Ohio Budget Sets Moratorium on New State Takeovers of School Districts, Fails to Resolve Lorain Crisis

State budgets outline what sort of public investment is possible within the revenue constraints of any state government. They also outline the spending priorities of the majority.  Sometimes, despite laws that prohibit logrolling, they also contain a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with fiscal matters.

Ohio’s new biennial budget reflects a priority for tax cutting.  Ohio’s legislators—despite the 17 day extension required because even the huge Republican majorities in both chambers couldn’t agree on a lot of things—reached consensus that taxes should be further reduced instead of investing in services needed by the must vulnerable Ohioans.  For example, the Legislature did not raise basic formula funding for 3 school districts already designated in Academic Distress or for the ten additional public school districts teetering on the edge of that categorization.

The Ohio budget conference committee, mercifully, did not insert into the state budget the Senate Education Committee’s long and detailed amendment prescribing a new state takeover plan for the 10 districts threatened with state takeover in the next two years. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky reports that Senate President Larry Obhof, “said the conference committee… agreed to a one-year moratorium on a controversial law allowing state takeover of academically failing school districts while lawmakers continue work on a solution in separate legislation.”

The Ohio House had repealed the state takeovers of school districts in its version of the budget. The Senate Education Committee had inserted into the Senate’s budget a cumbersome plan that featured a new state School Transformation Board, private takeover consultants approved by the state to conduct “root-cause” analyses, state-approved school district “improvement director czars,” and if insufficient improvement did not follow, the old top-down state takeovers. It is a very good thing that the conference committee left the Senate’s plan out of the budget.

Let’s remind ourselves about the serious, unresolved issues that the new one-year moratorium on state school district takeovers fails to address:

  • A one-year moratorium on new state takeovers grants at least a temporary reprieve from state takeover to Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill. These school districts have been branded as failures by Ohio for their low aggregate standardized test scores, and their fate remains unresolved. These school districts serve concentrations of very poor children, many of them children of color.
  • The moratorium on new state school district takeovers does nothing about the current disastrous state takeovers in Youngstown and Lorain, and the newest takeover in East Cleveland. Two months ago, by an extraordinary, bipartisan margin of 83-12, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal HB 70 (the state school district takeover law fast-tracked through the Ohio Legislature in 2015). The Senate has refused to consider HB 154.  The overwhelming bipartisan House support for eliminating state takeovers reflects the seriousness with which members of the Ohio House view the chaos into which state takeover has pushed Lorain and the dysfunction in Youngstown.

In the new budget, the Legislature not only neglected to address the state school takeover disaster, but also neglected to support the state’s poorest school districts threatened by state takeover—big cities with concentrated family poverty, towns where manufacturing has collapsed, and inner-ring suburbs— with additional operating funds. The Legislature did, however, adopt and expand Governor Mike DeWine’s proposal to add funding for wraparound social and medical services to help school districts better serve the needs of students and their families. The funding is weighted to provide extra dollars for districts serving the largest numbers of poor children. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explains: “The governor had proposed giving schools across the state $550 million over the next two school years for so-called wraparound services, like medical and mental health care, family supports and mentoring.  The ‘student wellness and success’ plan, as it is called, is aimed at helping students in every school in Ohio with issues that interfere with learning and with helping them succeed in school and in life. The version passed by legislators added $125 million more than DeWine proposed based on poverty levels of districts. In 2020-21, for example, DeWine had proposed giving the poorest 20 percent of school districts $300 per student, while giving the richest 20 percent of districts $25 per student.  The new plan, which came out of the House, raises all payments for 2020-21.  That means $460 per student for the poorest districts and $30 for the richest… The minimum that any district could receive also was raised from $25,000 to $30,000.”

Governor DeWine vetoed one section of the education budget. The Columbus Dispatch reports that about three dozen Ohio school districts have so much property wealth that they receive less from the state than private schools in their districts receive for auxiliary services.  In a later article Catherine Candisky, and Randy Ludlow explain that DeWine vetoed a provision of the budget to ensure that wealthy school districts would not receive less state aid than private schools in their districts receive.  DeWine explains his veto (see p. 10, Item 16): “This item would guarantee a base amount of per-pupil funding to all public school districts. Ohio’s school funding system was designed to offer the most support to the districts that are least able to provide adequate services to their students. The districts that would benefit the most from this item are among the wealthiest in Ohio. Carving out a special exemption to provide additional resources to the districts most capable of providing resources for their students is not a responsible use of the limited funding available to Ohio’s school districts. Therefore, this veto is in the public interest.”

However, the Dispatch confirms that the Legislature also passed a budget provision to allocate a $38 million funding increase for Ohio’s quickest growing school districts, which, due to their local property taxing capacity, have had their state funding capped for several years.  DeWine chose not to veto this provision, which will reward the same wealthy districts—the rapidly expanding exurban school districts surrounding the state’s big cities.

Even though budgets are supposed to deal with fiscal matters, folded into this budget are new high school graduation requirements. Unfortunately, the new graduation requirements that appear in the budget are the ones that originated from a lobbying group, Ohio Excels, representing business interests.  Educators have complained that the plan they designed, which was eventually approved and presented by the Ohio State Board of Education, was ignored.  And just this week a member of the State Board of Education raised serious questions about whether the cut scores designating students as “accelerated” or “proficient” are set unreasonably high so that the state denies many students who really are proficient enough points to graduate from high school.

