Wealth and Power Undermine Equity and Democracy Across Ohio’s Public School Districts

The operation of wealth and power has never been more evident in Ohio school politics than it is this month.

HUNTING VALLEY   In an op-ed this week, the retired editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin describes  an attempted state budget amendment that would have let residents of wealthy Hunting Valley in greater Cleveland off the hook from paying school taxes: “There are few wealthier towns in the country than Hunting Valley, a lovely little place with meandering streams, dense forests, winding roads and gorgeous homes, snuggling along and across Cuyahoga County’s eastern border. With a mean household income of $507,214 and average home value of about $1.3 million, the Higley 1000, using 2010 Census data, ranked Hunting Valley Ohio’s most affluent place and the nation’s 17th richest community… What a small minority of the 700 or so who live in Hunting Valley want is special treatment so recklessly selfish it would devastate the Orange public school system. Worse yet, it might just ignite a backlash in the 615 school districts throughout Ohio, perhaps harming 1.7 million public school children in the process.”

Last spring, Hunting Valley hired former speaker of the Ohio House and now lobbyist, Bill Batchelder to insert a tiny amendment into the huge Ohio budget to permit Hunting Valley to limit payment of school taxes to the Orange school district of which it is a part only to the amount required to cover the tiny number of the village’s children who enroll in Orange schools. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, alerted to Hunting Valley’s search for a way to help its residents avoid paying taxes, vetoed the amendment, but Larkin reports that some of Hunting Valley’s residents haven’t given up.

What alarms Larkin is the absence of civic responsibility among some of Hunting Valley’s privileged residents: “Millions of Ohioans with no children in the school system in which they live pay these property taxes—not necessarily because they like it, but because they understand it is the right thing to do, because they embrace the notion that educating our children is an essential element of sustaining our democracy.”

HILLS AND DALES   Then there is the amendment that did make it into the Ohio budget without a veto.  The Plain Dealer‘s Andrew J. Tobias reports this week that, “Ohio has lowered the bar communities must meet if they want to break away from their assigned school district and join another one. The little-noticed change was added as an amendment to the 3,000-page state budget bill signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in July. It’s drawing sharp criticism from public school officials lobbying to repeal it, and prompted a lawsuit from a Stark County school district that’s pledged to fight it from taking effect… Under the new law, people who live within a township containing more than one school district now can hold a vote on which district they want to send their children to. It supersedes the existing system that requires approval from the state board of education, which used to have to consider factors including the impact of the transfer would have on students.  School officials say the change will lead to more inequality in how schools are funded by making it easier for richer communities to break away.”

Tobias fills in the background of this new provision quietly slipped into the state budget: “(T)he request seems to trace back to Hills and Dales, an affluent Stark County village of about 200 people that for years has fought to change districts from its current Plain Local Schools to nearby Jackson Local Schools.  A group of Hills and Dales residents, including W.R. Timken, the politically connected ex-chairman and CEO of the Timken Company, in July wrote a letter backing the change to six lawmakers tasked with finalizing the state budget… (V)illage council minutes show Hills and Dales began its latest push to change school districts in February 2018.  They wanted an alternative to the existing process for changing schools, under which the State Board of Education in 2005 denied the village’s request to switch to Jackson Local Schools.  A state hearing officer ruled the move from Plain schools, where student enrollment was 74% white and 15% black, to Jackson Local Schools, which was 87% white and 2% black, would harm students because it would increase racial and socioeconomic isolation and financially hurt Plan schools.”

Tobias quotes Will Schwartz of the Ohio School Boards Association raising concerns about Hunting Valley’s and Hills and Dales’ attempts to change the law on behalf of powerful local residents: “These things are kind of popping up, sidestepping those good-government due process provisions… And we’re concerned.”

