Is it time for Ohio to consider new forms of school governance for its most troubled school districts, and if so, what might alternatives look like?  

Ohio’s current patchwork system of 610 local school districts managed by elected school boards (plus 300+ independently managed charter schools and dozens of vocational schools and county educational service centers) goes back to the Progressive Era of the late 19th century. The belief at the time was that all children needed a basic education and the best way to ensure that would happen was by empowering an elected group of civic-minded leaders to run the schools. Columbia University’s Gene Maeroff captured the ideal when he wrote, “A local board of education is – in its ideal form – a group of citizen-volunteers who give unselfishly of themselves, usually without remuneration, to look after the affairs of the school system and, by extension, the community.”

This system of local control may have worked well for communities during much of the 20th century, but in recent decades some major urban school districts have fallen into fiscal and academic bankruptcy with elected school boards at the helm. Mayors in these cities have stepped in to take charge of their public schools. Don McAdams, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, explains:

The move to mayoral control of urban districts happens not just because policy makers believe education is integral to the success of a city and must be aligned with the other functions of city government; it occurs also, perhaps, primarily, because policy makers believe that elected board bring personal and special interest agendas to the board table, micromanage, and make it almost impossible for superintendents to manage. Sadly, this is often the case, and one of the reasons such cities as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Boston, to name some of the most well-known cities with appointed boards, have chosen this governance model.

Mayoral control of schools is just one option for trying to take control of school districts with elected school boards in order to fix them or at least pull them out of fiscal and/or academic turmoil. States have tried forced mergers of districts, state takeovers, and market competition through charter schools and education management organizations. It is clear that tolerance for long-suffering school districts overseen by troubled elected school boards at the expense of student learning has dried up among many lawmakers, mayors, business leaders, and others concerned about student learning.  

In Ohio, Cleveland’s mayor gained significant authority over the public schools in 1997 while troubled districts like Youngstown faced state sanctions and takeover. There are other long-suffering districts in the Buckeye State where it is clear that the elected school board are incapable of providing the sustained leadership necessary for helping all kids learn while also their districts operate within their means fiscally. In fact, Ohio currently has 6 school districts rated Academic Watch, and another 8 districts on the state’s fiscal emergency list.

The time is right for Ohio to debate the pros and cons of alternatives to the elected school board in those districts that are struggling perennially to deliver results academically and fiscally. Here at Fordham, we are not advocating for any of the following alternative governance options, but do think it important that alternatives be sketched out and debated as there are likely to be more districts in Ohio facing academic and fiscal emergencies in coming months and years as the economy struggles to improve and increased demands are placed on public schools to perform.

Options for District Governance Takeover

1.     State takeover – academic

If a public school district is rated poorly enough for long enough (rated “Academic Emergency” and has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for four or more consecutive years), an academic distress commission is put in place jointly by the state superintendent and district’s board president to assist the district in improving its academic performance.

Ohio law states that each distress commission must consist of five voting members, three of whom are appointed by the state superintendent and two of whom must be residents of that school district and appointed by the district’s board of education.

The commission has ultimate authority and supersedes the voice of the district’s board. The commission is allowed to replace or reassign administrators, contract with a private entity to operate schools or the district, and establish a budget for the district. The commission is in place until the district achieves a “Continuous Improvement” or better rating for two of three consecutive years.  The state superintendent may also elect to dissolve the commission if s/he deems the district fit to perform adequate without the commission’s oversight.

Only one district in the entire state – Youngstown – has been subject to this provision, and no other Ohio districts have academic performance poor enough to invoke it. Further, the Youngstown experience has shown this approach to lead to little real improvements. Last year we reported on Youngstown’s academic turnaround plan:

The plan lays out several goals (with a 2015 deadline), including:

  • Moving the district from Academic Emergency to Continuous Improvement;
  • Having all subgroups meeting Adequate Yearly Progress in reading and math and achieving a Performance  Index of at least 80;
  • Having all subgroups meet value-added and graduation targets
  • Increasing enrollment by at least 300 students; and
  • Decreasing the number of students identified for special education by five percent (from 20 to 15).

