As winter turns to spring, the question roiling the General Assembly is what Ohio should do about chronically underperforming school districts.
As winter turns to spring, the question roiling the General Assembly is what Ohio should do about chronically underperforming school districts. Setting off the debate has been a drumbeat of negative press highlighting complaints about academic distress commissions (ADCs), the state’s mechanism for district intervention. The grievances, largely from adults with vested interests in the failed status quo, center on the weakening of local authority, despite years of ineptitude that put them under the thumb of the state in the first place. In response, several lawmakers have to significantly walk back ADCs.
Into this mix, State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria recently issued his statutorily required report on ADCs. Superintendent DeMaria’s thoughtful analysis of the current situation is worth a read, and a number of his ideas have already found their way into Governor Mike DeWine’s recently released budget legislation ( ). However, though there is for Ohio’s district turnaround policies, the solutions put forward by DeMaria and included in HB 166 are not the right path forward. It’s an overly technocratic, too-trusting proposal that is a far cry from the decisive action needed in districts producing academic that no policymaker would accept from their own children’s schools.
The central problem with the HB 166 framework is that it rests its hope on a state superintendent who has the will to withstand political pushback and a desire to roll up their sleeves and do what Superintendent DeMaria has called “extremely challenging and difficult work.” Even if our current superintendent is up to that task, no one can discern whether a future chief would be willing to bear these responsibilities. With little accountability pressure baked into the system on the superintendent to lead bold reforms in failing districts, chances are slim that this proposal will yield the transformative changes needed to improve student achievement. With this, let’s dive into the details.
Bring in the technocrats
Under DeMaria’s plan, if a district receives an overall F on its report card, the state superintendent must designate it as in need of “substantial and intensive support.” This triggers reviews by the Ohio Department of Education, along with an agreement between ODE and the district that spells out their respective duties. These light-touch first steps are a solid start. But then things go haywire. The state superintendent must appoint four advisory committees on academics, governance, fiscal stewardship, and community relations. However, three of these committees—all except community relations—would entirely consist of current or former district superintendents, school board members, and treasurers. The belief seems to be that only school officials have the answers to the challenges facing troubled districts. Don’t get me wrong, requiring a superintendent to sit on an academic committee makes perfect sense. Yet shutting out parents with children in the district, business and philanthropic leaders, nonprofit executives, or university professors—as if they have nothing to offer—would likely yield narrow ideas that further entrench the status quo rather than challenge it.
No automatic intervention
After two years of gentle “substantial and intensive support,” the state superintendent has the authority—should he or she choose—to require districts to undertake a turnaround intervention. The key part of the legislation reads (emphasis mine):
“The state superintendent shall establish a school district improvement intervention for any school district that meets one of the following conditions: 1) The district has been designated as in substantial and intensive support status for not less than two consecutive years, and the state superintendent has determined that the district has not complied with its expectation and support agreement … or has not made sufficient progress in making academic improvement.”
Unlike current law that mandates state action via ADCs when districts receive three straight F’s, intervention under HB 166 is at the discretion of the state superintendent. He or she gets to decide whether the district has “complied” or made “sufficient progress.” For instance, a state superintendent can simply avoid intervening by deeming a district “in compliance,” a determination that is entirely his or hers to make. This loophole allows for the possibility that no district will be required to undertake an actual turnaround, no matter how awful its performance.
Buffet of options
What if a state superintendent actually decides to intervene? Under HB 166, various options would be at his or her disposal. The table below shows the spectrum of possibilities—from almost comically soft interventions (the “assistive option”) to more serious approaches, such as mayoral control or a CEO that reports directly to the state superintendent. The problem is that, with soft options on the table, the paths of least resistance are more likely to be trodden. It would take an unusually gutsy state superintendent—or one who is being pressured by the state board and/or governor—to choose a more forceful turnaround option. While providing a limited number of options is reasonable, the menu shouldn’t enable superintendents to duck responsibility via weak interventions.
