When districts announce school transportation changes during the early days of summer break, they usually don’t cause a lot of consternation. It’s understandable that administrators would use the lazy days of summer to make scheduling adjustments and such.
When districts announce school transportation changes during the early days of summer break, they usually don’t cause a lot of consternation. It’s understandable that administrators would use the lazy days of summer to make scheduling adjustments and such. But a recent announcement by Dayton Public Schools (DPS) is an exception—and is causing serious concern for families who exercise school choice.
First, some context. DPS has a long and troubled history with transportation. That history includes stranding charter school and district students, frequent changes in service with little notice to parents, huge expenditures for inconsistent service (both in-house and via public-transit contracting), and student safety issues.
For years, the district has opted to forego transporting high school students in an effort to save money. But last August, after years of low attendance numbers and the inclusion of a chronic-absenteeism indicator on the state report card, DPS announced that it would begin providing transportation to high schoolers again. Rather than utilize the yellow buses that get the district’s K–8 students to and from school, DPS signed a five-year contract with the area’s rapid transit authority (RTA) to provide high schoolers with bus passes. The move required the district to pay over $800,000 of district funds to RTA to upgrade limited-service buses, and annual costs are around $3.2 million.
The transition caused confusion among parents and failed in the first few months to noticeably improve attendance. It would have been wise for district leaders to listen to community feedback and make some adjustments. Instead, the school board recently voted to scrap the policy entirely in favor of a new alternative. Now, instead of providing DPS high schoolers with RTA bus passes, high school students will be provided with the same yellow bus transportation as their younger peers. But to make room for them, K–8 charter and private school students—those whom the district is required by law to transport—will now be forced to take RTA buses if they want DPS-funded transportation to school.
Why the change? Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli told the Dayton Daily News that the move is “for both financial and efficiency reasons.” In the wake of coronavirus, as schools across the nation are struggling with budget cuts, that seems fair at first blush. But this move brings high costs—all of which will be paid by students and families who have chosen to exercise their right to school choice.
For instance, it’s important to note that the district’s new policy would require all charter and private school students to be transported via RTA buses. When the district decided to contract with RTA to serve DPS students, it limited the scope to high schoolers. That makes sense, since teenagers have an easier and safer time managing public transit than their younger peers. But the board’s new policy doesn’t allow younger students from schools of choice to continue riding yellow buses. Instead, they have to take a city bus to school—regardless of their age.
Superintendent Lolli told reporters that the buses will use limited service routes, which will decrease access for the general public but won’t eliminate it. That means students could be riding crowded buses in the midst of a pandemic. She also recommended that each charter or private school hire adult attendants to ride with students. If schools refuse to do so—or, more likely, are unable to afford to do so, especially in light of coronavirus fallout—parents will be given passes so they can ride with their children from home to school and back. But that “solution” creates an entirely separate set of problems, especially for parents who have jobs to go to and can’t afford to spend the time riding back and forth every day with their children.
The district didn’t discuss the change with charter and private school leaders prior to voting on it either. Dave Taylor, the superintendent of the Dayton Early College Academy charter schools, told the Dayton Daily News that the district hadn’t communicated any details about the plan to charter schools. Even worse, DPS officials waited so long to announce the change that they robbed charter school leaders of the chance to find safer alternatives. Even if schools wanted to arrange their own transportation system, they can’t. The state’s deadline to do so for this fall has already passed. Dr. Landon Brown, the principal at the Emerson Academy charter school in Dayton, told reporters, “To not include us in the decision making process makes it seem as if our input is not valued and that is unacceptable.”
Forcing school choice families to use a public transit option that, less than a year ago, didn’t work effectively for the district’s own students is unfair. So, too, is the complete lack of communication between district officials and those who will be impacted by this change. Not to mention the safety issues, especially during a pandemic.
