Monday, April 29, 2019

OH: The Ongoing Fight To End School Takeovers

I have been watching events unfold in Lorain, Ohio, site of both my first job and an absolute clusterfrick of epic proportions It's time for an update.

You can find the complete story so far starting here, but the short form is that Ohio has a bone stupid law known as HB 70, passed using underhanded legislative shenanigans in order to get it run through quickly and without public discussion. The law takes over school districts that score low on state evaluations too many years and installs a mostly-state-appointed board which in turn hires a school tsar. HB 70 strips the powers from both the elected school board and the district superintendent and hands them to the tsar. So far, Lorain, East Cleveland, and Youngstown have been put under the HB thumb. Knowing how the Big Standardized Test effects class and economics, you will be unsurprised that these are three of the poorest districts in the state.

State superintendent DeMaria: Everything's great, right?
In Lorain, it has not gone well. The tsar, David Hardy Jr, is a TFA product with little actual experience, who has brought in other TFAers, also with little real experience, to help run things. Hardy writes pretty speeches about collaboration and relationships, but he doesn't live in Lorain, won't meet with local elected officials, and has adopted a management style that improbably combines Chainsaw Al and the Three Stooges.

There have been lessons to learn from Hardy's reign. For instance, Lorain appears to answer the question "What would happen if you tried out some charter school management techniques not on newby teachers who didn't know any better, but on seasoned veterans who can tell that it's a bunch of baloney?" (Answer: morale plummets and your staff revolts.) Hardy is also a great study in how educational amateurs with a data fixation do not help (in East Cleveland, they're in the process of selecting a tsar, and one candidate already has a 90-day plan; in Lorain, Hardy is still collecting data).

In Hardy's defense, it has to be said that HB 70 is a terrible law that sets the tsar up for failure. Because the state-powered tsar is an all-powerful autocrat who is supposed to fix a district with serious problems, he has to be expert in all areas of school district management, from bus schedules to scope and sequence of all subject areas. He must also be the kind of diplomat who can sell, "Hi! The state sent me to strip all your local control and change everything about your local schools, and if that doesn't work, dismantle it and give it to charter operators. Who would like to cooperate with me?" And yes-- you'll note that the district's failure represents success for the fans of charter expansion. Does this takeover come with extra resources, financial and otherwise, from the state to help turn the district around? Ha! What a cute question. Of course not.

The only good to come out of Lorain's experience is that it has drawn attention to the myriad flaws of HB 70. Affected districts have sued. Ohio's current governor-- the one who wasn't instrumental in ramming HB 70 through-- has expressed sympathy with the need to change things up.

Better not to hope for help coming from the Ohio department of education; the current state superintendent is Paolo DeMaria, a fan of school choice and Common Core whose background is finance and budget-- he has never worked in a school district, but he is part of Jeb Bush's reformy Chiefs for Change (as is Hardy). He has proposed a revamp to the laws, but much of that involves giving more power to his office; he also proposes removing the last power remaining to an elected school board-- the power to levy taxes. A recent exchange of emails between DeMaria and school board president Mark Ballard suggests that DeMaria really doesn't have much of a clue. In fact, he suggested that Ballard is pushing conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, DeMaria's hand picked replacement for the departed head of the Academic Distress Commission (ADC) is Randall Sampson. Sampson ran into some issues immediately, such as the fact that after over two years, Hardy still hasn't had an evaluation. He has gotten cranky with folks like the actual elected mayor of Lorain, a problem that he has solved by blocking people on social media. Sampson's day job is running Liberty Leadership Development LLC, a company that does school turnarounds; he touts years of experience as a teacher and administrator, but his LinkedIn profile shows just one year in a classroom.

So there's not much hope of help there, either. There's just one ray of sunshine on the state level-- actually, three rays.

There are three bills currently kicking around the state legislature.

HB 127 would put a stop to further state takeovers. It would not help the three districts currently under the gun, but it would keep the cancer from spreading.

HB 154 is considerably more aggressive; it would dissolve the current ADCs, repeal HB 70, and create a whole new process for handling struggling school districts.

SB 110 is a Lorain-specific fix, addressing the issues the citizens of Lorain are facing.

These bills are not slated for a special late-night speedy approval, so there will be actual discussion and opportunity for input. That means they're better than HB 70 already.

Lorain city schools have sacrificed local control, morale, and stability to become a disproof of concept city for state takeovers. They are more evidence of the major flaws the central premise of state school takeovers-- that somebody in the state capitol knows a special secret to running schools that people who actually work in schools do not. They are also evidence that amateurs from outside the community are generally not the people to turn to for answers.

We'll keep watching to see if the legislature brings relief. In the meantime, if you live in Ohio, it's time to make some phone calls.

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