Authorized in 2005, Academic Distress Commissions (ADCs) are the state’s mechanism for intervening in low-performing school districts. Youngstown was the first district to come under the thumb of the state back in 2009, with Lorain added in 2013, and finally East Cleveland in 2018. Today, all three districts are under the supervision of an ADC—bodies comprising five members, three of whom are appointed by the state superintendent, one by the district school board, and one by the local mayor. Under state law, the ADCs hire a chief executive officer who is vested with managerial authority and charged with creating and implementing an improvement plan.

The rationale behind interventions like ADCs is fairly straightforward: Chronic underperformance isn’t acceptable, and states have an obligation to act when children are ill-served. But state interventions are also plenty controversial wherever they’ve been undertaken, with detractors largely decrying the loss or dilution of local governance. Ohio is no different, with ADCs sparking endless criticism, especially after 2015 legislation—supported by former Governor Kasich—that greatly strengthened this intervention model. Last year, a bill amendment was introduced to suspend ADCs, though the effort failed when Kasich threatened to veto it.

ADCs are likely to come under even stronger fire this year as opponents of the policy will hope that Governor DeWine’s administration will be less supportive than its predecessor. Should Ohio persevere? Give up? Change course?

While it won’t win popularity contests in today’s anti-accountability climate, Ohio should stand firm in its efforts to improve student learning in low-performing districts. In this post, I take a look at key data indicating that districts under the auspices of an ADC are indeed troubled—and that the state is right in taking action to improve student outcomes. Note that in a few cases—for example, Youngstown’s recent test scores—the data reflect post-ADC performance. But most of the data discussed below reflect pre-ADC performance, and the vast majority of it predates the 2015 reforms to the ADC model.

Enrollment

One important yardstick of districts’ health is whether there is demand for their schools. Families can voice their dissatisfaction and vote with their feet by moving elsewhere or choosing other schooling options. Though enrollment declines don’t necessarily indicate that districts are doing a poor job educating children—shrinking districts can deliver a great education, just the same as expanding ones—large enrollment declines likely suggest problems with educational quality.  

On this count, it’s clear that the districts now under ADC oversight have been ailing for decades. Consider the figure below: Enrollment in Youngstown has plummeted from over 16,000 in 1980 to under 5,000 today. Similarly, Lorain is less than half the size it was in 1980, and East Cleveland enrolls a mere 1,800 students, compared to 8,000 during the Reagan era. The slide in enrollment is the result of families leaving these districts for better opportunities elsewhere, parents opting for other educational options (notably, charters or vouchers starting in the 2000s), and perhaps declining birthrates as well.

Figure 1: Enrollment of ADC school districts, 1980 to 2019 (selected years)

Keep ADC figure 1

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Enrollment Data. Note: Statewide district enrollment has also fallen during this period (-22 percent from 1980 to 2019), but the losses in these districts are larger than the statewide average (-71 percent in Youngstown; -54 percent in Lorain; and -77 percent in East Cleveland).

Student outcomes

Enrollments, of course don’t tell the entire story, so let’s dig into pupil outcomes, which are the primary goal of districts. Since districts go into state receivership due to poor student results, the achievement data are sure to be bleak. But figures 2 and 3 remind us that the vast majority of students attending these districts struggle mightily to meet state academic standards. In 2017–18, a mere 30 to 35 percent of students attending East Cleveland, Lorain, and Youngstown districts met reading proficiency standards, slightly lower than the average proficiency rate of the Big Eight districts, and far below the statewide average. [1] A similar story emerges in math: Just 20 to 33 percent of the district students met math proficiency standards, while 63 percent statewide did so.

Figure 2: Proficiency rates on state reading exams, 2015–16 to 2017–18

Keep ADC Figure 2

Figure 3: Proficiency rates on state math exams, 2015–16 to 2017–18

Keep ADC Figure 3

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Download Data (District AMO Calculations files). Note: Due to transitions in state exams, proficiency trends can be tracked only to 2015–16. As one of the Big Eight districts, Youngstown is included in the Big Eight district average (the same applies for figures 4 and 5).

Maybe test scores aren’t your cup of tea. So let’s look at college completion rates—earning two- or four-year degrees—one of the few post-secondary data points available. (We don’t have information on things like employment or wages to complete the picture; legislators, please change that!) We observe dismal completion rates: For the class of 2011, completion rates ranged from a meager 7 percent in East Cleveland to 16 percent in Lorain. Like state exam scores, these completion rates fall well below the statewide average of 33 percent and track more closely with the Big Eight average of just 13 percent for the class of 2011.

Figure 4: College completion rates, class of 2009 to 2011

Keep ADC Figure 4

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Download Data (District Prepared for Success files). Note: This chart displays the percentage of students in the high school classes of 2009 to 2011 (including non-graduates) who completed an associate degree or higher six years after high school.

Proficiency and degree attainment rates partly reflect the high poverty rates of East Cleveland, Lorain, and Youngstown. Ohio’s value-added measure, however, controls for students’ prior state test scores and produces ratings that are less tied to poverty. But even on this more poverty-neutral measure, these districts still fare poorly. Table 1 displays their overall value-added ratings since 2012–13, the first year in which the state assigned an A–F rating on the measure. Save for a couple A’s in Lorain and one in East Cleveland, they’ve received almost all F’s, indicating that students typically fail to make expected growth over time. These low ratings are especially troubling given students’ already low achievement levels. In short, they remain stuck in the lowest portion of the achievement distribution. Moreover, because poor value-added ratings can’t be easily dismissed as reflections of poverty, they are much better indicators of educational ineffectiveness.

Table 1: Overall value-added ratings for ADC school districts, 2012–13 to 2017–18

Keep ADC Table 1

Source: Ohio Department of Education, District Report Cards.

School funding

To round out this picture, it’s worth examining whether underfunding might be a problem. Figure 5 displays the per-pupil expenditures for the three districts in comparison to the statewide and Big Eight averages. In fiscal year 2018, East Cleveland spent a whopping $19,100 per pupil and Youngstown spent $18,300—far above the state average of $11,900, and even surpassing the Big Eight district average of $15,200 per pupil. Lorain spent a more modest $13,700 per student, an amount still above the state average, but below the Big Eight. Overall, the funding data do not generally indicate shortfalls; in fact, the districts receive fairly generous funding, primarily from the state revenue sources.

Figure 5: Per pupil spending, FY 2016 to 2018

Keep ADC Figure 5

Source: Ohio Department of Education, District Profile Reports. Note: The data reflect only operational expenditures and don’t include capital spending.

***

The data on the districts under ADC oversight are grim—faltering enrollments, dismal achievement, low college completion rates, and weak academic growth. And there is no shortage of taxpayer support. Based on these data, the state is right to intervene on behalf of the 13,000 students attending these districts. Yes, Ohio could wash its hands of these troubled districts and hand back control to the school boards; no one in D.C. is forcing Ohio to undertake this type of intervention. But surrender is unlikely to drive the improvements that children in these districts deserve. That being said, there could be ways to improve the ADC model, to make it likelier that reform will reverse these troubling trends. Stay tuned for a follow-up post that considers the possibilities.


[1] The Big Eight refers to Ohio’s high-poverty urban districts: Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.

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Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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