Calling it quits
The current ADC law provides clear, objective criteria by which districts earn the right to transition out of intervention status. HB 166, however, does not. Though the proposal does automatically remove districts from support and intervention status when they earn a C or above overall rating, it also permits the state superintendent to call it quits based on their own determination about the academic performance of the district. As a result, districts earning D’s and F’s while in intervention could be released solely because the state superintendent is facing political pressure.
State legislators shouldn’t give up on interventions in troubled districts—or punt that decision to the state superintendent. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
 The second condition refers to districts with existing ADCs. In those cases, the state superintendent decides whether to continue with the current ADC or select another intervention approach as discussed above. However, he or she cannot avoid some form of intervention for such districts.
 An F rated district exiting intervention status due to the determination of the superintendent would presumably revert to the “substantial and intensive support” status.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the increasingly loud kerfuffle surrounding academic distress commissions, or ADCs. Often referred to as “state takeovers” by the media, ADCs are a mechanism in law that calls for state intervention in low-performing school districts. ADCs have, but the General Assembly passed a bill in 2015 that the state’s level of intervention and also led to a considerable amount of controversy.
The primary criticism of the current ADC framework is that it’s an affront to local control.that lessen the power of the local school board and empower an ADC-appointed CEO rather than a traditional superintendent are widely viewed as infringements on local decision-making power. Critics also argue that the CEO isn’t required to be as transparent or accountable to communities as traditional district boards and superintendents.
For some, the only solution to these issues is to toss the ADC model. But doing so would be unwise. The state has an obligation to taxpayers and, most importantly, families to step in when students aren’t being served well. Doing so often requires disrupting the status quo that has led to unacceptable student outcomes. Thehave consistently weak academic growth, low college completion rates, and poor proficiency rates. Some of them have been performing poorly for a decade, maybe more. Jettisoning the model rather than investigating would be a dereliction of the state’s responsibility.
Fortunately, a recently proposed bill,, takes a more positive and measured approach. It doesn’t solve all the issues associated with the difficult work of school turnarounds, but it does address some of the major criticisms of the current system.
First, the bill provides more local input on the selection of an ADC’s five members. Under current law, one is appointed by the president of the district’s school board, one is appointed by the city mayor, and three are appointed by the state superintendent, of which one must be a resident of the district. SB 110 changes this by transferring one of the state superintendent’s appointees to the mayor, thereby making the majority of an ADC’s members local appointees. This is a significant change that ensures more local input in the selection of the CEO, who is appointed by an ADC and is responsible for drafting the district’s improvement plan as well as running day-to-day operations.
The bill also holds CEOs more accountable for results. For instance, it requires CEOs to appear before the local school board to give quarterly reports on district progress, which should provide the general public with more consistent information. It also directs an ADC to conduct annual performance evaluations of the CEO that are then submitted to the board, and empowers the board to request additional evaluations—though the bill sets this at an excessive and overly bureaucratic four times a year, which lawmakers should reduce to two.
Neither provision alters CEOs’ power. The board can’t reward, discipline, or dismiss them. And they would still have the ability to make significant changes that could improve student achievement and growth. But these are nevertheless valuable transparency measures.
SB 110 also requires more engagement from the state auditor and Ohio Department of Education. Under currentand , the agency can choose to conduct a “site evaluation” of a building or district. The bill would instead require the department to conduct a site visit each year in an ADC—an important change given the that have mandated similar oversight. Meanwhile, the state auditor would be required to conduct annual for the district, providing independent, third party help that would improve ADC performance and efficiency.
Right now, SB 110 only applies to Lorain City Schools. That’s understandable since the bill sponsor, Senator Nathan Manning, represents constituents from the Lorain area. But these common sense provisions should extend to all districts that are or may eventually be under ADC control. School turnarounds are hard and complicated, but they’re also extremely important. Passing SB 110 and expanding its provisions to all ADCs is the best path forward.
Authorized in, (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 , with Lorain added in , and finally East Cleveland in . 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 , 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 controversialthey’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 —supported by former Governor Kasich—that greatly strengthened this intervention model. Last year, a 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.