At the end of the day, charter and private school students are members of the Dayton community. One must question the intent behind forcing a busing system that did not work for DPS students onto students who have opted out of attending the district. Dave Taylor put it best: “Is [this new plan] what’s best for the district or is it what’s best for the city of Dayton? Are we considering that all kids in our schools matter, or are [we] just saying that some kids matter?”
To go back or not to go back? That’s the question on everyone’s mind as we inch closer to August and the beginning of a new school year. A recent Ohio survey found that 67 percent of parents support—and only 15 percent oppose—students returning to classrooms in the fall for in-person learning. While some national polls have found very different results, Buckeye State parents are on to something. We should follow their lead and do everything possible to get kids back in school buildings this fall.
First and foremost, that’s because “remote learning” did not go well, to put it politely. To be sure, many districts made heroic efforts to educate students, ensuring they had WiFi and internet-compatible devices, and even delivering lunches. Parents have also done yeoman’s work to support their children’s learning needs while trying to balance their many other responsibilities during this very challenging time. Yet there’s growing evidence that efforts varied greatly between districts, and from student to student, with most kids not getting close to what they needed.
The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) examined a nationally representative sample of 477 school districts to see how remote learning was implemented this spring. The findings were sobering. Only one in three districts expected teachers to provide remote instruction. As for tracking attendance or engaging in one-on-one check-ins to monitor pupil engagement, less than half of districts required it. And just 42 percent of them mandated teachers to collect and grade student work, then account for them in course grades. Parents, more than anyone else, are acutely aware when their children have minimal interaction with teachers, little homework, and receive passing grades without much effort.
Some experts estimate that the resulting learning loss (combining spring with the normal summer loss) will be a jaw-dropping 50 percent in math and 30 percent in reading, and even worse for our most disadvantaged students. Parents dreaming of a college education for their children have to be very concerned about the long-term costs that will arise from even more time out of the classroom.
Nor do we see many districts taking steps to fill in the gaps going forward. While summer school is probably a no-go given the virus’s recent uptick, how many districts will start classes early? Establish tutoring programs? Extend the school day or 2020–21 school year? Such catch-up options seem obvious, but it’s hard to find Ohio school systems that have vowed to embark on them. Perhaps the expected budget crunch is making such aggressive efforts impossible for districts to fathom. Instead, some district leaders are urging the state to limit the number of academic standards that schools are expected to teach and students are expected to learn during the 2020–21 school year. Students didn’t have the opportunity to learn last year’s standards, so the solution is to teach them fewer standards this year, too. Talk about “defining deviancy down”! Argh.
So, it’s really important to get students back into the classroom with their teachers, but it also needs to be done as safely as possible. Governor DeWine and the Ohio Department of Education haven’t released their final “Reset and Restart” guide for opening schools yet, but we must hope that they’ll strike the right balance between safety and academic necessity. The good news is that it can be done. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), for instance, just released guidance saying, “the AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” The doctors’ guidance spells out the negative impacts on children in a host of areas when they aren’t in school and acknowledges that, regardless which approach is taken, risk is being mitigated rather than eliminated.
Furthermore, the AAP notes, while children and adolescents play “a major role in amplifying influenza outbreaks,” the same does not appear to be true for Covid-19. In fact, “children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection.” This is consistent with the experience in many countries that have reopened schools and not seen a virus surge.
August will be here in a few weeks. Many Ohio parents, at least for now, are making clear that they want their children back in the classroom. Given what we know about kids’ learning losses, the paucity of plans to help students catch up, and the evolving science on the risk to children of being in school, we can’t fault them. The challenge now moves to state and district leaders to figure out how to best serve the many families that are counting on their schools to reopen while still providing a quality education to those parents feeling compelled to keep their children at home until the virus subsides.
Governor DeWine recently signed House Bill 164, legislation that addresses several education policies that have been affected by the pandemic. For instance, the bill provides temporary flexibility around teacher and principal evaluations, waives early literacy requirements for the coming year, and allows students whose end-of-course exams were cancelled last spring to substitute their course grades for graduation purposes.