These are all worthwhile goals. But the strategies named for accomplishing these are broad and unfocused, expensive, and misdirected. The most egregious such initiatives are:

  • Reducing student-teacher ratios even further for grades K-1 to 15:1 ($2 million by itself);
  • Deploying a “comprehensive system of outreach and support for families and non-academic experiences for students” which includes creating a “community asset map” and other strategies to engage parents; and
  • Creating leadership teams at every level – district, building, and grade – whose sole purpose is to foster “collaboration, trust; and communication.”

(There are a mere two strategies that seem worthwhile: recruiting highly-qualified preschool teachers and intervening with struggling readers and writers.) The level of vagueness and wishful thinking in the plan is staggering. The district will deploy millions of dollars to reduce class-sizes, yet it doesn’t acknowledge the preeminence of teacher quality in lifting student achievement. Youngstown has no strategy for recruiting highly effective teachers, identifying or developing those that aren’t effective, or retaining those who are. The solution is to simply put more teachers into classrooms without a plan for improving their quality.

As the experience of Youngstown shows, for an academic distress commission to effectively improve student achievement, members of the commission would need to demonstrate bold leadership and a laser focus on meaningful reforms. However, as current state law does not give distress commission the authority to force consequential personnel changes to a district, like voiding the collective bargaining agreement or forcing mass dismissal and replacement of ineffective staff, it’s unlikely to be a meaningful tool elsewhere in the state.

2.     State takeover – fiscal

The Auditor of State may declare a district to be in fiscal emergency for a variety of reasons, most usually because the district has an operating deficit for the current school year equal to a significant portion of the previous year’s operating revenue, and because a levy has not passed or an adequate plan has been submitted by the district to raise the revenue or prevent further fiscal decline.  The State Auditor may make this determination upon “receipt of a written request for such a determination,” which can be filed by the governor, the state superintendent, or the members of that district’s board of education (a majority is required).

A financial planning and supervision commission is appointed to oversee the development of a fiscal recovery plan for the district but there is little connection between these plans and an aim to improve student achievement. Currently eight districts are in fiscal emergency and another five are in fiscal watch status.

Districts in fiscal emergency:  Springfield Local (Summit County); Federal Hocking Local (Athens County); McDonald Local (Trumbull County); Bellaire Local (Belmont County); Beaver Local (Columbiana County); Little Miami Local (Warren County); Ledgemont Local (Geauga County); Liberty Local (Trumbull County)

Districts in fiscal watch: Coventry Local (Summit County); Niles City School District (Trumbull County); Cloverleaf Local (Medina County); Brookfield Local (Trumbull County); Mansfield City (Richland County)

Further, even in instances of fiscal emergency, a statewide “financial planning and supervisory commission” overseeing the district must still abide by collective bargaining provisions. Collective bargaining laws and local contracts both supersede this takeover provision. For instance, even when making reductions in force to “bring the school district’s budget into balance” the commission must give preference to teachers on continuing contracts

Examples: State takeover has been tried in many chronically failing districts (for both fiscal and academic reasons, and sometimes both), with varying degrees of success. A complete snapshot of this school improvement strategy – and research verifying its effectiveness in various school districts – is beyond the scope of this article, but below are a few notable examples at a glance:

  • Oakland Unified School District, California. Post state takeover, the district balanced its budget and achieved improvements in test scores, according to the Council on Great City Schools.
  • School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The district was taken over by the state for both academic and fiscal reasons and according to this RAND report, student achievement improved post-takeover. Unique about this takeover example is that the 45 failing schools were turned over to for-profit and non-profit entities to manage the intervention (unlike in Ohio, where a loose and largely powerless “commission” makes broad recommendations to Youngstown).
  • Several districts in New Jersey (Camden, Newark, Jersey City, Trenton). NJ was the first state to do a district takeover; Jersey City became the first in 1989 (Paterson in 1991, and Newark in 1995). Takeovers among these districts have arguably been unsuccessful. Camden was released from state control last year, after eight unsuccessful years. A study of takeovers in the Garden State is available here

3.     Mayoral control

Handing control of schools over to a city’s mayor is one strategy to turn around failing schools. Mayoral control has been tried in many cities: Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, New York City, and Cleveland.

