellent 2017, book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explains the correlation of aggregate standardized test scores with family and community economics and a primary reason why punishments like state takeover are so unfair: “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)

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

Ohio needs to stop using state takeover to beat up on its poorest Black and Brown school districts and support better education for the children in these communities.

Public Education Partners has drafted a model resolution endorsing the repeal of Ohio HB 70.  School boards and other organizations are invited to pass this resolution and submit it to Governor DeWine and members of the Ohio Legislature.

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