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)

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Youngstown Legislators Engage Community to Push Back Against Youngstown Takeover

Senator Joe Schiavoni, Ohio’s Senate Minority Leader, and State Representative Michele Lepore-Hagan spent the summer holding community meetings throughout Youngstown, Ohio to develop strategies to amend the Ohio legislature’s autocratically imposed Youngstown school takeover.  Their goal: develop political will in Youngstown to demand that the Youngstown plan be bent to support the needs of Youngstown’s children and families.  I had the privilege of talking with these two community leaders last week.

The new Youngstown takeover, which expands what has for 10 years been state involvement in the Youngstown City Schools, prescribes that the district be managed by an appointed Distress Commission instead of the local school board.  The takeover was sprung on an unsuspecting public at an afternoon hearing in late June when Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner introduced a 66-page amendment to a bill with widespread popular support—to expand Community Learning Centers in Ohio. (“Community Learning Center” is Ohio’s term for what the rest of the country calls full-service, wraparound “Community Schools” that locate health and dental clinics, social service coordination, afterschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, and summer enrichment programs right in school buildings. Cincinnati has been experimenting very successfully with expanding the number of these schools. The Children’s Aid Society in New York City has been developing this model for 20 years now.)  When Senator Lehner introduced to the Community Learning Center bill her amendment  for the Youngstown takeover—along with the state takeover in the future of any school district with three years of “F” school ratings—the amendment had been written and polished for several months by staff in Governor John Kasich’s office and the Ohio Department of Education, working secretly with a handful of carefully selected community “leaders” from Youngstown.

The goal of the takeover was always to turn the district or particular schools over to a charter management organization.  Not coincidentally, the Youngstown takeover was the centerpiece of a charter school expansion grant proposal submitted by the Ohio Department of Education in July to the U.S. Department of Education and subsequently funded. The Youngstown takeover amendment states that an Academic Distress Commission, in consultation with the State Superintendent, may create an entity to act as a “high-quality school accelerator” to promote new charter schools.  The CEO of the Distress Commission may abrogate or renegotiate any contracts and collective bargaining agreements.

State takeovers always happen in very poor, often desperate communities—New Orleans, post Katrina—Detroit—Newark, New Jersey.  In his 2013 book The Unwinding, George Packer traces the story of Tammy Thomas, a proud Youngstown resident who describes what has happened to Youngstown during her lifetime: “I grew up in a place where you could sit on my front porch and you could smell the sulfur in the air… And everybody in that community was working.  We were a hundred fifty thousand people at that time… One day, the jobs left. September of ’77, the mills stopped working. We lost over fifty thousand jobs within a ten-year time frame.  I was fortunate enough as an adult that I was able to get a job at Packard (Electric). Eleven thousand jobs in its heyday, down to three thousand jobs, and when we all left it had less than six hundred jobs. I just want to let you know that story of Youngstown is the epitome of any older industrial city across the United States.” (p. 412)

In the most recent 2010 data I could locate, 86.68 percent of the students in Youngstown’s public schools qualify for the federal free lunch program. To qualify for free lunch, a child’s family must have annual earnings under 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,250 in 2015 for a family of four), less than $31,525.  The percentage of Youngstown’s school children qualifying for free-or-reduced-price lunch, 90.38 percent, is only slightly higher.  The fact that so many children fall into the free-lunch category means that Youngstown’s schools serve a student population living in highly concentrated poverty.  Last week Senator Schiavoni explained that Youngstown already has an open enrollment program that permits children to transfer to surrounding school districts or charter schools and Youngstown’s children qualify for Ohio’s private school vouchers.  He speculates that the Youngstown schools are serving approximately 50 percent of the children who live in Youngstown and that many of the children who have left are those whose parents are able to be most active advocates.  The children enrolled in Youngstown’s public schools are the city’s most vulnerable.

Although many poor children can and do thrive at school, the aggregate test scores in our nation’s poorest cities are primarily a reflection of the concentrated poverty of the residents.  In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112)  State takeovers that impose privatized school governance in impoverished communities ignore the correlation of test scores and family poverty and blame the schools and their teachers.

After the legislature’s sudden seizing of the governance of Youngstown’s schools, Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan immediately set up a town hall to hear the community’s response to the state takeover and then scheduled meetings across the city during the remainder of the summer to listen to the needs of parents, students and residents of Youngstown.  Senator Schiavoni reports that, “One of the most common critiques from the stakeholder meetings was the disconnect in communication between parents, the community and the schools.  Parents want to be involved as partners as the plan moves forward.” Schavoni and Lepore-Hagan have introduced a bill (companion bills in the Ohio Senate and Ohio House) to amend and modify the plan.  Their bill demands transparency from the members of the Distress Commission that has just been appointed and from the CEO the Distress Commission will appoint.  Their proposed bill reflects parents’ wishes that promising existing practices not be thrown out as a new experiment is instituted—programs that pair Youngstown State University tutors with second graders, and model afterschool programming and community partnerships with churches, the United Way,  the YMCA, and the university.  Lepore-Hagan explains that the proposed amendment to improve the Youngstown Plan requires that the CEO meet personally each month with an eleven-member School Action Team from each of the city’s schools.

Schiavoni and Lepore-Hagan emphasize one provision of the takeover and the original bill to which it was amended—for wraparound Community Learning Centers.  Their proposed bill insists that at least one Community Learning Center (what the rest of the country calls  a Community School) be established in Youngstown.  “The CEO should implement a CLC model in at least one of the school buildings in the district.” “The CEO should work to expand much-needed mental health, drug treatment, dental, and physician services and other community programs…. The CEO should employ a Resource Coordinator for the District to assist in the development and coordination of programs and services for the District Community Learning Centers.”

The flavor-of-the-day in school reform across so many statehouses is for autocratic takeover and charterization of the poorest school districts.  State takeovers have not succeeded anywhere they have been tried.  Ohio’s Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan are pushing back with a plan that models democratic engagement.