The bill also includes a provision that asks school districts and public charter schools to submit remote learning plans to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). These plans aim to ensure that all schools are ready to educate students remotely in the event that buildings need to close or parents opt to keep their children at home. Among a few other items, the plans must contain a description of policies regarding attendance, grading, and equitable access to quality instruction. Although they are neither mandatory nor subject to state approval, districts receive an exemption from state minimum hour requirements for the 2020–21 school year if they submit one. Given the likelihood of having to offer remote learning—and the challenges of tracking hours when students are at home—schools should consider filing a plan to comply with state hour laws (not to mention the general wisdom of creating such a plan).
These provisions are a commendable first step at encouraging a “continuity of learning” when students learn from home—something that schools struggled with earlier this year. But plans, by themselves, cannot guarantee that students receive a quality education. While one hopes that districts will follow through on their plans, there won’t be any state oversight of implementation. Students could conceivably do nothing—fail to ever log in or turn in an assignment—but their schools could, without consequence, mark them as in attendance and assign them passing grades.
Instituting rigorous but fair oversight measures would’ve been nearly impossible for the coming year. But moving forward, Ohio needs to consider how oversight and accountability work in remote learning for the long-term. It’s always possible that pandemic will stay with us longer than expected, and remote learning may still be needed beyond 2020–21. What’s more probable is that, much like employees are shifting to remote work, more families and students will begin to prefer at-home instruction, even if their local schools are open. This option may become even more attractive as districts become more adept at providing remote instruction. Hilliard and Lakota school districts, for example, have made clear their intention to establish strong online options.
Fortunately, legislators need not start from scratch in devising policies that hold schools accountable for remote learning. As a starting point, they should consider the policies that govern virtual charter schools, the pioneers in remote learning.
In addition to state report cards, the key accountability lever for online schools is a policy known as an “FTE review.” Authorized under state law, ODE periodically conducts these reviews, which function much like an external audit. Not only do they check whether e-schools have provided necessary computer equipment to students, but they also review whether e-schools have properly documented and reported student enrollment. E-schools can verify participation in remote learning opportunities in a number of ways. Through learning management systems, they can track the amount of time students are doing coursework online, attending course lectures either synchronously or asynchronously, and meeting with teachers and support staff. E-schools may also document participation through teacher verification of student work. If schools fail to demonstrate participation in learning opportunities, the state may reduce funding for that student. For example, if an e-school could only document 700 hours of participation in a 920-hour school year, it would only receive partial funding for that student (this occurred in the ECOT case). The upshot: The threat of lost funding creates an incentive for e-schools to ensure that students are participating in remote learning.
This process could be extended to district and non-e-school charters that offer remote instruction, whether to all students (likely due to an extended building closure) or to a subset who elect to participate in this learning model. An FTE review would guard against potential abuses and ensure that students aren’t falling through the cracks while learning at home. By providing the state an avenue to seek refunds when schools are unable to document student participation, it also protects taxpayers.
Of course, this seat/screen time approach isn’t perfect. It’s somewhat bureaucratic, and it can’t assure us that students are actually mastering course material (though report cards help in that respect). Yet implementing an FTE review akin to what e-schools are subject to would be a good first step in accountability for remote learning. As this educational model evolves, policymakers should consider other policy frameworks that allow schools to verify participation through course completion or, better yet, competency. Much would need to be ironed out, however, regarding how those models work in practice.
Though most parents and students long to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms, Ohio should nevertheless plan for a future in which remote learning is more widespread. As we’ve seen, getting remote learning right is hard, whether it’s being done by e-schools or on the fly by traditional schools. At a basic level, families and students need the necessary computer hardware and internet access. Another piece of the puzzle is the capacity and know-how needed for schools to provide quality remote learning opportunities. The final piece is strong oversight and accountability. If policymakers can put the pieces together, a brighter future will emerge for students who need or want to learn at home.
