Politics trumps the law and what's right for children

School accountability is a hot button topic in Ohio and across the United States. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) made school accountability a federal matter when, in 2001, Congress and President Bush reached across the political divide to set ambitious goals and accountability standards for all schools and children. Since then, however, school accountability has become a partisan pinball and children have been the losers. Nowhere is the politicization of school accountability more obvious than in the Buckeye State.

Exhibit one is the state attorney general's ongoing legal actions against troubled charter schools seeking their closure for allegedly violating the state's charitable trust laws. At the behest of the Ohio Education Association (see here), former, and subsequently humiliated, AG Marc Dann spent untold energy and scarce public resources going after four underperforming charter schools in southwestern Ohio. One of the cases was shot down in a Montgomery County court last month (see here). The judge ruled the attorney general has no statutory or common law charitable trust oversight over public charter schools. Despite this defeat, and the obviously partisan nature of the legal action, current Attorney General Nancy Rogers is considering an appeal, while the Democratic candidate for AG, Richard Cordray, insists the "suits have merit" and he would appeal the case (see here).

Meanwhile, Ohio has 99 public schools (nine are charters) serving about 66,500 children that have failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for six or more consecutive years and which, according to federal law, should be undergoing serious restructuring and overhaul. There are an additional 90 schools (22 are charters) serving another 58,000 students that have failed to make AYP for five years and so should be drafting restructuring plans this year.

Under NCLB, schools that fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress targets for five years must develop a plan to restructure the school (see here). If a school fails to make AYP the sixth year, it must implement a restructuring plan. There are five options for restructuring:

  1. Reopen the school as a charter school,
  2. Replace all or most of the school staff who are relevant to the school's inability to make AYP,
  3. Outsource the operation of the school to a private management organization,
  4. Turn the operation of the school over to the state, or
  5. Implement any other major restructuring of the school's governance arrangement.

Guidance from the federal education department allows for variety in the rigor of restructuring based on the severity of a school's failure (see here). So, for example, a school that is largely performing well but failing to meet the needs of its English language learners (ELL) might simply need an overhaul of its ELL program, not the entire school. On the other hand, a school that is failing to meet AYP across many student subgroups and whose overall academic achievement results are routinely dismal likely needs broader reform.

These persistently struggling schools, which make up roughly five percent of the Buckeye State's public schools, represent a responsibility for state and local leaders to take action to improve education for children. That's already happening in some places-for example, at Taft Elementary in Cincinnati. The school failed to meet academic improvement goals for nine consecutive years, so the district announced in January that the school's entire staff would be replaced. The school reopened this fall as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) neighborhood school guided by faculty from the University of Cincinnati (see here).

Despite the efforts at schools like Taft, the intent behind NCLB has been largely ignored by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), school districts, and charter school sponsors. Few deeply troubled schools have actually undergone major school redesign. Most schools in restructuring status are making minor tweaks, while at the state level ODE has focused on building the capacity of the schools' current staff, not on replacing them, to little success (see here). Meanwhile, no one in the attorney general's office, the governor's office, or the General Assembly seems all that concerned. Thus, in Orwellian fashion, the state's top prosecutor goes after four small charter schools using bizarre legal theory, while all responsible for enforcing federal and state education law largely ignore legal requirements for rehabbing failing public schools.

In Ohio, politics trumps law and the net result is that thousands of children languish, year after year, in schools that show little ability to fix themselves.

Note: In July, the federal education department approved an ODE plan for "differentiated accountability." If the General Assembly concurs, Ohio will alter the way it identifies schools in need of improvement and the requirements they face. Learn more here.

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