YOUNGSTOWN CASE HEARD THIS WEEK BY OHIO SUPREME COURT      Ironically other recent Ohio headlines capture urgent problems for school districts whose residents are less powerful. On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court held oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging Ohio’s 2015 law that set up state takeover of the state’s school districts with persistently low standardized test scores.  Despite that decades of research and a simple set of graphs from the Plain Dealer‘s data wonk Rich Exner demonstrate conclusively that a school district’s aggregate standardized test scores are a poor way to measure school quality because of their almost perfect correlation with the community’s median income, the state of Ohio has for four years now been punishing low scoring school districts with autocratic state takeover. Describing the case considered on Wednesday by the Ohio Supreme Court, the Associated Press reports: “At issue is a state law that shifted operational control of such districts from locally elected boards to unelected CEOs hired by state-appointed academic distress commissions, starting with one in Youngstown.  The Youngstown school board and school employees’ unions challenged the law, arguing it violates the Ohio Constitution by stripping school boards of their authority.  They also contend lawmakers violated a procedural rule—the “Three Reading Rule”—and skirted more thorough debate about significant changes made to the divisive House Bill 70 when it was pushed through the Legislature in one day in 2015.”  We will await the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, but even as the Court is considering the constitutionality of the law creating state school takeovers, the consequences in Youngstown and Lorain continue to play out.

STATE NOW TRIES TO REMOVE ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD IN YOUNGSTOWN     Earlier this month we learned about one more extension of autocratic state power, hidden in the fine print of HB 70 when it was passed in 2015. Even though HB 70 sidelines the locally elected school board when the state takes over, in Youngstown and Lorain, the law has permitted the election of a locally elected local school board. But there is another provision in HB 70 that has gone unnoticed until now: At the end of four years of state takeover, because the Youngstown school district earned another “F” on the state report card, the state will now replace the elected school board in Youngstown with a state-approved, mayoral-appointed school board.  This is to punish Youngstown for not raising its grade to “C” during four years of state takeover, a period when, ironically, the locally elected school board has had no role to play in the operation of Youngstown’s schools.  Since 2015, the state has been running the district through a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO to lead the school district.  The state’s operation of the school district has earned four years of “F” grades on the state report card, but HB 70 now triggers the state’s elimination of the locally elected school board.

LORAIN’S STATE TAKEOVER CEO, DAVID HARDY, IS BEING TERMINATED—FINALLY     The HB 70 state takeover has been a disaster in Lorain, the other Ohio district now four years into state takeover. Last week, members of the the state-appointed Academic Distress Commission in Lorain announced that their appointed CEO, David Hardy is being fired after four chaotic years. There have been problems from the start. The chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission quit last winter.  Last spring, after the state appointed a new chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission, the Elyria Chronicle Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explained: “Per Hardy’s contract, the commission was required to evaluate him after his first 180 days in the district, 365 days in the position and thereafter on a yearly basis.  None of those evaluations were completed.” The new Academic Distress Commission chair formally evaluated Hardy over the summer, and Woytach reported last week: “In August, Hardy received an ineffective rating from the commission for the 2018-19 school year.” His termination is currently being negotiated.

SCHOOL CLOSURES ANNOUNCED IN CLEVELAND     In the Cleveland school district, under another form of two-decades-old state takeover—state established mayoral governance and an appointed school board—the district announced a downsizing plan this week, a plan based on closing the storied Collinwood High School and ten other schools. Under-enrollment is the rationale.  The District says its schools now have 7,000 unused seats. At a hearing, Ohio state school board member Meryl Johnson raised concerns about the imbalance of closures affecting the city’s historically black East Side.

EQUITY CONCERNS ARISE AS NEW STATE BUDGET RADICALLY EXPANDS SCHOOL VOUCHERS     Buried in the new Ohio state budget is explosive growth of school vouchers for students to carry to private and religious schools. Students qualify for EdChoice Vouchers by living in the neighborhood school zone of a public school posting a low grade on the state’s report card. The number of such schools has ballooned, explains the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell, from 218 last year to 475 this school year.  Because Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers deduct the voucher directly from a school district’s budget, and because the new state budget expanded eligibility to include all of the state’s high school students enrolled in EdChoice designated schools—even students who have never previously been enrolled in a public school, some school districts are assuming an unbearable burden imposed unexpectedly in the state budget.

