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Desperate Times in Cleveland and Ohio

Dear Deborah,

I recently went to Cleveland to speak to the City Club, where civic leaders gather every Friday to hear from people in different fields. I wanted to talk with educators as well, so I spoke to the Cleveland Teachers Union on the evening of Feb. 2, and to district administrators on Feb. 3, before addressing the City Club.

On my drive from the airport with Jan Resseger, the minister for public education for the United Church of Christ, we passed through several neighborhoods. First, Shaker Heights, an elegant suburban enclave with outstanding schools. Then East Cleveland, a very different suburb, marked by blocks of boarded-up apartment houses and sealed homes, as well as empty lots where vacant houses had been demolished. These were once-functional neighborhoods that had died. So devastated was the landscape, I thought I might be in a Third World country. In central Cleveland, many houses had windows covered with plywood, and many retail stores were empty. To put it mildly, this city is economically depressed.

After I spoke to the teachers, one came up and introduced herself as a 4th grade teacher. She said: "Thank you for giving me hope. I wish I could give some to my students. They have no hope for the future." That was the saddest thing I heard on my visit.

Cleveland has a level of urban decay that is alarming. Yet its municipal leaders have decided that their chief problem is bad teachers. Surely, I thought, the teachers didn't cause the flight of employers from the city, the collapse of its manufacturing base, and the massive loss of home mortgages.

But sure enough, Cleveland—and the state of Ohio—plans to attack its economic woes by creating more charter schools and supplying merit pay to teachers able to raise test scores. The leaders want to make it easier to fire teachers and to remove seniority. That's the mayor's plan to reform education in Cleveland. Mayor Frank Jackson, like Governor John Kasich, thinks that school choice is the remedy for the education woes of Cleveland and Ohio. So, of course, they both want more charters.

Cleveland has had mayoral control since 1995, so if mayoral control was the answer to urban woes, it should have happened here. It hasn't. Cleveland is one of the poorest, most racially segregated, and lowest-performing districts in the nation. According to data in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Cleveland's school population is 85 percent black and Hispanic, and 100 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Ohio has made a big bet on charter schools. It has an aggressive and entrepreneurial charter sector. About 100,000 of the state's 1.8 million students are enrolled in charter schools, but charter enrollment is far higher in the state's "Big 8" urban districts. About 25 percent (give or take a point or two) of students attend charters in Dayton, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Toledo.

The average public school teacher in Cleveland is paid about $66,000, while the average charter school teacher in that city receives about $33,000 a year. That's a big cost saving for the city and state. Most charters are non-union, and teachers have no job protections or employment rights. It appears that charters have a business plan in which they keep costs low by teacher turnover, low levels of experience, and low salaries.

As in other states, charters in Ohio get no better academic results on average than regular public schools. There are more charters at the bottom in the state's academic rating ("academic emergency" or "academic watch"), but not much difference in the middle or at the top. A study in 2009 by CREDO of Stanford found that "new charter school students have an initial loss of learning in both reading and math compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. In subsequent years, charter school students receive no significant benefit in reading from charter school attendance compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. However, charter school students continue significant losses of learning in math after the first year of attendance."

The biggest charter chain in Ohio is White Hat Management, a for-profit corporation run by Akron businessman David Brennan. Brennan and his family have contributed millions of dollars to Republican candidates over the past decade. White Hat manages 46 charter schools, both online and free-standing, most in Ohio. State law gives the corporation power to hire and fire board members as well as staff members. Board members in 10 White Hat schools sued the management company to find out where the money was going; management has received hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding, and the boards said they didn't know where the money was spent. State law gives the corporation ownership of everything purchased with taxpayer dollars.

Just last week, an Ohio court ruled that White Hat must open its books to individual charter boards, if they request to see them. But at the same time, the company is under no obligation to reveal its spending of public funds to public officials. This really illustrates the essence of privatization. A public entity must open its books to public scrutiny. The legislature could fix this, but it is hard to imagine that it would get tough with one of the state's major Republican contributors.

There's nothing special about the performance of this particular charter chain. According to information compiled by NPR in Ohio, "No Ohio White Hat school earned higher than the equivalent of a "C" on the state report cards. Most are in academic watch or emergency." In the company's view, the state grades are unimportant; all that matters is that parents are making a choice.

Ohio has also been fertile territory for virtual schools, some of which are owned by White Hat. The state has pumped more than $1 billion into them over the past decade, but they have gotten disappointing results. Of 23 e-schools in Ohio, only three were rated "effective" by the state. InnovationOhio, a watchdog group in the state, concluded that the e-schools are "vastly underperforming" and that "children are nearly 10 times more likely to receive an 'effective' education in traditional public school than they are in E- schools." But, quite frankly, sponsors of these schools make huge amounts of money, and where there is money, there are lobbyists and campaign contributions.

Governor Kasich also wants more vouchers for Ohio. Cleveland has had vouchers since 1995. Students who use vouchers to attend private schools in Cleveland perform no better on state tests than students in regular Cleveland public schools. When you consider that Cleveland is one of the lowest-performing school districts in the nation on NAEP, this doesn't say much for the power of vouchers as a tool to "rescue" students or to improve achievement or even test scores.

Yet there you have it. The leaders of one of the most economically depressed and racially segregated cities in the nation have decided that the answer to its problems is to fire teachers, close public schools, expand the number of charters, and possibly to expand the voucher program as well.

In the eyes of Ohio's elected officials, evidence about the past performance of charters and vouchers means nothing.

And about those children in the 4th grade in Cleveland who have no hope for the future, who probably live in one of those desolate neighborhoods surrounded by boarded-up homes and empty lots. There is nothing in the mayor or governor's plans to offer them hope. The illusion of hope, perhaps.

But they aren't thinking about those children. They are thinking about how to cut costs. They will keep hiring private firms to run schools. The private firms will fire those expensive teachers who earn a living wage and hire newcomers willing to work long hours for $30,000 a year. Some of the private firms will replace teachers with virtual academies, so those expensive buildings can be shuttered while children sit at a computer, with one teacher monitoring 50-100 or more screens. The "teachers" may not be certified, may be hourly workers with no benefits, may turn over with frequency. All that cuts costs, too.

There's lots in these plans to give hope to political allies of the electeds. But not much to give hope to the children.

Diane

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