In its recent guidance on reopening schools, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated “deeply rooted social and educational inequities.” Sadly, that’s exactly right.
In its recent guidance on reopening schools, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated “deeply rooted social and educational inequities.” Sadly, that’s exactly right. While many of these inequities aren’t new, the pandemic has made them more obvious—and more damaging—than before.
Consider connectivity. In today’s increasingly digital world, lack of internet means lack of access to job listings and application portals, education opportunities, telehealth services, and myriad other necessities. Internet access is no longer a luxury. It’s a public utility. And only the high-speed version is truly functional.
Unfortunately, nearly one million Ohioans, residing in more than 300,000 households, don’t have access to high-speed internet. Cleveland is the fourth worst-connected city in the nation—44 percent of homes have no broadband service beyond data plans on cell phones, and 40 percent of families with students enrolled in the city school district don’t have an internet connection. Cleveland isn’t alone, though. Nor is it just a city problem. Broad swaths of the state, many of them rural, have no broadband access at all.
These numbers were worrisome even before the pandemic. But when schools were forced to take education digital this spring, the seriousness of the problem became more apparent. Remote learning efforts have been far from perfect. But for students who lack internet or a workable device, even limited educational opportunities have been out of reach. The learning loss implications could be dire, especially for the low-income students who are least likely to have decent connectivity.
Due to the pandemic’s unpredictable nature, many schools expect to offer remote or blended learning as they reopen in coming weeks. But the connectivity shortfalls have not disappeared. If the state really believes that each child deserves access to “relevant and challenging academic experiences and educational resources,” then it’s time to do something about connectivity. But what?
Let’s understand that connectivity—for students in particular—is a two-pronged problem. When experts say students lack it, they don’t just mean access to high-speed internet. They also mean access to internet-enabled devices that are conducive to school work (smart phones don’t count). This two-pronged problem requires a two-pronged solution.
In terms of broadband access, the sheer size and cost of the problem lends itself to state-level solutions. Fortunately, Ohio leaders recognized this long before Covid-19 arrived. In December, the governor’s office released The Ohio Broadband Strategy, which outlines the administration’s plan to bring high-speed access to every Ohioan. It contains several goals, including implementing a statewide grant program to bring internet to underserved areas, encouraging investments in innovative technologies, and developing digital literacy programs. One of its most promising goals is to identify a state agency that could house a broadband office charged with centralizing oversight of internet expansion. Such an office could and should make it a priority to ensure that all of Ohio’s K–12 students have internet access.
A few weeks ago, Lieutenant Governor Husted told reporters that the pandemic has “increased the importance” of these strategic efforts. That’s good news. But state leaders also need to bear in mind that there are places—like Cleveland—where limited access is a matter of cost to families, not of broadband presence. The pandemic has triggered plenty of philanthropic efforts to provide free or affordable internet access to low-income families. The state could step in and help make these affordability efforts more widespread, comprehensive, and permanent.
When it comes to devices, on the other hand, solutions should be decentralized. Device disparities vary considerably between communities, and even within them. It’s best to let local leaders continue to assess the scope, identify solutions, and implement them. Several Ohio districts are already one-to-one, meaning that each student is assigned an internet-enabled device at the start of the school year. Many other districts began distributing devices during school closures this spring. Going forward, these efforts should continue and expand. They will likely require financial support from the state, philanthropy, and businesses.
The pandemic has shed a brighter light on Ohio’s large and complicated connectivity problem. It’s good news that there are state level plans and community-led initiatives to eliminate disparities. But it’s important that these efforts don’t stop when the pandemic loosens its grip.
With Covid-19 cases rising in Ohio and other parts of the nation, a depressing reality is starting to set in: A whole lot of schools aren’t going to open for in-person learning this fall. Los Angeles and San Diego have announced they’ll begin the school year remotely; so have districts in Maryland and Virginia. Here in Ohio, Middletown, Cleveland, Columbus, and Bowling Green school districts have said they’ll start the year entirely online; several charter schools have as well. Others are leaning in this direction.