Mayoral control has been in place in Cleveland for almost 13 years. In 1997, the state legislature voted to give then-Mayor Michael White control of the district (signed by then-Gov. Voinovich). The district had previously been under the control of federal courts, and the state superintendent. Mayoral control essentially gave independence back to the district after years of dysfunction and leadership turnover. (A full timeline, and an assessment of the effectiveness of mayoral control in Cleveland, can be found in this recent Plain Dealer article.) More precisely, the mayor appoints the school board and the district’s CEO, and has the right to fire the CEO (after 30 months, and with the approval of the board s/he appointed). Mayoral control has many faces and can be constructed in a variety of ways. A mayor could have authority to:

  • Appoint members of the school board, but from a pre-nominated panel (Boston; Cleveland; Providence, Rhode Island).
  • Appoint some members of the school board (Detroit mayor appointed six of seven members; Hartford, Connecticut mayor appoints five of nine members [the other four are elected]); share this authority to appoint board members with the governor (Philadelphia, Baltimore); or appoint all board members (Trenton, New Jersey; Yonkers, New York).
  • Create charter schools (Indianapolis, Indiana; anywhere in the State of Rhode Island).
  • Appoint a district’s CEO/chief/chancellor (New York City, Chicago)

Like anything in K-12 education, it’s hard to draw generalizations about the effectiveness of this governance option as its variants are many and success – like in any educational endeavor – depends heavily on the unique leadership capacity in a district at a given moment. This quote from former US Secretary of Education and Houston superintendent, Rod Paige, sums it up nicely:

There is no one best answer to the question is 'Mayoral Control' the answer for urban schools? History shows that in some urban environments, mayoral control has provided a sense of stability and improved school operations. But history also shows that mayoral control in some urban environments has failed to make a difference.

It doesn’t really matter whether the school board is appointed by the mayor or elected by the voters. What matters is whether the people who actually end up on the school board are high quality individuals who can reach consensus and commit to a shared vision of high achievement for all children; whether they can achieve a sense of collegiality and togetherness in pursuit of that shared vision; whether they can operate based on a system of governance driven by policy development and appropriate oversight; whether they can sustain a commitment to keep their distance from district management decisions and the day to day operation of schools.

If other Ohio districts wanted to pursue this option, it would require changes to state law as currently it only applies to Cleveland.

For more on mayoral control:


“Is ‘Mayoral Control’ The Answer for Urban Schools?” National Journal Online, July 2009

“Assessing the case for mayoral control of urban schools,” American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, August 2008.

Profiles of cities with mayoral control

Mayoral Influence, New Regimes, and Public School Governance,” CPRE Research Report Series, May 2002.
More mayors move to take over schools,” USA Today, March 2007.
“Taking schools into their own hands,” Wall Street Journal,  August 2010.  
“Mayoral control brings big school changes in D.C.” Democrat and Chronicle, February 2010.
“Mayor Linda Thompson has taken 'unprecedented' control of Harrisburg School District,” The Patriot-News, March 2010.
Mayoral Control Makes the Grade: Unions want to take back the schools,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar 2009.

4.     Changes to the way school board is appointed

Required by state law Ohio’s school boards are elected and must have a minimum of five members. Alternate structures could be modeled off of examples in other states (frequently in conjunction with mayoral control). For instance, a district could have an appointed board (say, five members), with two members appointed by the mayor and three by the governor such as in Baltimore.

Alternatively, state lawmakers could empower a given mayor (specifically in a district in need of improvement, not mayors across the state broadly) to appoint the school board (see mayoral control above) or appoint a temporary/interim commission rather than a board. A commission would signal a temporary arrangement focused on restructuring schools, like what was put in place in Philadelphia as part of its state overhaul more than a decade ago.

Examples of board structures tried in various district, including versions of mayoral control, include:

  • Boston. Mayor appoints 7 members of “committee” from pre-recommended list (a 13-member citizens’ nominating panel makes the recommendations).
  • Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The mayor appoints five members of “the board of control.”
  • New York City. Mayor appoints chancellor of schools, and 8 (of 13) members of “the Panel for Educational Policy”; borough presidents appoint the other five.

This approach would require changes to state law and could likely only be applied to a small number of districts. The Ohio Constitution stipulates that districts must be governed by a board, but state law can then prescribe the size and set-up of that board. The key caveat here is that city districts (the ones likely to need reform the most) retain voter referendum right to make changes to that size and set-up, too. (Note, voters in Cleveland never opted to change that arrangement, but a large degree of dysfunction and unrest prior to changes to that district’s governance probably had something to do with its permanence.)  

