Cleveland Plain Dealer Cuts Experienced Education Reporter and Eliminates Full Time Education Beat

Late Friday afternoon, Advance Publications, the corporation that owns the Cleveland Plain Dealer, along with the separate newsroom at the website, finished purging the experienced beat reporters at the Plain Dealer. Patrick O’Donnell, the newspaper’s longtime education reporter, was one victim of the mass action. His loss will leave education policy, central to O’Donnell’s beat, to be covered by‘s statehouse reporters if education policy, primarily a children’s issue, rises to a level that will attract their attention.

Here is what has happened to the Plain Dealer in the past week.

The reporters at the Plain Dealer have long been unionized; the reporters at are non-unionized and less experienced. Everyone agrees that Advance Media used the pandemic-driven decline in advertising revenue as an excuse to break the union.

Covering this week’s staff reductions at the Plain Dealer as part of an article about the implications of the pandemic-driven collapse in advertising revenue across America’s newspapers, the NY TimesMark Tracy makes a careful distinction for Cleveland.  He points out:  “The near-collapse of this venerable Cleveland daily, owned by Advance Publications, coincided with the economic downturn.”  (Emphasis mine.)

The Cleveland Scene‘s Vince Grzegorek describes the two week purge at the Plain Dealer: “Fourteen Plain Dealer journalists were left after last Friday’s massive layoffs that saw 22 staffers depart. Those who remained were subjected, on the very next business day, to the cruelest and perhaps final installment of local union-busting by Advance Publications and the Newhouse family. They were told… that they could keep their jobs but not their beats, or even their geographic coverage areas. They would be dispatched to cover the hinterlands of Cleveland, not Cleveland itself.  Should they remain they would serve as a bureau covering Cuyahoga’s surrounding counties, but not Cuyahoga itself, and not so much of those counties that the news could be considered statewide in importance.”

After 10 reporters resigned on Friday, an editor brought in two weeks ago to accomplish the staff reductions, Tim Warsinskey spun the story: “Today, 10 of our reporters and photographers made the decision to voluntarily ask to be laid off. This comes a week after we regretfully parted ways with some (22) talented journalists… Over the years in any newsroom, there are waves of personnel changes. Folks who cover beats for decades move on. New and sometimes younger journalists step in and usually wind up surprising us all. ”

In a statement late Friday afternoon, the Plain Dealer News Guild contradicted the new editor’s spin: “Tim Warsinskey… said the 10 journalists leaving today made voluntary decisions to be laid off. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It was the Plain Dealer who decided to lay off these union workers.  The Plain Dealer and its out-of-state owners put dedicated and seasoned journalists in an impossible situation earlier this week in a blatant attempt to embarrass them by banning most of them from reporting on Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the state.  For many, that meant being kept from covering the topics they know best and in many cases are regarded locally and nationally as experts.”

Here’s why the loss of education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell, will matter to Northeast Ohio.

In 2016, Cleveland’s alternative paper, the Cleveland Scene named Patrick O’Donnell as that year’s best Cleveland news reporter: “O’Donnell has guided Clevelanders through the data-rigging by state superintendent Richard Ross of low-performing online charter schools. He’s also kept CMSD (Cleveland Municipal School District) CEO Eric Gordon on his toes, reporting on the botched collection of E-rate rebates. He’s a crisp, prolific writer and a dogged reporter. And, much like the PD’s Brie Zeltner and Rachel Dissell, who reported on lead poisoning, and Michelle Jarboe, who reports on real estate, O’Donnell represents the value of hard-hitting, in-depth beat reporting…”  (All of these reporters have now been purged from the Plain Dealer newsroom.)

O’Donnell has kept readers in Northeast Ohio well-informed about the fraught policy environment for the state’s public schools over recent decades when Ohio’s Republican-majority legislatures have expanded charter schools, instituted five different statewide voucher programs, and pursued standards-based, test-and-punish school accountability.

O’Donnell doggedly tracked the 18 year, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow scandal in which William Lager scammed the state by more than $1 billion by extravagantly inflating the enrollment numbers at his online school. O’Donnell drove a hundred miles to Toledo in January of 2018 to the meeting where ECOT’s sponsor, The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West formally shut down the school.  O’Donnell broke the story before any other reporter tracked down the news.