It’s hard to blame education leaders for their decision given the uncertainty and public health questions. But keeping schools closed is terrible news for Ohio students, especially those who most need in-person instruction. Research from earlier this spring suggests that low-income pupils probably lost significant ground and are likely to see further learning losses this fall. News coverage has likewise documented the heartbreaking struggles of English language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities (SWD) during the health crisis.
These last two groups already face significant academic challenges and they will likely face a steep “Covid slide” as well. Consider Figure 1, which shows the fraction of English language learners scoring “limited,” the lowest achievement mark on Ohio’s state tests, in 2018–19. Scoring at this achievement level isn’t barely missing the “proficient” cut off—it represents scores that are well below proficient. As the state puts it, students at the limited level have “minimal command of Ohio’s learning standards.” The chart below shows that one-in-three to two-in-five of English language learners score at the lowest level depending on the grade and subject. Those numbers could easily rise due to the additional out-of-school time.
Figure 1: Percent scoring limited on selected Ohio state exams by ELL status, 2018–19
Source: Ohio Department of Education, Advanced Reports.
The next chart shows the performance of students with disabilities. Bear in mind first that about 75 percent of them have relatively mild disabilities that, while posing additional challenges, shouldn’t cause insurmountable obstacles to achieving proficiency given proper supports. Nevertheless, we see that a significant number of students with disabilities achieve at the limited level on state exams, anywhere from 35 percent in third grade ELA to 62 percent in algebra I.
Figure 2: Percent scoring limited on selected Ohio state exams by SWD status, 2018–19
This isn’t just a statistical exercise. Behind these numbers are tens of thousands of students who are having real difficulties meeting state standards, even under “normal” circumstances. They are in desperate need of the help that great teachers and support staff can provide. Unfortunately, with so many schools going remote again this fall, they may not receive the special services necessary for continued progress.
There are no easy, ready-made solutions to address the needs of special-education students during this crisis. But to help, the Annenberg Institute at Brown University has a concise summary of evidence-based strategies for students with disabilities, and TNTP has offered suggestions about providing quality remote instruction for English language learners. Those are excellent resources especially for educators. What can Ohio’s state leaders do? Here are three ideas.
- Advocate on behalf of special-needs students. While not a policy solution per se, state officials could use their bully pulpits to voice concerns about the hardships that special-needs students will face as their schools remain shut. They could put the issue on the media’s radar, prioritize special-needs students at state board of education meetings, or share parents’ perspectives about the challenges of at-home education. This use of “soft power” could encourage schools to do their very best to educate Ohio’s neediest children, whether online or in person (see #3).
- Create a tutoring program that supports English language learners and students with disabilities. As my Gadfly colleague Jessica Poiner and others have written, high-quality tutoring is a proven strategy that can lift achievement. Ohio could follow in Tennessee’s footsteps and create a statewide tutoring corps that provides one-on-one or small group instruction over the internet and gives priority placement to special-needs students. Planning, recruitment, and training should start sooner than later, perhaps with an aim of program launch in early 2021. Such a program might be financially supported through forthcoming federal aid that is expected to pass in the coming weeks.
- Encourage schools to provide in-person instruction to students with special needs. The state should encourage, or perhaps even require, schools to reopen and serve at least English language learners and students with disabilities. These student groups typically comprise 10 to 20 percent of a school’s overall enrollment. As such, most schools should have the physical capacity to provide safe, in-person instruction to these students, even if they remain closed to the wider student body. This type of selective reopening has also been suggested by analysts from McKinsey & Company and the Center for American Progress.
With Ohio's two largest school districts announcing they'll start the year fully remote, it wouldn't be surprising to see more follow suit in the days ahead. We all hope that schools will provide much-improved remote learning opportunities this fall. But it can't be taken for granted, especially for students with special needs. Because of their unique needs, remote learning is unlikely to fully unlock their academic potential. State leaders need to recognize this immense challenge, and forcefully advocate on behalf of Ohio's English language learners and students with disabilities.
