Essential Reading: Peter Greene’s Expose of Ohio’s State Takeover of the Lorain City Schools

Retired high school English teacher in Western Pennsylvania, prolific blogger—and recently a columnist on education at Forbes Magazine, Peter Greene has published the tragic story of the state takeover of the school district where he spent his very first year of teaching—in Lorain, Ohio.

His post is long and filled with details, but if you live in Ohio, you should feel guilty if you don’t sit down and read the whole thing.

And if you live in another state, you should also read OH: Lorain, HB 70, and a Reformy Attack.  Why?  Because it is very same story as what happened in Flint, Michigan (see here and here) when a state-appointed emergency manager arrogantly and ignorantly oversaw the lead poisoning of the city’s water supply.  And it is the very same story as what happened to Newark, New Jersey’s schools under the bungled state-appointed manager, Cami Anderson, (see here) who refused to attend the meetings of the locally elected school board.

Greene’s tale of Lorain, Ohio is the story of the actions of the legislatures in lots of states where people from rural areas and little towns disdain the people who live in urban communities where poverty is concentrated—places where the poorest citizens are segregated in school districts where test scores lag. These days lots of states prefer to punish the school district instead of investing.  Ignoring decades of research that correlate lagging test scores with neighborhood and family poverty, and wooed by corporate reform ideologues preaching school governance by appointed school boards and CEOs, our society has allowed itself be snookered by politicians who think it is best to deny local control in poor school districts.

Greene’s story is about Ohio and House Bill 70, slammed through the Legislature in one day without debate in June of 2015.  The Legislature was considering a bill that would have expanded full-service, wraparound schools—the kind with health and dental clinics and social services for families right at school.  But Governor John Kasich and his friend Dick Ross, then state superintendent, had created a long amendment that would permit the state to take over any school district with three years of low ratings.  It was introduced; debate was not permitted; and a vote was taken.  The amendment gutted the bill’s original purpose and instead brought us the Youngstown takeover, then the Lorain takeover, and now, this year, the East Cleveland takeover.

HB 70 state takeovers are a big concern in Ohio today, because, as in other states, Ohio’s test scores are not steadily rising (as No Child Left Behind promised they would), and within the next few years more and more districts will fall under the axe of HB 70. Under this law, when the state takes over, the state appoints an Academic Distress Commission, which in turn hires a CEO to manage the district.

Peter Greene describes the power HB 70 awards to the state-appointed school district CEO: “replacing administration and central office staff, assigning employees to schools, allocating teacher class loads and class sizes, (writing) job descriptions for employees, setting the school calendar, setting the district budget, setting grade ‘configuration,’ determining the school curriculum, selecting instructional materials and assessments, making reductions in staff, (and) establishing employee compensation.”

Greene also fills in the details of the collapse of community support and morale under the Lorain District’s first appointed CEO: David Hardy.  It began when the Lorain Academic Distress Commission hired a search firm to find a CEO, Atlantic Research Partners based in Chicago: “ARP was co-founded by Joseph Wise, after he was fired from the superintendent post in Duval County, Florida for ‘serious ‘conduct’ deemed ‘injurious’ which included ‘not communicating or acting in good faith with board members during budget discussions’… Of the five finalists, ARP had connections to four.  One of the four was connected by virtue of attending the National Superintendents Academy, another property that Wise bought up. The National Superintendents Academy was previously known as SUPES Academy—a name you may remember from the massive sandal involving Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her federal indictment for bribery in Chicago… The National Superintendents Academy graduate was David Hardy, Jr., and his resume is loaded with reform credentials.”

Greene describes Hardy’s “corporate education reform” career with an adjective I did not previously know, but it perfectly describes the people who move from job to job within the ideological “corporate education reform” world.  No matter how the person fails to turn around schools in one particular job, that person rises.  Greene calls it “failing upward.”

Greene depicts the arrogance Hardy has demonstrated in Lorain. Hardy drives to work in Lorain each day from Lakewood, Ohio, because he has been very clear that he cannot possibly be expected to move his family to Lorain.

HB 70 leaves a school district’s locally elected board of education intact, while it removes virtually all of the school board’s power.  Like Cami Anderson in Newark, Hardy has refused to attend meetings of Lorain’s elected school board: “On the one hand, his (strategic) plan is loaded with community building and community partnerships.  But on the other hand, Hardy has had troubled relationships with many of the parties during his time. The school board was an early opponent—not entirely a surprise… and they passed a unanimous resolution of ‘no confidence’ in March, saying that Hardy ‘has irresponsibly spent taxpayer money on administration and out of state firms and has made zero investment in the classroom.’  They have also complained about the lack of communication, information and cooperation. The board invited Hardy to meetings, but he declined, indicating that he doesn’t have to attend board meetings because he doesn’t answer to them. By November the board president was asking the state to investigate, listing fourteen separate bones of contention.”

“And then there’s the State of the District speech, a state of the union speech for the district usually delivered to live stakeholders.  Hardy chose to deliver it by video instead.”

Greene points to one hopeful sign: Ohio’s new Governor Mike DeWine, unlike Governor Kasich who disdained school teachers and drove through HB 70, has articulated some sensitivity to the problems in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland. Greene quotes Governor DeWine:  “One of the concerns, one of the things that we have seen in Youngstown, Lorain, is the obvious loss of local control, and we’re seeing some of the dynamics that result from the loss of local control.  We are a very local government state… We like it that way, most of us do.  Most of us think that problems get solved locally, so I’ve got some people working on this and we are working with some legislators on this, actually, but I really can’t go into any more details at this point.”

If you live in Ohio, please read all of Peter Greene’s detailed and profound story of the destruction of democracy—and of the school district—in Lorain.  Follow up by writing Governor DeWine to thank him for his concern about HB 70 and to ask him to work with his colleagues in the Legislature to get the law repealed.  Unless state takeovers of schools are stopped, Ohio is on a path to take over more and more local school districts.

State takeovers have not worked anywhere where they have been tried.  Michigan’s title for its state-appointed CEOs actually names their purpose: emergency fiscal managers. School districts where all the children are very poor—districts with concentrated poverty—need additional funding to meet the needs of their students and families.  But state takeovers are supposed to substitute for investment. The CEOs and emergency managers are instead supposed to raise test scores without additional investment.