A new report from the Heights Coalition for Public Education, with information verified by the Ohio Legislative Services Commission, describes the plight for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School district, where many families who were already using religious schools are taking advantage of the new rules established in the budget.  The problem is made more serious because the school district’s state funding is capped at the 2019-2020 level due to revenue restrictions also set by the new state budget. The Heights Coalition’s report explains:  “The 2020-2021 biennium budget froze budgets at the FY 2019 level. Inadequate state aid will be stretched to cover a growing number of public school students and an avalanche of new voucher students. In CH-UH district, vouchers increased by 600 in FY 2020, of whom only 25 students left (were previously enrolled in) the CH-UH system.  At a minimum, the unfunded cost of vouchers for FY 2020 will be $7.28 million, an increase of $2.92 million in one year. This is not sustainable.”

Ohio operates four statewide voucher programs that eat up state and local funding for public schools. The Heights Coalition’s report explains how the funding mechanism for the EdChoice Vouchers program raises equity concerns: “The deduction method counts voucher students as if they are enrolled in the district where they reside. They generate for that district the same amount of state support as public school students. In CH-UH and most other districts in the state, the cost of a voucher is significantly more than the per pupil funding that voucher students generate. To cover the ‘unfunded’ part of each voucher, payments are transferred from state funds generated by that district’s public school students, creating an over-reliance on local property tax.”  This is complicated further when, as in the new budget, so many school districts’ state revenue is capped at last year’s level due to a state school funding formula which, most people agree, has been underfunded for so many years it has become unworkable. This year, without any additional money from the state, the
Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district will suddenly be paying for private school tuition vouchers for hundreds of new students who have always attended private schools.

Ohio’s school funding challenges are overwhelming. Funding from the state has been inadequate for years. But it isn’t merely a lack of investment in the state’s public education system. Dangerous challenges result from manipulation of power in Columbus and policies imposed autocratically to deny democratic participation in the school districts serving families in poverty. Communities with wealth and power have also been shameless in trying to protect their own interests.

State School Takeovers Steal Democracy, Ignore Poverty

The takeover of the public schools in New Orleans followed a natural catastrophe, the destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levies.  The mass charterization of the city’s schools is said by its proponents to have improved education for the children who have returned, but the takeover remains controversial. What is less controversial is the impact of the imposition of the Recovery School District on democratic ownership and governance.  I will always remember the words of a New Orleans mother who cried out at a national meeting, “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town.”

Politicians are rather cavalier about state school takeovers and the imposition of “achievement school districts” and “recovery school districts” when the families served by the schools are poor.  While New Jersey‘s governor Chris Christie would be unlikely to dismiss the role of the local school board in Montclair or Princeton, he didn’t hesitate to disdain the citizens of Newark when he proclaimed on television, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them.”

Tennessee‘s Achievement School District, created to seize the lowest-scoring 5 percent of that state’s schools, has been managing schools in Nashville and Memphis for some years without stunning success, despite the rhetoric on its website that says the state takeover is designed to “bust barriers” and “catapult” the low scoring schools “straight into the top 25 percent.”  Chris Barbic ran the Tennessee Achievement School District from May 2011 until late July, when he resigned after test scores had hardly risen and none of the schools reached the top 25 percent.

And in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder issued an executive order in mid-March to transfer the state body that has been overseeing the state takeover of low-scoring schools from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control.  His executive order declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes nor placed (sic) any of the identified low achieving schools.” Snyder was condemning the state takeover initiative he himself created several years ago.

Poor and mediocre results from a variety of top-down state takeover arrangements have not discouraged ideologues who believe low test scores in extremely poor communities are the result of inefficiency that can be improved from on-high.