Interdistrict open enrollment is the biggest school-choice program that practically nobody ever mentions, perhaps because it’s less conspicuous and more socially acceptable than its cousins, private school vouchers and public charter schools. But it could be doing so much more for the children of Ohio.
Essentially, open enrollment allows students to register and attend classes in a school district other than the one where they live. It’s popular, too. As the graph shows, more than 80,000 Ohio students availed themselves of the opportunity in 2018–19.
Figure 1: Annual student participation in interdistrict open enrollment 2003-2019
Don’t blame us at Fordham for its relative obscurity. Open enrollment crops up all the time in the Ohio Gadfly, and three years ago we published a report by professors Deven Carlson and Stéphane Lavertu that analyzed its academic impact. They found that open-enrolling over multiple years is linked to test-score gains, albeit modest ones, and that Black open enrollees especially benefit. Open enrollment throughout high school also boosts the odds of on-time graduation.
Earlier this month, a Fordham policy brief recommended that Ohio shift away from a punitive, top-down school accountability system to one focused on transparency and school choice. As part of that, we proposed requiring every district in the state to participate in open enrollment, which is not the case today. Currently, each local school board decides whether its district will take part and, if so, whether it will admit students from any Ohio district or only from adjacent districts. Each participating district also decides how many transfer students it can accommodate and establishes a fair process for admitting them (it can’t cherry pick). That’s pretty much it.
Given how many districts participate, that process must not be too stressful. In recent years, 70 percent of districts accepted students from anywhere in the state and another 10 percent welcomed pupils from neighboring districts. But participation isn’t what most people would call equitable. Figure 2 helps visualize it:
Figure 2: Ohio school districts by open-enrollment status 2013-14 school year
While the map’s a few years old, the picture it shows is true today: Across huge swaths of the state, nearly every school system participates. But look again and you will see that, around Ohio’s major cities, it’s a different story. Their choice-hostile neighbors, mostly prosperous suburban school districts, are at the crux of Fordham’s recommendation. Consistent with the research of Carlson and Lavertu, we believe that Ohio’s most disadvantaged students—many of whom live in cities surrounded by districts walled off to open enrollment—could benefit from access to more public school choice.
It’s easy for districts to opt into open enrollment. The question is why so many suburban districts, one of which I live in, don’t roll out the welcome mat.
A legitimate objection to open borders is “we’re completely full.” Some suburban school districts are fast growing and their school buildings may well be full or nearly so. But surely that’s not true in every district (or every building) that has opted out of open enrollment. In any case, all we’re suggesting is that districts participate in open enrollment to the extent they have existing capacity. Participating districts would never be required to build a new school or expand an existing one. If the district has no openings, it simply doesn’t take any students that year.
The other usual objection to open enrollment is that it costs too much, and at first glance there’s something to this. The average amount spent per pupil in Ohio in 2018–19 was $12,472—including state, local, and federal revenues—but a student entering via open enrollment brings just $6,020, all of it state funds. Why would any districts take nonresident students? The answer lies in the difference between fixed and variable costs.
Suppose a third-grade elementary classroom in a non-participating district has eighteen students. This district generally aims for twenty-two pupils per class in grades three through five. Its per-pupil funding for its existing students already pays for the teacher, building administration, support staff, and other fixed costs. If the district opted into open enrollment and accepted four additional students, it would receive an additional $24,000 without likely increasing any fixed costs. As long as the variable cost of another student, such as purchasing textbooks or a Chromebook, is less than $6,000, the district still comes out ahead financially by taking part in open enrollment. Its own residents won’t have their taxes raised to “make up the difference” between the money an open-enrolling student brings with her and the average cost of education in the district.
In sum, any Ohio school district can participate in open enrollment. And the vast majority do. Yet there remains a ring of non-participating districts around the state’s urban centers. It’s not an issue of capacity or cost, as every district decides for itself how many students can enroll and state dollars more than cover the variable costs. Whatever is causing those suburban doors to remain closed, it’s time that the state insist that they open up to open enrollment. They’re public schools, aren’t they?
