New Plan Tucked into Ohio Budget Creates a Path Out of State Takeover for Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland School Districts

Jeff Bryant introduces a special, back-to-school issue of The Progressive with a commentary, The End of School Reform.  Bryant’s piece narrates the quiet death of long running policies across the nation’s school districts, programs that were central to corporate, standardized test-based school accountability and the idea that punitive school turnaround plans would quickly raise overall test scores.

“It was telling that few people noticed when Chicago’s Board of Education announced in late May that it was closing down its school turnaround program and folding the thirty-one campuses operated by a private management company back into the district. The turnaround program had been a cornerstone of ‘Renaissance 2010,’ the education reform policy led by former Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan…. Another news event affecting Chicago public schools that got very little national attention was the decision by the Illinois state legislature to rescind mayoral control of Chicago’s schools and bring back a democratically elected school board… A third story from the Chicago education scene was that, in December, Noble Charter Network, the city’s largest charter school chain, disavowed its ‘no excuses’ approach to educating Black and brown students because of the racist implications… Each approach was among the pillars of ‘education reform’ favored by previous presidential administrations….”

This blog will take a late summer break.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, September 8.

In the same commentary, however, Bryant notes this year’s dramatic rush across state legislatures to expand private school tuition vouchers and increase the number of charter schools. Public schools remain threatened by some of the trends of the past two decades, but some of the corporate accountability ideology seems to be fading—not with a bang and with hardly a whimper.

These same trends are operating in Ohio, where—in the new state budget— the legislature found myriad ways to expand vouchers, introduce new tuition tax credit and education savings account neo-vouchers, and expand charter schools.

But at the same time, the legislature simply and quietly incorporated a plan to phase out one of Ohio’s worst school turnaround strategies: the House Bill 70 state takeover of so-called failing school districts by state appointed Academic Distress Commissions that oversee so-called “failing” school districts and push aside their elected boards of education. The legislature has created a path to end the Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland state school takeovers.

History of House Bill 70 and Ohio’s State School Takeovers

House Bill 70 was passed in the middle of the night just before the legislature’s summer recess in 2015. As the Ohio Senate considered a House bill to expand the number of wraparound, full-service schools that locate medical and social services in school buildings serving poor families, someone introduced an amendment for state takeovers of school districts with low test scores, and the amendment replaced the original bill’s purpose. The amendment was introduced; opponent testimony was not permitted; the bill passed; and it was immediately signed into law. At the time, accountability-hawk school reformers in the legislature and the Ohio Department of Education believed that state appointed Academic Distress Commissions would radically improve low scoring school districts.

As recently as 2019, the Ohio Senate even considered a plan to further expand state takeover of local school districts. A Senate proposal would have established a statewide School Transformation Board which would have assigned a state approved nonprofit or for-profit school improvement organization for any district with an “F” rating for three years running on the school district report card. The state’s School Transformation Board would then have appointed a  local School District Improvement Commission to serve the same function as the original HB 70 Academic Distress Commission and appoint a CEO for the district. The local CEO in the Senate’s proposed plan would have had the power to fire principals and teachers, charterize the schools, privatize the schools, abrogate collective bargaining agreements, and even shut down schools. The plan was never enacted, but debate continued from late spring into September.

New FY 2022-2023 Ohio Budget Provides a Path to End State School Takeovers

The phase out in this year’s state budget of what’s called “The Youngstown Plan” has received little press coverage. But the plan is significant, though it does involve a three year process and significant state oversight all along the way.

The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explains: “The new plan gives districts three years to meet state-approved benchmarks, with the option to apply for up to two years of extensions. During that time, the powers of the CEO (appointed by the district’s Academic Distress Commission) are reduced to those of a regular superintendent, and the locally elected school board regains its power. The academic distress commission would remain in place until the district is fully released from the state’s purview. If a district does not meet its goals, it will revert back to state control as outlined by House Bill 70.”

Awareness of the failure of HB 70 has been building within the Ohio Department of Education. The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben quotes the state school superintendent expressing his loss of confidence in a program he once supported: “In a 2019 report about Academic Distress Commissions, the state’s superintendent of public instruction criticized the existence of the commissions saying they lacked the input of the local education administration and tried to fit unique academic situations into a ‘one size fits all approach.’ ‘While an Academic Distress Commission approach may produce some positive results, the potential for significant opposition makes it tremendously challenging for it to function in a way that leads to successful district turnaround,’ Superintendent Paolo DeMaria wrote in the report.”

Today the mood in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland is hopeful. The Youngstown Vindicator‘s Raymond L. Smith describes the reaction of Youngstown’s current elected school board president, who will no longer be shunted aside by the Academic Distress Commission: “Youngstown school board President Ronald Shadd said the board will look at multiple ways of preparing to move forward.  It will wait for results of a state performance audit of the district and will be working with CEO Justin Jennings and the Academic Distress Commission in making a plan for the district’s future… Shadd expressed appreciation to all those in the community—including (Rep.) Michelle Lepore-Hagan and Sen. Michael Ralli… who have been working toward a goal of local control.  School board member Brenda Kimble, the previous board president, said she is overjoyed the three school districts will have paths forward to move from under that system. ‘We have to make our plan and focus on ways to make it successful,’ she said.”

East Cleveland, Youngstown, and Lorain are among Ohio’s poorest communities.  In Ohio, we have all watched years of upheaval as state appointed Academic Distress Commissions put in place arrogant CEOs—Krish Mohip in Youngstown and David Hardy in Lorain—who fought with parents, teachers and the community at large. The attitude of the legislators who rammed through this program was shameful. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quoted then-Senator Bill Coley, who mused: “I think its maybe the wrong people are running the show and we need to try something different.”

Woytech quotes Lorain School Board President Mark Ballard: “This was a hard-fought battle over the last six years to right what we believe was a flawed approach to trying to improve schools… Our community wants local control and local oversight of our schools and today, we now have a path to make that a reality. This legislation is the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes work, dozens of trips to Columbus, and hours of discussions with the state.”

Ohio education finance expert, Howard Fleeter reminds us all, however, that in the new state budget, the Legislature failed to fund a significant increase in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, despite that full funding of this program in FY2022 had been a central part of the Fair School Funding Plan whose methodology was adopted into the state budget. Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland are three of Ohio’s school districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty. While the Legislature has done a good thing by providing a path for these districts out of state takeover, the Ohio Legislature has a responsibility to fund these districts adequately to address the urgent needs of their students. These districts will need significant assistance to meet the state’s conditions for the phase out of state takeover.

Ohio has a history of aggressive punishment of poor school districts and a failed history of helping them.