Now that Ohio has a FY 20-21 biennial budget, much of education policy remains unresolved, including the urgently important crisis in Lorain due to its current state takeover chaos and the fate of 10 districts the state has threatened to take over.  Surely there will be further debate about the graduation requirements logrolled into the state budget without sufficient debate.  And left out completely is the matter of the new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan which was not addressed in the budget. It has now been formally introduced as HB 305, and will likely be extensively debated in upcoming months.

This article was updated on 7/19/19.

Linda Darling-Hammond Disappoints in Cleveland City Club Address

Linda Darling-Hammond is a national figure in the field of education policy.  She is the President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University, where she is an emeritus professor of education, and she headed up President Obama’s transition team for education. She is the author of several books including The Flat World and Education, in which she declares: “One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)

Last Friday, Darling-Hammond delivered the weekly address at the Cleveland City Club.  I was disappointed.

Darling-Hammond declared that “we have left No Child Left Behind (NCLB) behind” and implied that its 2015 replacement, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, has erased the punitive philosophy of its NCLB predecessor.  Darling-Hammond then devoted most of her prepared remarks to Ohio’s adoption of one of her own research priorities—social-emotional learning—into the state’s new five-year strategic plan for education.  Darling-Hammond chaired the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which on January 15, 2019 published its final report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.

Of course one cannot blame an academic for focusing a major policy address on her own particular research interest. But I was disappointed nonetheless, because Darling-Hammond’s remarks so completely neglected what I and many others believe are alarming realities today in Ohio public school policy. More broadly she also failed to acknowledge catastrophic school funding shortages brought to national attention by striking school teachers for almost a year now from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona and in the past two weeks in Los Angeles, funding shortages caused by tax cuts and tax freezes and exacerbated when scarce tax dollars are redirected to privatized charter schools and voucher programs. Only after she had finished her prepared remarks and in answer to a question about Ohio’s punitive state school district takeovers, did she briefly comment on the enormous and controversial policies many in the audience hoped she would address.

Despite that Darling-Hammond told us she believes the kind of punitive high-stakes school accountability prescribed by No Child Left Behind is fading, state-imposed sanctions based on aggregate standardized test scores remain the drivers of Ohio public school policy. Here are some of our greatest challenges:

  • Under a Jeb Bush-style Third Grade Guarantee, Ohio still retains third graders for another year of third grade when their reading test scores are too low. This is despite years of academic research demonstrating that retaining children in a grade for an additional year smashes their self esteem and exacerbates the chance they will later drop out of school without graduating.  This policy runs counter to anything resembling social-emotional learning.
  • Even though the federal government has ended the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, in Ohio, students’ standardized test scores continue to be used for the formal evaluations of their teachers.  The state has reduced the percentage of weight students’ test scores play in teachers’ formal evaluations, but students’ test scores continue to play a role.
  • Aggregate student test scores remain the basis of the state’s branding and ranking of our public schools and school districts with letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.
  • When a public school is branded with an F, the students in that so-called “failing” school qualify for an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child.
  • Ohio permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts. The number of these privatized schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”
  •  If a school district is rated “F” for three consecutive years, a law pushed through in the middle of the night by former Governor John Kasich and his allies subjects the district to state takeover. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.
  • All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Forty-two minutes into the video of last Friday’s City Club address by Darling-Hammond, when a member of the Ohio State Board of Education, Meryl Johnson asked the speaker to comment on Ohio’s state takeovers of so called “failing” school districts, Darling-Hammond briefly addressed the tragedy of the kind of punitive systems that now dominate Ohio’s public school policy: “We have been criminalizing poverty in a lot of different ways, and that is one of them… There’s about a .9 correlation between the level of poverty and test scores.  So, if the only thing you measure is the absolute test score, then you’re always going to have the high poverty communities at the bottom and then they can be taken over.” But rather than address Ohio’s situation directly, Darling-Hammond continued by describing value-added ratings of schools which she implied could instead be used to measure what the particular school contributes to learning, and then she described the educational practices in other countries she has studied.

In the context of the new report of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which she chaired, Darling-Hammond’s focus last Friday was social-emotional learning. The Commission’s new report emphasizes the need to broaden “the definition of student success to prioritize he whole child.”  The report recommends that our society: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-schools settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than on rewards and sanctions.”

I wish Darling-Hammond had more pointedly applied the Commission’s findings to Ohio, where, while people applaud the goal, there have been serious questions about whether Ohio’s addition of social-emotional learning in the state’s new five-year strategic plan is workable in our underfunded and terribly punitive, high stakes testing environment. Some of the factors that affect a school’s capacity to support the social and emotional needs of students are small classes that ensure students are known and respected, enough counselors and school psychologists, the presence of the arts and enrichments, and the presence of play in the school lives of very young children. Ohio’s meager school funding and emphasis on high-stakes testing threaten all of these.

In these times we need to be especially attentive to the social and emotional needs of America’s students as the federal Department of Education steps away from policies designed to protect students’ safety and emotional well being. Remember that at the end of December, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded urgently important Obama-era civil rights guidance designed to reduce out of school suspension and expulsion, reduce racial disparities in suspension and expulsion, and increase in-school programs promoting restorative discipline.  Ohio’s new strategic plan to prioritize social-emotional learning in public schools is an important first nudge—pushing our state away from No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish. But there remains a long, long list of urgently needed policy changes. I wish Linda Darling-Hammond had been more supportive of our struggle in her address last Friday.