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Janresseger: As Ohio Budget Negotiations Drag On, Conference Committee Should Leave State School Takeovers Out of the Budget

This morning, July 1, marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for Ohio. Yesterday was the deadline for passage of a new budget to pay for the functions of state government for the next biennium—fiscal years 2020 and 2021.  But instead over the weekend, members of the Legislature passed a 17 day budget extension to keep the state operating while members of the Senate/House conference committee wrangle.

One of the biggest conflicts between House and Senate is over the misguided state school district takeovers established in the 2015, House Bill 70, a bill which was fast tracked through the Legislature without open hearings.

HB 70 has proven a catastrophe.  You may remember that just two months ago, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers.  Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular, bipartisan fashion by a margin of 83/12. The House also included the repeal of HB 70 in HB 166, the House version of the FY 20-21 biennial budget.

The Ohio Senate has also been considering state school district takeovers. Distrusting teachers, school administrators, and locally elected school boards in Ohio’s poorest school districts where test scores lag, members of the Ohio Senate removed from the budget bill the House language to repeal the state school takeovers.  Senator Peggy Lehner and the Senate Education Committee she chairs convened a working group to create a complicated amendment to replace the current HB 70 state takeovers with another form of state control called the Ohio School Transformation Plan. Lehner’s committee is dominated by members of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Lobbyists from the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute and the business lobby, Ohio Excels, have also been pressing for the Senate’s School Transformation Plan.

As of this morning, we do not know whether the Senate will succeed in getting Lehner’s amendment for the Ohio School Transformation Plan inserted into the final Ohio budget.  Advocating that the Legislature eliminate state takeovers, the editorial board of the Toledo Blade reported on Friday that House Speaker Larry Householder “wants the conference committee to put a moratorium on school takeovers in the pending budget bill and later work out a resolution.”

Because the elimination of HB 70 state school takeovers is so urgently important, today’s blog post will review what this blog has—over the past two months—explained are alarming problems with the Ohio School Transformation amendment Lehner and her committee have tried to include in the Senate Budget.

Here is a bit of history.  In June of 2015, House Bill 70 was rushed through the Legislature to prescribe that, based on aggregate standardized test scores, the state would take over any school district with three years of “F” ratings on the state report card.  The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed Chief Executive Officers for four years.  East Cleveland is currently undergoing state takeover.  Academic Distress Commission-appointed CEOs In Youngstown and Lorain have proven autocratic in their disdain for the locally elected school boards who, under HB 70, continue to be elected but have no remaining power.  Both CEOs have refused to live in or educate their own children in communities where they oversee the public schools.  David Hardy, Lorain’s CEO, has managed to make enemies of the mayor, the city council, the locally elected school board, the teachers, the students at the high school, and even several members of the Academic Distress Commission who appointed him.

In addition to the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland, other Ohio school districts facing state takeover in the next two years are: Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill. What dominates every one of these school districts is the concentration of poverty.  Many of these communities are majority black and brown.

The School Transformation Plan—which the Ohio Senate hopes to include in the now-stalled state budget—pretends to leave the power for running the school district in local hands.  It pretends not to be a state takeover.  But in fact under the plan, while local people are still in place, their decisions will now be overseen by a new state agency.  Local school administrators will now also operate under the “guidance” of an outside consultant approved by the state agency.  Here are the details of the Senate’s plan:

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three consecutive years would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.”
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent; the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here the plan copies the school turnaround options in the now-discredited federal No Child Left Behind Act—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”

The Senate’s proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan’s rests on several mistaken assumptions. The plan assumes: first, that test scores are a pure and accurate measure of what a school district is accomplishing, and second, that school governance is the problem. The assumption is that a state approved School Improvement Director with support from consultants will know how to raise test scores quickly. Years of state takeovers in other states have failed to confirm that aggregate test scores can be rapidly raised. And nobody I know can tell me where there are consultants who actually know how to transform a school district’s aggregate standardized test scores in a year or two. There is also evidence that such an obsession with raising test scores narrows the curriculum and distorts schooling.

In an excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, examined essential supports that would be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago, the poorest schools in a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty. The families these school serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused… ” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 173)

The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the use of standardized testing, demonstrates that high-stakes standardized testing is a flawed way to measure the quality of a school.  Standardized test scores in the aggregate merely tell us that the so-called “failing school” is likely to be located in a neighborhood or community where the residents are struggling with poverty:

“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)

The Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan is merely another top-down scheme to prescribe governance changes as the cure when a district’s test scores lag. It is a paternalistic plan that assumes school district administrators don’t know enough and teachers aren’t working hard enough. Like the federal law that didn’t work, the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Plan assumes that the legislators can snap their fingers and prescribe that school districts will leave no child behind. It assumes that school districts can cure our society’s failure to overcome the tragedy of concentrated family poverty.

Instead of inserting the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan into the 2020-2021 biennial state budget, the Ohio Legislature should consider carefully the needs of Ohio’s school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty. The Ohio Senate needs to pass HB 154 to eliminate the catastrophic the HB 70 state takeovers. Then the Legislature needs to invest significantly in smaller classes, more counselors, more social workers, more nurses, more librarians, more wraparound social and medical services, and more school enrichment. The state needs to begin adequately supporting rather than punishing its very poorest school districts.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...