And in the months after the notorious ECOT was shut down, O’Donnell covered the legal efforts by the state to recover some of the money.  He described, for example, an Ohio Supreme Court hearing in which the state charged that masses of so-called ECOT students were never logging in to the school’s website. ECOT’s attorney Marion Little “claimed that it should be paid by its enrollment, not by how long students spend in their online classes… Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor had pressed Little, after he argued that state law requires the school to be paid regardless of how little time students spend online. ‘How is that not absurd?’ O’Connor asked.”

In 2014, economist Margaret (Macke) Raymond, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and wife of prominent, far-right economist Eric Hanushek, stunned the audience at the Cleveland City Club by confessing that marketplace choice doesn’t really work in education, O’Donnell was there to cover it: “Her reasons for why states need to exert more control raised a few eyebrows. A self-described supporter of free markets, Raymond said a totally free market is not appropriate for schools. ‘It’s the only industry/sector where the market doesn’t work…Parent’s can’t be agents of qualify assurance.'”

In June of 2015, O’Donnell punctured Ohio’s claim that the state was cracking down on some of its charter school sponsoring agencies, which had been known for years for their lax oversight: “It turns out that Ohio’s grand plan to stop the national ridicule of its charter school system is giving overseers of many of the lowest-performing schools a pass from taking heat for some of their worst problems.”

Later that summer, he extensively covered the Legislature’s surreptitious takeover of the Youngstown City Schools, a move made without hearings in the middle of the night.  O’Donnell has also exposed the Plain Dealer‘s readers to research demonstrating that the theory of school district failure—on which the state takeovers are based—is itself flawed: “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase.”

And in the past two months, as the Ohio Legislature has refused to address the secretive expansion in last summer’s budget bill of EdChoice, a private school tuition voucher program, O’Donnell has reported on the confusing implications as school districts are being forced to pass school levies just to pay for private school vouchers.  EdChoice vouchers are funded not by the state but instead out of local school district budgets. As the pandemic shut down the state and legislators determined merely to freeze the program, as it is currently operating, for another year, O’Donnell explained:  “For public school teachers, school boards and school officials, keeping the status quo on vouchers continues a drain on school district budgets… School districts… which saw a large increase in voucher use this school year, will have no relief….Their costs could even increase….”

It is devastating when a newspaper rids itself of a reporter like Patrick O’Donnell, whose background includes in-depth knowledge about complex public policy. And it isn’t just the purging of a more expensive unionized reporter. The Plain Dealer, it appears, is entirely eliminating education as a specialized beat. The change will leave Northeast Ohio less informed. Education policy is nuanced and politically fraught. Expert and experienced education reporters matter.


A Tempest in a Sterling Silver Teapot

Fortunately, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine recognizes injustice at least in instances when it results from political fights among those who can manipulate  power and money on a grand scale.  We can be thankful that he vetoed one amendment slipped into the state budget right at the last minute without any debate.

The amendment was added by Ohio Senator Matt Dolan, a Republican whose family owns the Cleveland Indians, and who represents some of the wealthiest communities in the state of Ohio. Dolan chairs the Ohio Senate Finance Committee, and he was an influential member of the House-Senate conference committee which finalized the new budget.

The amendment involved local property tax assessments in the Orange City School District, which includes several of Ohio’s most affluent communities: Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills, and Hunting Valley. Hunting Valley has been lobbying for a change in its school funding.  Its residents say they shouldn’t have to pay so much property tax to the Orange City Schools—the school district in which Hunting Valley is situated. They point out that a lot of older residents in Hunting Valley do not have children in school, and many families with young children use exclusive private schools. Hunting Valley had sought the state budget amendment to stipulate that Hunting Valley’s residents would pay their school property taxes as a sort of per-pupil tuition in instances when a Hunting Valley student enrolls in the Orange Schools. Sen. Matt Dolan’s district includes Hunting Valley.

The Plain Dealer‘s Andrew Tobias summarizes the provision that Governor DeWine ultimately vetoed: “The measure, backed by Senate leadership including Chagrin Falls Republican Sen. Matt Dolan, a key figure in budget negotiations on tax issues, would have capped the amount of property taxes Hunting Valley property owners would pay to Orange City Schools on a per-pupil basis.  In other words, the cap would be based on the number of children village residents send to Orange schools, which encompasses Hunting Valley and several other suburbs… The amendment… was a result of advocacy by the affluent village, which hired a prominent Columbus lobbying firm to seek the law change.”