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 decliningas well.
Figure 1: Enrollment of ADC school districts, 1980 to 2019 (selected years)
Source: Ohio Department of Education,
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.  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
Figure 3: Proficiency rates on state math exams, 2015–16 to 2017–18
Source: Ohio Department of Education,(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, pleasethat!) 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
Source: Ohio Department of Education,(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’scontrols for students’ prior state test scores and produces 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
Source: Ohio Department of Education,.
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
Source: Ohio Department of Education,. 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.
 The Big Eight refers to Ohio’s high-poverty urban districts: Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.
NOTE: Today the Ohio House of Representative’s Primary and Secondary Education Committee heard testimony on House Bill 127, a measure which would put a moratorium on new Academic Distress Commissions being enacted for consistently low-performing school districts. Fordham vice president Chad Aldis testified as an opponent of the bill. This is the written version his testimony.
Thank you, Chair Blessing, Vice Chair Jones, Ranking Member Robinson and House Education Committee members for giving me the opportunity today to provide testimony in opposition to House Bill 127.
My name is Chad Aldis, and I am the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The Fordham Institute is an education-focused nonprofit that conducts research, analysis, and policy advocacy with offices in Columbus, Dayton, and Washington, D.C.
In 2015, when this body reworked the original academic distress commission (ADC) law via House Bill 70, the motivation behind the changes was simple: Persistently low-performing schools weren’t making significant improvements and stronger interventions were needed.
Despite these good intentions, HB 70 has resulted in considerable controversy and criticism. The updated law substantially lessened the power of the local school board. This diminishing of local control, combined with the inherent difficulty and complexity of school turnarounds, has caused significant frustration in districts under the control of an ADC.
With that in mind, it’s understandable why House Bill 127’s sponsors want to prohibit the state superintendent from establishing any additional academic distress commissions. But doing so would undercut the reason ADCs were created in the first place. Namely, consistently poor performing schools are harmful to students, families, and communities. They produce young people who are unprepared for college or the workplace—students who rack up student loan debt while taking remedial classes, graduates who have trouble finding a job paying a living wage, and businesses that struggle to find the well-prepared employees they need to flourish. The state has an obligation to families and taxpayers to step in when schools are struggling to help students make academic progress year after year. Putting a moratorium on ADCs will do nothing to improve the underlying problem.
The bill would also leave current academic distress commissions in place without making substantive changes. We believe a better path forward would be to adopt Senate Bill 110 from Senator Nathan Manning. SB 110 addresses many of the key issues causing difficulties under the current ADC model. It provides more local input on the selection of the ADC’s five members; requires CEOs to appear before the local school board to give quarterly reports on district progress; directs ADCs to conduct annual performance evaluations of the CEO that are then submitted to the board, and requires more engagement from the ODE and the State Auditor. In short, struggling districts would still face pressure to improve, but state intervention would be more transparent and more open to local feedback and input.
Academic turnarounds aren’t easy. But students deserve a high quality school, and there are times when the state has a duty to intervene on their behalf.
I’m happy to answer any questions that you may have.
NOTE: Today the Ohio Senate’s Education Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 110, a measure which would alter the state’s current academic distress framework for consistently low-performing school districts. Fordham vice president Chad Aldis testified as a proponent of the bill. This is the written version his testimony.
Thank you, Chair Lehner, Vice Chair Terhar, Ranking Member Fedor and Senate Education Committee members for giving me the opportunity today to provide testimony in support of Senate Bill 110.
My name is Chad Aldis, and I am the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The Fordham Institute is an education-focused nonprofit that conducts research, analysis, and policy advocacy with offices in Columbus, Dayton, and Washington, D.C.
As many of you know, Fordham has long been a strong supporter of school accountability and transparency. We believe that families and taxpayers deserve to have clear information about their schools and that they have the right to be involved in decision making. We also believe that the state has a responsibility to ensure that low-performing districts and schools improve for the sake of their students.