In January, the state of Arkansas took over the public schools in Little RockBarclay Key, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a pubic school parent writes: “(O)n January 28, 2015, the state board of education voted 5-4 to take over the entire LRSD (Little Rock School District) on the pretense that six of our forty-eight schools were in ‘academic distress.'”   Key adds that the four school board members voting for the state takeover have direct ties to “foundations that are purposefully undermining our public schools”—the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Arkansans for Education Reform.

In New York in April, according to Capital Confidential, “the legislature and governor created a new section of State Education Law pertaining to school receivership.  In June, the Board of Regents approved new regulations to implement the provisions of the law.”  The new state plan will directly affect 20 “persistently struggling” schools and eventually a total of 144 that have been identified as “struggling,”   The “persistently struggling” schools will be assigned to an “inside receiver,” most likely the superintendent of their school district, but the receiver will now have the capacity to lengthen the school day or school year, re-negotiate the union contract, change the budget and curriculum, or to convert the school to a charter or a full-service community school.  If schools do not improve within a year, they will be taken over by an outside receiver.

In early July, when Scott Walker finally signed the state budget in Wisconsin, tucked into the budget bill was the takeover of the Milwaukee School District.  Rob Peterson, founder of Rethinking Schools magazine and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, explains: “In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a ‘takeover’ plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools.  The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a ‘commissioner’ who will have parallel power with the MPS school board. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up to five every year thereafter.”

In Ohio at the end of June, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  She attached her amendment to a very popular bill designed to support expansion of the number of full-service, wraparound community learning centers in Ohio.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.

And in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal considers his greatest achievement the establishment of a statewide “Opportunity School District,” designed, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to “give the state the power to seize control of failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.”  In Georgia, unlike the other states named in this post, a majority of the voters must approve the measure in 2016 before it will take effect.  It has, however, already begun to affect the state’s education politics.  The designer of the Opportunity School District plan, Erin Hames—Governor Deal’s top education policy adviser—just resigned from her state position to sign a no-bid contract with the Atlanta Public Schools to advise the school district on how to avoid the very policy she created—the state takeover of 27 low-scoring schools.

Myra Blackmon, columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald, commented on this convoluted situation in Sunday’s paper: “Recently, we learned that Erin Hames, Gov. Nathan Deal’s education minion, is leaving her job.  In her new role, she’ll be paid $96,000 a year by the Atlanta Public School system to help it avoid becoming a victim of the Opportunity School District plan which Hames developed and rammed through the state legislature… But it gets worse.  Hames’ new consulting company filed its corporate papers on August 5, just four business days before the Atlanta Board of Education’s August 11 vote on her no-bid contract… This is how the self-selected ‘education reformers’ operate.  Their motive is profit and personal advancement.  They love the idea of schools run by private organizations….  It defies the values of local control in favor of centralized, easily managed power—all the while claiming ‘it’s for the children.'”

State school takeovers, whatever their form, fail to address what research has long confirmed is a primary factor that affects school achievement: poverty and especially concentrated neighborhood poverty.  Here is the analysis of Paul Jargowsky, a Rutgers University social scientist, about the demographic trend in the very type of school district being targeted with state takeover of low-scoring public schools: “Nationwide, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods and the population living in them has risen at an alarming pace… In the 2005-09 ACS data, before the financial crisis took hold, high-poverty census tracts increased by nearly one-third, to 3,310…. by 2009-13, an additional 1,100 tracts had poverty rates of 40 percent or more, bringing the total to 4,412. The overall increase in high-poverty census tracts since 2000 was 76 percent… The total population of these high-poverty neighborhoods has also grown… (S)ince the 2000 low, the number of persons living in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or more has grown by 91 percent… One of the primary concerns about high-poverty neighborhoods is the potential impact on child and adolescent development.  Indeed, William Julius Wilson stressed the lack of positive role models within the social milieu of urban ghettos.  High-poverty neighborhoods produce high-poverty schools, and both the school and neighborhood contexts affect student achievement.”

State school takeovers have no impact whatsoever on concentrated poverty.  They do steal democracy and local control, however, in poor communities.