Tobias exposes exactly how power and money operate in Ohio politics: “Hunting Valley is influential in another way—it’s home to some of Ohio’s top political donors, one of whom hosted President Donald Trump for a fundraiser on July 12, a few days before Dolan introduced the amendment… Among the Hunting Valley’s residents are a who’s-who of Ohio political donors. Even though the village has just 700 people, it’s donated at least $1.4 million to state and federal candidates, committees and political parties—largely Republican—since 2016, according to campaign finance records.”

Tobias continues: “Dolan said the village—which has about 700 people with a median Cuyahoga County home value of $1.3 million—pays a disproportionately large share of taxes to the school district.” The lobbyist hired by Hunting Valley is an extremely powerful state Republican. Bill Batchelder was the former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives and also more recently a lobbyist for Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which was shut down after 17 years of ripping off more than $1 billion in Ohio tax dollars.

Tobias reports that, according to the treasurer of the Orange School District, the amendment Dolan surreptitiously sneaked into the budget, “would have cost the Orange schools $5.8 million, or a 12% funding reduction about a month before school started.”

Once officials in the Orange Schools and the municipal officials in the other communities encompassed by the Orange School District became aware of the secret negotiations, they were able to clarify the issues for the Governor, who eventually vetoed the plan as inequitable. Tobias adds: “DeWine’s veto followed intense pushback from local elected officials and community members, who called and wrote letters to the governor’s office. State. Rep. Juanita Brent, a Cleveland Democrat who represents parts of the school district, voted against the budget bill, citing the amendment as the reason in a floor speech while the bill was being debated.”

The lesson here is about whose voices can be heard in Ohio and who can be believed and trusted.

As he signed the budget bill, Governor Mike DeWine urged lawmakers to move quickly to address another issue. In the budget, Ohio lawmakers chose not to address the state’s proposed takeover of its lowest scoring school districts. Instead the Legislature settled on a one-year moratorium on state takeovers and chose not to deal with the current and very controversial state takeovers of the public school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.   Ohio Statehouse News’ Jason Aubry quotes DeWine:   “I understand the moratorium and that’s fine but we have not solved this problem… I think the solutions are on the table… I don’t think we need to think a whole lot more about it other than figuring out exactly what this legislature is willing to do.”

Do DeWine’s statements as he signed the state budget reflect his support for the appalling proposal introduced into the Senate’s budget but left out of final bill to await stand alone legislation?  The Senate Education Committee had inserted into the Senate’s budget a cumbersome and extremely patronizing plan featuring 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 does 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.

As he vetoed the Hunting Valley amendment, DeWine listened to the wealthy residents of the privileged Orange School District community.  Will he listen to significant input from the residents of the 13 communities now in state takeover or threatened with seizure by the state?  Like the three districts currently in state takeover—Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland, the ten districts which face state takeover within two years—Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill—are all poor. They are big cities with concentrated family poverty and racial segregation, towns where manufacturing has collapsed, and inner-ring suburbs.  Their educators and citizens lack the power of the residents in the communities served by the Orange Schools.

It is not surprising that students in the Orange School District, residing in Ohio’s most exclusive pocket of public school privilege, are posting high test scores on their standardized tests. Nor, according to Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on high-stakes standardized testing, should we be surprised that Ohio’s very poorest school districts are posting lower scores.  Koretz would not advocate punishing schools and educators in the communities where concentrations of poverty would predict lower scores. In his groundbreaking book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Koretz warns that test scores correlate highly with the average income of families and communities:

“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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

I wonder why Ohio lawmakers are not listening as carefully to educators in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland  and the ten school districts soon facing state takeover as the Governor did last week to school district officials in the wealthy Orange City Schools.

In Ghosts in the Schoolyard, her very profound book about Chicago and Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 closure of schools across the Bronzeville community on Chicago’s South Side, Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist, urges policy makers to consider the voices of citizens in the very communities which have been devastated by generations of racial and economic segregation and underfunding: “These questions… are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

EXTRA: Ohio Senate Passes Budget without Including State School Takeover Plan. It Will Likely Be Back.

The Ohio Senate passed a state budget bill this afternoon which does not include the Senate Education Committee’s proposed amendment for state school district takeovers—a plan designed to replace House Bill 70.  The Senate removed the language to repeal HB 70 which the House had included in its state budget bill.

The Plain Dealer reports on the budget the Senate passed today, including this short comment on the state school takeovers: “The Senate also removed language that the House had inserted that undid the state’s process for taking over failing school districts. Obhof indicated the issue could still be revisited before the budget process ends.”

Educators worry that the Senate’s plan, described in this blog last week, will come back either in the Senate-House conference committee or as a standalone bill.