Last week the Ohio Education Policy Institute, in research funded by the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, once again documented that school districts serving a large number and high concentration of children in poverty scored lowest on the state’s standardized achievement tests and ranked poorly on other statistics being used by Ohio to measure academic success. Although the state’s ratings remain primarily symbolic this year and will not affect most state policy, it is true that schools and school districts are being branded with low marks and that the state’s ranking of school districts affects the desirability of communities in the housing marketplace. The ultimate result is that the state’s ratings of schools are driving racial and economic segregation across Ohio’s metropolitan areas.
The Plain Dealer posted the data, whose implications reporter Patrick O’Donnell explains: “Districts with less than 10 percent of students considered ‘economically disadvantaged’ graduate 97.4 percent of students while the poorest districts graduate 73.9 percent. That’s a 23.5 percent difference—almost one out of every four students… Districts with the least poverty send nearly twice as many students to college as districts with the highest poverty—82.5 percent to 44.4 percent.”
Jim Siegel, reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, quotes Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee: “If there’s one thing we ought to be pretty well convinced of at this point is that parents’ income makes a big difference on school performance. But what to do about it is the big question.”
Howard Fleeter, an expert on public finance who conducted the analysis for the Ohio Education Policy Institute, has discovered the same trend in previous years. He told the Plain Dealer: “I feel a little like a broken record. But all we can do is keep shining a light on it.” O’Donnell explains Fleeter’s reaction: “Fleeter said that it will be no surprise to anyone that more affluent kids go to college than poor kids. He said his findings are definitely ‘not earth-shattering.'”
Chris Woolard, who heads the accountability office at the Ohio Department of Education, does not seem concerned that marking poor communities with a “Scarlet F” on the school accountability ratings might be exacerbating the economic and racial segregation of school districts by encouraging families with means to move to an “A”-rated district: “‘These are aspirational measures that are pointing out a problem,’ Woolard said. ‘Not all kids are leaving high school ready for college or work.’ By showing districts how many kids are not meeting the state’s goals, they now know what they have to work on, Woolard said. ‘What we’re really doing here is setting expectations,’ he said. ‘There are kids that may even be graduating in high poverty areas, but we’re setting expectations that when they do so, that they are ready for college or the workforce.'”
O’Donnell reminds readers that, “Though data on graduation rates and college readiness are shown on state report cards this year, schools and districts will not be graded on them until next year.”
What nobody seems to be thinking about is what the Plain Dealer described in late December about the plight of local governments in Ohio caused by a 10-year rash of state tax cuts that have diminished funds the state has in the past allocated for essential services. While the December report focused on municipalities, the implications of state tax cuts have also affected local school districts, particularly the school districts that serve many children in poverty. “The Local Government Fund was created in 1935, as a promise to Ohioans that their support of the state’s first sales tax would mean that 40 percent of collections would come back to local governments and schools,” but in 2011, Gov. John Kasich, faced with an $8 billion shortfall, proposed a state budget that cut 25 percent of local government funding the following year and 50 percent in 2013. In 2005, former Governor Bob Taft and the legislature eliminated a tangible personal property tax on income and equipment that had helped fund municipal governments and school districts. They replaced it with a Commercial Activities Tax, which was then slashed by Governor Kasich and the legislature in 2011. Then Governor Kasich folded into his 2011 budget a controversial abolition of the estate tax. And finally at the end of 2014, Kasich and the legislature “streamlined” Ohio’s income tax, a plan that will take effect in 2016 and further reduce state funding for municipalities and school districts.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Ohio is one of 31 states whose funding for public education remains below the 2008, pre-recession level. CBPP explains further: “Property values fell sharply after the recession hit, making it difficult for local school districts to raise significant additional revenue through the property tax to make up for cuts in state funding… Local school districts can seek to raise property tax rates, but those increases are usually politically difficult and sometimes legally restricted.” In Ohio, which does not permit school boards to raise local tax rates without a vote of the people, the school districts that serve Ohio’s poorest children have had the most difficult time raising voted millage from households that struggle to afford the cost. CBPP reports that combined state and local funding per student in Ohio is 6.8 percent lower than it was in 2008.
Ohio’s school rating system is a classic example of blaming the victim and punishing the vulnerable. The letter “grades” for schools and school districts published on the new state report cards not only encourage families with means to move to “A-rated,” wealthy communities that have the capacity to provide ample resources for their schools, but they make it harder for poor school districts by undermining trust and making it harder to pass school levies on election day.
This blog covered the relation between poverty and measured school achievement here.