It’s important to give Ohio school districts’ reopening plans a close look, even if they’re now void in the many locales around the state that will start the fall fully online. Eventually—hopefully sooner rather than later—this pandemic will fade, and schools will be right back in the positions they were in earlier this summer, needing to create reopening plans again. These initial drafts could give us a glimpse of what might happen down the road.
Columbus and Dayton are instructive examples. On July 28, Columbus City Schools (CCS) announced that it would reopen entirely online this fall. A few days later, Dayton Public Schools (DPS) announced that it would do the same. But remote learning wasn’t always the plan. A few weeks ago, both districts published reopening plans that included at least some type of in-person instruction.
Although they share several similarities in regard to student demographics and achievement, the two district’s reopening plans were very different. Dayton planned to hit the ground running and resume regular, in-person classes for all students. Columbus, on the other hand, chose to ease back in with a blended model that had students in grades K–8 attending in-person two days a week and learning at home during the other three. Students in grades 9–12 would have been fully remote. Both districts also planned to offer a fully online option for families who were hesitant to send their students back in-person. In Dayton, families were required to commit to the “totally digital” option for the duration of the school year. In Columbus, students had (and still have) the option of enrolling in CCS Digital Academy, but are only required to remain enrolled for the first semester of the year.
The upshot is that two of Ohio’s largest districts initially planned to take very different approaches to reopening. It’s too early to know how similar their future reopening plans will be to their original ones. But the reasoning behind the initial decisions is important.
For instance, some of the differences were likely attributable to health data. Columbus and Dayton are located in counties with very different Covid-19 numbers. Columbus is in Franklin County, where case and death counts are the highest in the state. Dayton, on the other hand, is located in Montgomery County, where numbers are lower (though still high). Based on this data, it’s understandable why CCS was more hesitant to fully reopen than Dayton.
But health data isn’t the only data that matters. In its initial reopening announcement, DPS said that it made decisions “after consultations with the Department of Health, other Montgomery County school districts, and in consideration of parent survey results.” The results of these surveys don’t appear to be posted anywhere, but the district previously stated that they were “overwhelmingly in favor of resuming normal, in-person classes this fall.” CCS also conducted parent surveys. But unlike DPS, its results were mixed: 38 percent favored their children attending in-person, 24 percent favored attending online, and 38 percent preferred a combination of both. Although it’s impossible to be sure without examining DPS’s survey results, it appears that both districts were responding to what their families wanted.
There are other issues to consider, too. “The key factor in making the decision was the fact that we have to have our kids back in school,” DPS superintendent Elizabeth Lolli told reporters after the district’s initial announcement. “I had 600 of my students not showing up online (at all this spring) and depending on the school, I was anywhere between 35% and 76% of students showing up for the online lessons. I can’t have that kind of ratio of learning occurring in the district.” In a separate media story that also emphasized attendance issues, Lolli told reporters, “If we have to stay on remote learning this school year, we will lose a generation of readers.”
CCS didn’t explicitly acknowledge spring attendance issues in its initial plan. The district did note that it would track both student attendance and idle time for students in its Digital Academy, and attendance for high schoolers who were learning remotely. For the most part, though, the majority of CCS’s focus seemed to be on health and safety concerns rather than in-person learning. “We want to make sure that our students enter, [and] come to school safe,” Superintendent Talisa Dixon told reporters. “If we cannot do that with the current number of cases, then we won’t do it...we will not put our students, families and staff in jeopardy.”
Of course, that’s not to say that DPS wasn’t focused on health and safety. It’s just that Columbus and Dayton reflected two sides of a larger debate about how to reopen schools. And therein lies the rub. Even if every district in the state opts to go virtual this fall, in-person reopening won’t cease to be an issue. It’ll just be kicked down the road. Eventually, schools will be faced with the same decisions again. School leaders will be right back in the unenviable position of balancing the health and safety of students and staff with the serious academic consequences of extended school closures, all in the midst of one of the most divisive periods in our nation’s history.
There are no easy answers. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few months, it’s how unpredictable this pandemic is. Going forward, flexibility will be key. And in that regard, Ohio’s districts have already proven that they’re on the right path.
