State Punches Youngstown with New HB 70 Assault on Local Control of Public Schools

Officials from the Ohio Department of Education have begun replacing the locally elected school board in Youngstown with a mayoral appointed school board.

This week we learned about one more extension of autocratic state power backloaded in 2015 into the HB 70’s school district takeover of Youngstown. Because at the end of four years of state takeover, the Youngstown school district earned another “F” on the state report card, the state is now imposing a previously unknown provision of the 2015, HB 70, which established state takeover in the first place.

The replacement of the elected school board in Youngstown with a state-approved, mayoral-appointed school board is designed to punish Youngstown for not raising its grade to “C” during four years of state takeover. What is particularly shocking about the new development is that the locally elected school board has had no role to play in the operation of Youngstown’s schools since the time of the state takeover in 2015. The state has been running the district through a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO to lead the school district.

Krish Mohip, the state-appointed CEO whose term ended on July 31, was never happy in his position, and last spring, several months prior to the end of his term, Mohip took family medical leave. At the time The Youngstown Vindicator‘s Amanda Tonoli reported that Mohip explained: “I’m going to take care of some issues that have accumulated at home, and I’m going to focus my attention there… I don’t see my absence as being a hindrance to all the great work that’s happened and will continue to happen over the next few years.” Mohip left, but he did not resign.  Instead he collected the rest of his $170,000 salary.  Tonoli added: “A longevity provision in Mohip’s contract allows him a $10,000 payout if he completes his full contract.”

Nobody was sorry to see Mohip go. The chair of the Academic Distress Commission explained: “We have to uphold what the contract says… We are following the law and following the contract that was agreed upon with Krish Mohip.” The blatant arrogance of Mohip’s mode of departure was merely the latest example of his abuse of the public trust.  He did not ever move his family to Youngstown, for example.

A new CEO, Justin Jennings, formerly the school superintendent in Saginaw, Michigan, was recently appointed by the state-appointed, Youngstown Academic Distress Commission.

Under HB 70, the residents of the school district have been permitted by the state to elect a local board of education, but its only power has been to decide whether and when to put a property tax levy on the ballot.

The imposition of an appointed board of education is happening even as the Ohio Supreme Court will hear a case  on October 23rd brought by Youngstown’s school board and school employees’ unions to challenge the state’s now four-year takeover of the school district.  And the Ohio Department of Education is moving forward to establish a mayoral-appointed school board in Youngstown despite that, embedded into the state budget signed into law in July, is a one year moratorium on state school district takeovers.

Currently several candidates are running for Youngstown’s local school board in the November, 2019 election.  WKBN Youngstown‘s reporter, Stan Boney explains that current board members are barred from consideration for the soon-to-be-appointed board of education, but candidates running for office may be considered if they are not incumbents: “On Thursday, Ohio Superintendent of Schools Paolo DeMaria made his first appearance in Youngstown since HB 70 became law to announce the process of selecting a new school board… DeMaria was clear that no person currently holding elected office is eligible, but people running in November who are not currently on the board are eligible even if they win….”

For WFMJ 21 Youngstown, Michelle Nicks reports on the process the state is imposing on Youngstown: “There will be eight members on the nominating panel, but only seven will vote. The chairperson of the group from the State Board of Education is a non-voting member… The panel will vote on at least ten names that will be presented to Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown on November 8th. Mayor Brown will have at least 30 days to pick five people as the ‘newly’ appointed Youngstown Board of Education. Out of the five selected, one person will be chosen as the Chairperson. The new board will begin serving on January first.”

Last week, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, Bill Phillis challenged the state’s recent move to replace the elected school board in Youngstown: “Never thought this would happen in America: The state is in the process of replacing elected school board members in Youngstown. The electors in Youngstown elected board members. These board members will be replaced via the HB 70 process. The Youngstown Board of Education has not been in control of the district for several years.  State control of the district has not resulted in improvement. Therefore, elected board members are being removed from office because the state’s improvement process has failed… How can Ohio legislators and the Governor allow this despicable process to come to fruition?”

Ironically HB 154, a bill to repeal HB 70, was passed last spring by an overwhelming, bipartisan 83-12 margin in the Ohio House of Representatives. The bill has stalled in the Ohio Senate, however, because key senators strongly favor autocratic rule of Ohio’s poorest school districts by the state. Ignoring massive evidence that the test scores, which are the primary measure used as an indicator of school quality in the state report cards, are a much stronger indicator of a school district’s aggregate family income and a poor measure of the quality of a school or school district (see here, here and here), members of the Ohio Senate have doubled down to endorse a plan intensifying the state’s control of Ohio school districts posting low scores. Ohio’s senators blame local educators and the voters who elect local school board members. At a recent legislative hearing, one member of the Ohio Senate expressed disdain for local control of schools, an attitude that prevails among many in his chamber: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?”

At the end of September, the Columbus Dispatch editorialized against the 2015 law which set up state takeover of local school districts: “While it’s easy to find fault with local school boards, teachers’ unions and state bureaucrats, the task that urban school districts face—helping kids learn despite… poverty… is immense.  Conservatives and other skeptics of public schools like the idea of taking the reins away from education bureaucrats who have failed and giving outsiders a crack.  That’s what House Bill 70, written in secret and rushed into law four years ago, did.  Schools in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are living with the results and they’re not good. The districts have seen little improvement but lots of controversy… The elected school board is stripped of all powers except putting levies on the ballot. The CEOs in Lorain and Youngstown seemingly have made little effort to win the confidence or support of those communities. In Youngstown, three of the five appointed commission members quit and Krish Mohip, the CEO, was actively looking for a new job by last December.”