5.     County-wide school district (change to both funding/governance)

A dramatic change to governance and school funding for Ohio districts could come in the form of county-wide governance. Many districts across the US have merged school districts, for various reasons ranging from concerns over scale and sustainability (merging small districts), cost-savings (sharing services and consolidating positions), equity (reconciling disparities in school funding), and desegregation. And in some states, county-wide school districts are the norm.

Below are some examples of this governance option.

o   Tennessee – Chattanooga Public Schools and Hamilton County Schools (see here); Memphis-Shelby County Schools (see here, here, and here) ; other mergers in TN (which have been common).

o   Wake County/Raleigh, Virginia. See here.

o   Louisville and Jefferson County, Kentucky (merger beyond schools). See here.

For more on county-wide school governance:

Montgomery County Public Schools (not a merger, but an example of successful county-wide school governance)
Montgomery County Public Schools’ strategic plan
“Differentiated Treatment in Montgomery County Public Schools,” (study by Harvard Graduate School of Education & Harvard Business School), February 2006.

Other states/communities considering or doing county-wide school mergers
“Educational Efficiency in Pennsylvania,” February 2011.
Response to House Resolution 54: Feasibility Study for County Wide School Districts in Kent and Sussex Counties (Delaware),” 2002.
“School District Consolidation in Other States.

Ohio law sets up a process whereby districts, or parts of districts, can merge. 

6.     Statewide Recovery School Districts

Another option to turnaround Ohio’s most troubled schools – and one with the potential for broader impact than many other governance reforms– would be a statewide “recovery” district to oversee the worst-performing schools statewide (or in the Big 8 or Urban 21 districts). Several districts/states have tried this governance structure to oversee school turnarounds, the most notable of which is the New Orleans Recovery School District administered by the Louisiana Department of Education. Created by legislation passed in 2003, the New Orleans RSD was designed to oversee underperforming schools, which become eligible for transfer to the RSD if they fail to earn the state’s minimum School Performance Score (SPS) for four consecutive years. (The current minimum SPS of 60 represents a school wherein more than 60 percent of the students are performing below grade level.) Schools governed by the RSD stay within that district for a minimum of five years.  

Schools within the RSD give principals autonomy to staff their schools with teachers of their choosing, and make retention decisions based on performance (not seniority), etc. This freedom over personnel is critical to achieving major school improvement, and achievement results confirm this fact. The New Orleans RSD was the most improved district for the 2009-2010 school year. Overall, the RSD’s New Orleans schools posted a District Performance Score (DPS) of 60.6 in 2010, an 11.4 percent increase from the 2009 DPS of 54.4 (growth that was twice that of the state).

Tennessee’s Department of Education is undergoing a similar strategy as we write (implementing it in the 2011-12 school year). Chris Barbic (founder and CEO of YES Prep Public Schools in Houston) is the superintendent of Tennessee’s “Achievement School District.” The ASD will oversee five schools (four of which are in Memphis), with expansion likely in the following years. These schools were identified according to a definition that included the U.S. Department of Education’s Persistently Lowest Achieving status, the state accountability status, and a statewide lowest five percent designation.

The autonomy granted to schools within “recovery school districts” sounds similar in theory to Ohio’s innovation schools/zones, in that principals have more freedom from regulatory barriers and more freedom when it comes to personnel decisions. However, a statewide recovery school district would drive school improvement regardless of whether individual districts opted to pursue them (as in the innovation zones) and despite whether teachers unions wanted to participate. It would also govern chronically failing schools with a coherent statewide strategy (as opposed to having disparate reform strategies underway in multiple places across the state).

This approach would require changes to state law. 

Emmy formerly served as director of Ohio policy & research for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In this role, she advocated to state policymakers for smart improvements to Ohio education laws and policies; conducted research and policy analysis on a wide variety of education issues facing the Buckeye State; and managed the development, production, and dissemination of Fordham’s Ohio research studies and policy events.…

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Terry Ryan was Vice-President for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and a Research Fellow at the Hoover Research Institution.

He is the author, with Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Lafferty of Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Bianca was a policy and research associate in the Dayton office. Prior to this role, she worked as a research assistant and a research intern for Fordham. She came to Fordham as a recent graduate from Ohio State’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs, where she earned a Master’s in public administration. Prior to working at Fordham Bianca worked as a research assistant analyzing Ohio’s Step up To Quality Initiative.…

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