 For comparison purposes, around 52,000 students used vouchers in 2018-19, and 103,000 students attended charter schools.
School’s out for the summer, but thanks to coronavirus, the season seems far less carefree than usual. There are dozens of pandemic-related issues schools must contend with before they can reopen in the fall. Chief among them are potentially huge learning losses that could exacerbate achievement gaps.
As educators and administrators spend the summer identifying the best methods for catching students up, they would be wise to prioritize tutoring. For most people, the term “tutoring” conjures images of struggling students staying after school to seek help from a teacher. And in most cases, that’s exactly what schools offer. But these types of programs are typically ad hoc and sporadically implemented. They are not the type of tutoring programs that research has proven to be effective. To successfully address the impacts of coronavirus closures, schools will need something far more organized and meaningful once it’s safe for them to fully reopen.
That’s where high-dosage tutoring (HDT) comes in. In a recent Brookings piece, Matthew Kraft and Michael Goldstein argue that HDT has a “sizeable body of gold-standard evidence” that proves it can produce the kinds of large learning gains needed in the wake of this pandemic. They identify several critical differences between traditional tutoring and HDT. For instance, HDT tutors work full-time with the same students at a single school throughout the entire school year. Students meet with their tutor daily and the program is universal, which means all students participate, not just those who are struggling. Content is personalized for students, and ratios are limited to ensure one-on-one attention. In short, HDT is an intentional intervention effort that addresses students’ unique needs, rather than a first-come, first-served extracurricular activity.
Implementing HDT in schools where assessments show that students have lost the most academic ground could help Ohio mitigate the impact of coronavirus closures. Given the solid research base for its impact on student learning, it’s certainly worth a shot. But how could state leaders make it work?
One option is for the state to follow Tennessee’s lead and work with local nonprofit and philanthropic organizations to establish a corps of highly-trained tutors. The recently established Tennessee Tutoring Corps aims to connect college students with K–6 students to provide summer sessions in core subjects like math or reading. Tutors must meet certain qualifications, such as having a 3.0 GPA and passing a background check, and they must complete online training modules. Since this summer marks the start of the program, there are no data on its effectiveness. And since it’s a summer initiative, rather than a year-round one, it lacks some of the key components of HDT. But Ohio officials could use Tennessee’s program as a blueprint for creating their own HDT model that lasts year-round and is implemented in schools where students need the most help catching up. Leveraging college students—a largely untapped source of educated adults—could be a promising solution.
Another option would be for state leaders to treat HDT the same way other states treat standards and curriculum. State officials could establish guidelines that outline what a quality HDT program looks like. They could do the heavy lifting of identifying effective programs and models, offering training to prospective tutors, and providing funding for schools to contract with providers that have proven track records. Actual decisions and implementation efforts, however, would be left up to local leaders. Some of the best HDT models are run by individual schools and charter management organizations, so this bottom-up approach might be best—particularly because it will ensure local buy-in.
Of course, the downside to these and other tutoring options is the expense. One of the reasons HDT hasn’t been implemented on a massive scale is because there are high upfront costs. The MATCH program, for example, costs approximately $3,800 annually per student. The Tennessee Tutoring Corps is preparing to provide tutors with stipends of up to $1,000, and that’s in addition to other program costs. Given the serious economic downturn the state is currently struggling through, it’s understandable that policymakers would want to avoid additional expenses. (Though it’s possible federal relief funding could help foot the bill.)
But as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. The educational impacts of coronavirus are serious and significant, and they aren’t going to disappear overnight. The achievement and growth gaps that will widen in the wake of this pandemic might seem abstract now, but they will become very real for students. Funding intervention programs like high-dosage tutoring will cost the state millions in the short-term. But investing in students now is the right thing to do—for the sake of both short- and long-term outcomes.