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.

Dogged Advocates for Justice Protest Ohio State School Takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland

After January, John Kasich will no longer be governor of Ohio. House Bill 70, the law that paved the way for the Youngstown—and now Lorain and East Cleveland—school takeovers is the biggest stain on his legacy.  In gerrymandered Ohio, with huge legislative Republican majorities after the November 2018 election—62 Republicans and 37 Democrats in the Ohio House and 24 Republicans and 9 Democrats in the Ohio Senate—it remains unlikely that HB 70 will be overturned.

House Bill 70 prescribes that any Ohio school district which has received “F” grades for three years running on the state’s school district report card be managed by an appointed Academic Distress Commission instead of the locally elected school board. The state takeover law was sprung on an unsuspecting public at an afternoon hearing of the Senate Education Committee in late June of 2015, when Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner introduced a 66-page amendment to a House bill which had already been moving forward with widespread popular support to expand wraparound full-service Community Learning Centers.  Senate Bill 70 was rushed through committee and passed by the full legislature within 24 hours. The amendment—which had been cooked up by Governor Kasich, then-state superintendent (and now discredited) Richard Ross, and Ross’s assistant, David Hansen, the husband of Governor Kasich’s chief of staff—fully changed the content of what had been House Bill 70 to enable the state to nullify the power of elected local school boards and insert state overseer Academic Distress Commissions, which appoint a CEO to run the district on behalf of the state.

Three years have passed.  Lorain joined Youngstown under state takeover, and now East Cleveland has been added.  In May of this year, northeast Ohio Democrats Kent Smith (whose district includes East Cleveland) and Teresa Fedor (Toledo) introduced HB 626 to overturn Ohio’s state takeover law.  The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explains: “The bill would suspend the creation of new academic distress commissions, keeping other failing school districts out of state takeover starting next school year… Despite bipartisan support, Smith said, the bill has yet to get a hearing from this General Assembly.”

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed in late October of 2018 to hear a case against HB 70 resulting from a lawsuit filed originally by the elected Youngstown Board of Education: “The Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal regarding House Bill 70 submitted by Youngstown School’s Board of Education and others, which could set a precedent for districts under state mandate.  The original lawsuit, filed in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in August 2015, challenged that House Bill 70 was unconstitutional  While the 10th District Court of Appeals ruled in June against the school board, the Ohio Supreme Court accepted the appeal….”  Amicus briefs in support of the Youngstown lawsuit were filed with the appellate court from across the Ohio public education community and all of the elected school boards taken over so far: the Lorain Board of Education, the East Cleveland Board of Education, the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials.

The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March, 2018 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 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.

Plunderbund adds that 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. The Elyria Chronicle Telegram reported that Lorain’s CEO has been interviewing and hiring administrators without the required Ohio administrator certification. Hardy has also been courting Teach for America.  In mid-November, the president of Lorain’s elected board of education, Tony Dimacchia formally invited the Ohio Department of Education to investigate problems under the state’s takeover Academic Distress Commission and its appointed CEO.  He charged: “The CEO has created a culture of violence, legal violations, intimidation, and most importantly they have done nothing to improve our schools.”  The Lorain Morning Journal’s Richard Payerchin describes Dimacchia’s concerns: “Dimacchia claimed student and teacher morale is at an all-time low, while violence (at the high school) is at an all-time high.”

Youngstown and Lorain both earned “F” grades once again this year on Ohio’s school district report card.

At a November 28, 2018, Statehouse rally, Senator Joe Schiavoni, Reps. Michele Lepore-Hagan, Teresa Fedor, and Kent Smith joined citizens from the three school districts seized by the state—Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  They advocated for hearing and voting on HB 626, introduced in March to stop the takeovers. If no action is taken, the bill will die at the end of the Legislature’s 2017-2018 legislative session.

At last week’s Statehouse rally, Youngstown Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan described all the ways HB 70 abrogates democracy: “The legislation took away the voice of the locally elected school board members and gave an autocratic, unaccountable, appointed CEO total control over every facet of the system. The CEO can hire who he wants. Fire who he wants. Pay people whatever he wants. Hire consultants and pay them as much as he wants. Buy whatever he wants and pay as much as he wants for it. Tear up collective bargaining agreements. Ignore teachers. Ignore students. Ignore parents. And he also has the power to begin closing schools if performance does not improve within five years. Nearly four years in, here’s what the Youngstown Plan has produced: Ethical lapses. No-bid contracts. Huge salaries for the team of administrators the CEO hired. Concern and anxiety among students, parents, and teachers. And the resignation of most of the members of the Distress Commission who were charged with overseeing the CEO. Here’s what it hasn’t produced: better education for our kids.”

As Representative Kent Smith shared at the recent Statehouse rally, East Cleveland is Ohio’s poorest community and the fourth poorest community in the United States. The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain also serve concentrations of poor children.  In its policy for poor school districts, Ohio has chosen to punish instead of investing to support the children and their teachers.

In an important 2017 book, The Testing Charade, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz, pointedly explains why school rating systems based on aggregate standardized test scores—like the one Ohio uses to determine state takeovers—are unjust: “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.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)