John A. Dues is the Chief Learning Officer for United Schools Network in Columbus.
"There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children."
As a society, we are in need of some serious soul searching. There is an urgent need to support and create as many outstanding schools as possible as a part of a larger plan for improving life outcomes in Columbus’s most challenged neighborhoods. In Central Ohio, outcomes for kids that grow up just a few miles from each other can vary immensely. Drive east on Main Street from Miller Avenue in the Near East Side to Capital University in Bexley and in the span of two miles you will get a snapshot of the different worlds that exist within our city. Take that same drive on Central Avenue from Dana Avenue in Franklinton to Grandview and you will have a similar experience.
Challenges facing our students
Over the last year, there have been a series of articles in the Columbus Dispatch that provide a lens into some of these troubled neighborhoods and the crises they face. Taken together, it starts to create a picture of the environment in which many children from neighborhoods like the Near East Side and Franklinton—neighborhoods where United Schools Network’s three schools are located—are living. These students come to school with needs that are far greater than students in less troubled areas.
In a 2013 special report entitled Kids Shooting Kids (see here), four compelling articles outline the firearms-related violence among teenagers in Columbus. Half of all the gun violence affecting this age group occurs in four zip codes: Two include parts of the Near East Side, and the other two include adjacent neighborhoods on the Near South Side.
More recently, a three-part series entitled Alarming Losses (see here) provided a heartbreaking look into infant mortality rates in Franklin County. The county’s rate is far above the national average, and in eight neighborhood hotspots, the numbers are staggering. The eight neighborhoods include the Near East Side, the Near South Side, and Franklinton.
And finally, a recent article entitled How Safe is Your Neighborhood? (see here) explored crime rates around Columbus after the shooting death of 14-year-old Amanda Kirwin in Franklinton. The highest rate of serious crime occurs in Cruiser District 83, which is a section within Franklinton. Cruiser District 122 in the Near East Side has the dubious distinction of the highest homicide rate in Columbus.
These are the stories that make the papers; many similar stories—the everyday realities of children that live in these neighborhoods—don’t. Walk into any school in these neighborhoods and ask, “How many of you heard gunshots outside your home in the last week?” I am willing to bet there will be more hands up than not. Living in areas where violence occurs frequently is similar to the experience of soldiers in war zones. In fact, one of the revelations that researchers have discovered, and which was outlined in heartbreaking fashion in the Kids Shooting Kids series, is that many children in these neighborhoods suffer from Post-traumatic stress disorder.
Funding Does Not Follow Need in Ohio
And yet, despite the fact that students in the Near East Side and Franklinton come to school with much greater needs and that these communities desperately need strong educational options, students in places like Bexley and Grandview are afforded better-funded schools. Purposeful or not, these funding disparities say a lot about where priorities are placed in our region.
Inequitable funding is even more dramatic if schools serving high-need student populations happen to be charters. Every day, thousands of students attend brick-and-mortar charter schools in Columbus where they receive a separate and unequally funded education. Charter schools in Ohio lack access to local levy dollars and state facilities funding, which amounts to thousands of additional dollars per pupil for traditional districts.
Nearly 80 percent of these students live in poverty, and poverty levels in schools are one of the best predictors of student achievement results. In other words, if you know a school’s poverty rate, you can predict their Performance Index score with reasonable accuracy. Charter opponents in Ohio often point out that test scores in traditional districts are better than scores in charters. This is generally true. However, when you compare schools with similar student demographics, charters outperform district schools. Because of the nature of Ohio’s laws, the vast majority of charters exist within the eight largest urban areas in Ohio. They are serving areas with high poverty rates and related neighborhood dysfunction.
Relationship between Poverty and School District Report Card Performance Index Score
102.5 – 104.9
100.1 – 102.4
97.6 – 100.0
95.1 – 97.5
92.7 – 95.0
90.1 – 92.6
90 and Below
United Schools Network students’ needs are great, but their potential is even greater. It is a shame that Ohio’s lawmakers have chosen to add inequitable school funding to the list of obstacles facing our students. When the funding issue is raised, charter school opponents offer the same litany of tired excuses, half-truths, and outright misinformation. However, they cannot hide from the numbers. It is quite clear in the table below that the students with the highest needs are receiving the lowest amounts of funding. The largest achievement gaps in Ohio are typically associated with economically disadvantaged students and students of color (because there is a strong association between these two measures), so it would stand to reason that schools serving large populations of these students would receive higher funding. But that is simply not the case.
School Funding vs. Rates of Disadvantage
Expenditure per Equivalent Pupil
Students of Color
8th Gr Reading Prof.
CCA – Dana Ave.
CCA – Main St.
Why Equalize Funding?
Despite being grossly underfunded, both CCA middle school campuses far out-performed expected achievement levels based on their high economically disadvantaged numbers (the elementary schools is in its first year of operations, so they do not have any test results). On eighth-grade reading test results, which are one of the best predictors of future academic prospects, CCA students performed at levels similar to those in wealthier suburban districts. These results are nothing less than extraordinary.
We will never make excuses, and we will never settle for anything less than the best for our students. However, I know that these results are the product of superhuman efforts by our teachers and leaders, who are typically paid less than their traditional school counterparts. Keeping proven, high-quality educators should be a priority in any school that serves high-need students; current funding gaps make this challenging. I know that our students would be better served if we could provide nursing, counseling, and other health services. I know that our students deserve the same opportunities as their suburban peers and arguably need them more. We strive to make this happen by being fiscally efficient and partnering strategically. But only so much ground can be made up through these measures when the funding gap is so large.
Let’s do a bit of collective soul searching and fix this separate and unequal funding system—and let’s get it done now. Until this happens, many more souls in the Near East Side, Franklinton, and other similar neighborhoods will be lost. I, for one, cannot stand to see even one more lost soul.
Fleeter, Howard B. “Apples to Apples”: Ohio School District Expenditure Per Equivalent Pupil. Prepared for Education Tax Policy Institute. November 2013.
 Expenditure per Equivalent Pupil provides a measure that offsets differences in spending across districts caused by characteristics of the student as opposed to the operations of the district. EPEP allows for more accurate “apples to apples” comparisons across districts.
 CCA – Dana Ave’s results are for 7th grade reading because they did not serve 8th graders last year.