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State Takeover Looms in Columbus

From guest blogger Alyssa Morones

The Columbus Education Commission wants to change the face of schools in Ohio's largest school district with sweeping reforms, but, in light of evidence pointing to "scrubbing" of attendance records and altering student grades in several of the district's schools, the biggest change coming to the district could be a state takeover.

According to The Columbus Dispatch the 25-member Columbus Education Commission unanimously presented their recommended changes for Columbus's public school system to Mayor Michael B. Coleman last week.

The changes include the creation of a not-for-profit corporation run by the city and private citizens. It would have power over a $50 million fund, some of which would be drawn from local property-tax dollars. Three city officials, a county judge, and the school board president would appoint a new independent auditor.

The commission also recommends that affordable prekindergarten education be made available to all Columbus children as well as increased access to laptops, tablets, and other devices.

Charter schools could also receive increased support under the commission's recommendation to allow more students to enroll in the district's charter schools. As of April, $106.7 million of the state's budget went to fund 15,250 district schoolchildren that attended a charter school. Under the commission's recommendations, tens of millions of local district dollars would also be devoted to charters, if the appropriate laws are changed and district voters approve the funds.

The Ohio Association of Public School Employees, which previously opposed the creation of the commission, issued a statement of support and applauded Coleman's step toward increased accountability from school leaders.

But the Dispatch article quotes other community members who are still skeptical of the proposed reforms. Former president of the Columbus Urban League, Sam Gresham, cited the changes as right-wing advocacy group reforms that have had little success in other districts across the country.

These proposed changes may be moot, though, if recent evidence of instances of "scrubbing" attendance records to hide absences and altering grades results in a state takeover of the district.

State takeovers are usually reserved for failing schools, but an amendment made to the state budget bill states, "The Superintendent of Public Instruction may establish an academic distress commission for any school district that is found by the Auditor of the State to have knowingly manipulated student data with evidence of intent to deceive."

Columbus would not be alone if it were found guilty of altering its records to improve its standing. Earlier this year, schools in nine other districts, including Cincinnati, Canton, and Toledo, were flagged for scrubbing student data in a report by the state auditor.

Investigations for cheating also continue in school districts across the country. In Atlanta's Public Schools, former superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other district employees were indicted for cheating on standardized tests from 2005-2010. Former administrators in the District of Columbia have also been in the spotlight recently over allegations that they may have failed to pursue reports of cheating in that school system.

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