One of the starkest differences between charter and traditional district schools is in the area of facilities funding. While districts nationwide raise tens of billions of dollars annually via state and local taxpayers for building and renovating schools, classroom, gyms, and labs—funding that is entirely separate from further billions spent on maintaining, outfitting, and staffing those facilities—charter schools began with no dedicated facilities funding or taxing authority and remain far behind their district peers today. But things are taking a turn for the better, as a new report from the Charter School Facility Center spells out.
The report takes a deeper look at charter facilities funding in the eighteen states that provide it, including Ohio, building off a previous snapshot of funding laws published by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools back in September. What we can see from this analysis is incremental progress amidst a complex array of funding plans.
The authors start by noting the three basic types of funding structures: Ohio is among eleven states and the District of Columbia that fund charter facilities via payments supplemental to basic per-pupil aid; five other states embed facilities funding in their per-pupil aid formula; and one state—New York—has a hybrid model that requires districts to provide space for charters as co-locations within district buildings or via rent payments in another building. (This unique and complex model is not analyzed further within the report.)
The funding amounts and formulas used to calculate them vary across states but are generally tied to student population and are varying fractions of the amounts provided to districts in those states—some more generous than others. In Idaho, that proportional relationship is clearly spelled out in state statute and has been followed over the years. In California, Indiana, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, the authors write, funding amounts “do not seem to be tied to anything and the rationale for choosing the amount is not specified” in law. The difference between statutory amounts and actuals in supplemental-funding states is shown via an eye-opening chart. Spoiler alert: Schools don’t always get what the law indicates that they should. There is less variation, it appears, in embedded-funding states, and the amounts provided in all states range from approximately $200 per charter student in Pennsylvania and Texas to over $2,100 per charter student for high schools in Arizona. Ohio is on this low end as well, providing $200 per student in brick-and-mortar schools but it is unique in providing facilities funding—a predictably-modest $25 per student—to virtual schools.
The next complicating factor is school eligibility for aid. These are generally statutorily-mandated and range from grade levels served, to school quality, to building ownership status, to student demographics. For example, Minnesota provides different amounts for elementary and high schools, five states will only provide funding to high academic performers, and several states provide different funds (or no funds at all) to renters versus schools who own their buildings outright. Florida and Arizona rely the most on eligibility factors; seven and five different hoops to jump through, respectively.
Finally, the report looks at use restrictions for facilities funding. Four states limit facilities funding to lease reimbursement only, four other states include mortgage payments and maintenance expenditures, and two states allow charters to spend it on transportation expenses…with restrictions. One state and the District of Columbia do not specify any use restrictions in their statutes.
Despite all of these complexities, the general trend for charter facilities funding amounts is upward. Every one of the supplemental aid states has increased its total appropriation in the years since adopting a per-pupil aid program with California, Florida, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia experiencing the largest increases. Overall increases have occurred in Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, New Mexico, and Ohio, as well, but the trend has not always been a straight line. Ditto for per-pupil funding amounts, with a different roster of states experiencing some downturns, several flat years, and some upticks. Overall, however, per-pupil amounts for all states are heading upward. That has accelerated in recent years, the authors note, although analysis stops well before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The report concludes with peripheral discussion of what these trends might mean, largely informed by other research reports far beyond the scope of this one. Fordham’s knowledge of charter facilities struggles in the Buckeye State goes beyond mere numbers. As of 2015, Ohio charters reported spending an average of $785 per pupil obtaining and maintaining school buildings while receiving just $200 per pupil for those purposes from the state. The difference was made up with general operating funds which could instead have been spent on teachers, books, and other critical student supports. And money itself is not the sole factor in securing and maintaining school buildings: disposition of former district schools and access to credit favor districts over charters at every turn. No district makes the sorts of calculations that charters must due to the breadth and depth of their facilities funding. Charter schools in Ohio and most other states have a long way to go before they are in that enviable position.
SOURCE: Jim Griffin and Brooke Quisenberry, “State Policy Analysis: Per-pupil facility funding,” Charter School Facility Center (July 2020).