Ohio lawmakers scrap elected school boards and union contracts,

…usher in private control after barring opposition testimony5602523_G

In a bold move that has the potential for booting teachers unions from schools, stripping local voters of their authority over their school districts and turning operations over to for-profit companies, the Ohio legislature introduced and passed legislation in a matter of hours with no opportunity for the public to deliver opposition testimony.

The bill began innocuously in the House as an effort to help communities turn schools into comprehensive learning centers for the neighborhood. The bill passed from the House to the Senate a month ago with an overwhelming 92-6 vote.

Almost everyone liked it — until Wednesday.

The Ohio Federation of Teachers, one of the state’s unions representing teachers, was prepared to testify in favor of the bill as it headed for a committee vote.

But Melissa Cropper, president of the union, got wind of the amendment that could disenfranchise unions and voters and turn operations over to private interests.

When it came time for her to speak, she attempted to oppose the new provision, but was told that the amendment had not yet been offered, so she could not address it.

She sat down. The amendment was introduced and four men in line behind her who had traveled from Youngstown stepped up to give favorable testimony.

They were Youngstown State University president Jim Tressel; Youngstown Diocese Bishop George Murry — whose organization of parochial schools would become eligible to receive state payment for children attending his schools; local chamber of commerce President Thomas Humphries; and Connie Hathorn, a former Akron school administrator who — as superintendent of Youngstown City Schools — has failed to turn around the struggling school system and will quit to take a job in Arkansas at the end of the month.

The bill quickly passed out of committee, went to the Senate floor where it passed with no support from Democrats and some opposition from Republicans — 18-14 — moved late at night to the House for concurrence, and again passed with opposition from both sides and a vote of 55-40, far different from its initial support.

Within 12 hours of introduction, it went to Gov. John Kasich for his consideration.

His office was supportive.

“Children in chronically failing schools don’t deserve to be abandoned, they need our help, badly,” said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols. “These long overdue reforms to Ohio’s support system for failing schools will bring hope to these kids, parents and educators. And the governor applauds the local and state leaders who had the courage to stand up and help lead these needed changes.”

Youngstown first target

The discussion centered on Youngstown, which has been guided by an academic distress commission since 2010. The change has the potential to accelerate school choice, sending more children and public dollars to charter and private schools.

Lorain, the other Ohio school district in academic distress, must perform poorly another two years before it falls under the new provision, Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said.

Because the bill passed so quickly and state reports cards won’t include all the required information until next year, it is not clear how many other districts could be affected.

Last-minute maneuver

Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Kettering Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, was the one who attached the plan to the otherwise popular House Bill 70 Wednesday morning.

Teachers are decrying the bill’s privatization of the public education system.

Democrats voiced disapproval on the Senate floor, saying the change does little to address the root cause of social, economic and educational issues in the struggling Mahoning Valley town.

Youngstown has the highest poverty rate among Ohio’s 10 major cities and it is eighth in the nation for poverty among more than 550 ranked cities.

“It appears that it’s blaming the teachers, that it’s blaming the administrators in Youngstown, when we all know that the challenges in Ohio’s urban cores go beyond what a teacher or administrator can do,” said Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati.

“Haste makes waste and mistakes,” said Sen. Charletta Tavares of Columbus. She said this was a last-minute insertion in a bill designed to expand a Cincinnati-area program where community, health, private and public agencies offer wraparound services in schools to address the adverse impact of poverty.

“We are changing the state policy on education that applies to every school district in the state, not just Youngstown,” Sen. Michael Skindell of Lakewood said of the potential for the program to spread. “It seems to incentivize students to go from a failing public school to a failing charter school.”

He added: “Gosh, I wish we would be moving as fast on the failing charter schools in this state.”

The Ohio Department of Education, in conjunction with the governor’s office, has been working on this plan for months.

“I know that ODE has participated in discussions and in the drafting of the legislation,” said spokesman John Charlton, who noted the program is “somewhat unprecedented.”

Academic Distress Commissions have been in place since 2007, Charlton explained, but have not made significant progress in Youngstown.

“Bottom line,” Charlton said, “is that it is not fair to the students and parents who trust their schools to provide for their educations, the local educators and community leaders who have played by the system’s rules, or the communities whose futures depend on educated, skilled citizens. It’s time for a change. Kids in academically struggling schools can’t wait any longer; we need to make immediate improvements to the support system.”

Schools that receive three consecutive ‘Fs’ on state report cards will be taken over by the revamped academic distress commission, which consists of three members appointed by the state superintendent, another by the local mayor and a teacher selected by the local school board president.

The commission then hires a CEO, who doesn’t have to be an educator but must have “high-level management experience.” The CEO is paid up to $150,000 directly by the Ohio Department of Education.

The academic distress commission also can hire an “independent entity” — possibly a for-profit company — to oversee and promote local charter schools. The state’s private school voucher program also opens up to any student who would otherwise attend the academically distressed school district, regardless of how well the nearest school building in that system performs.

Schools can get out of academic distress if they earn a C grade on the report card and no more Fs in the next two years. Though overall grades aren’t out yet, 59 percent of all grades given last year to Ohio’s eight largest and poorest urban school districts were Fs.

When tested, students who live and attend public school in Youngstown rank low. One in seven students, however, attend school in neighboring suburbs through open enrollment, a process that skews the district’s performance.

Studies by the Mahoning County Educational Service Center and the Beacon Journal show that students who left Akron or Youngstown tended to be higher performing students. Students who lack personal transportation to attend a neighboring district generally are those who score lower and depress the district’s overall grade.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 ordlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow on Twitter: @DougLivingstonABJ.

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