The academic distress commission (ADC) model was created back in 2005 to do just that. In 2015, this body modified the original law via House Bill 70 in an attempt to allow for even stronger interventions. Those interventions substantially lessened the power of the local school board and empowered an ADC-appointed CEO. As implementation has rolled out, ADCs have been subject to significant controversy and criticism. There is no doubt that some of this criticism is warranted. The ADC model that is currently in place does lessen local control of schools, and it’s true that appointed CEOs aren’t required by law to be as transparent or accountable to local citizens as traditional district boards and superintendents.
Some have argued that the best way to solve these problems is to abolish the ADC model entirely. But doing so would be unwise. The state still has an obligation to taxpayers and families to step in when students aren’t being served well, and the districts currently under ADC control have demonstrated weak academic attainment and low levels of student growth. Some of them have struggled for a decade or more. Jettisoning the ADC model rather than improving it would be politically popular, but it would come at the expense of students.
Senate Bill 110 strategically addresses some of the underlying issues of the current ADC model without giving poorly performing districts a free pass. Under this bill, struggling districts would still face pressure to improve, but state intervention would be more transparent and more open to local feedback and input.
For example, under current law, an ADC is made up of five members: three who are appointed by the state superintendent, one who is appointed by the president of the district’s board of education, and one who is appointed by the mayor. This means the majority of ADC members are appointed by a state official instead of a local one. Senate Bill 110 would shift one of the state superintendent’s appointees to the mayor, thereby making the majority of the commission’s members local appointees. That is a significant change, since ADC members are responsible for appointing the district’s CEO.
The bill also increases accountability and transparency provisions related to the CEO. For instance, it requires the ADC to conduct an annual performance evaluation of the CEO and submit it to the district board. Although the district board has no power to reward, discipline, or dismiss the CEO, an annual evaluation is an important transparency measure. The bill also requires the CEO to appear before the district board to make a quarterly report on the progress being made by the district—an important change, since district board meetings are open to the public.
SB 110 also requires more engagement from the state auditor and Ohio Department of Education. Under current law, ODE can choose to conduct a “site evaluation” of a building or district. The bill would instead require the department to conduct a site visit each year in Lorain—an important change given that successful turnaround efforts in other states have mandated similar oversight and engagement. Meanwhile, the state auditor would be required to conduct annual performance audits for the district, providing independent, third party help that would improve ADC performance and efficiency.
Despite these promising provisions, there are a few additions that would make Senate Bill 110 even stronger. First, the bill as written only applies to Lorain City Schools. We recommend that the common sense changes proposed in this bill be put in place for all districts currently under ADC control, as well as those that will be placed under ADC control in the future. Second, the bill as written would allow local school boards to request a performance evaluation of the CEO up to four times per year. While it is vital that the CEO receive an annual performance review, doing so four times a year is excessive. We recommend that this provision be changed to limit the number of CEO evaluations to two each year.
Improving low performing schools is hard work. But it’s not impossible. In New Orleans, school turnaround efforts have led to an increase in student achievement, high school graduation, college attendance, and college graduation. In Massachusetts, evaluation by Harvard researchers has shown strong academic gains for students attending Lawrence School District, the first Massachusetts district to go into state receivership. If Ohio wants to follow in the footsteps of these successful turnaround efforts, it needs to do the work to find a balance between local control, strong accountability, and transparency rather than just throwing in the towel. We believe that Senate Bill 110 is a positive step in that direction.
Gadfly Bites 3/15/19 – “The governor must not let the children of Youngstown become pawns in the political games in Columbus”
- Well well well. Perhaps not everyone in Ohio has lost their minds. The Youngstown branch of the NAACP seems pretty darn supportive of the new(ish) academic distress paradigm and pleased with the changes wrought by it in Youngstown City Schools over the last 2+ years. “Our students are making a year’s worth of growth in a year’s worth of time,” said a district rep at a gathering this week, among other accomplishments unthinkable prior to ADC. That is huge and important news that should be shouted from the rooftops if you ask me. (Youngstown Vindicator, 3/14/19) Well well well well. Editors at the Vindy opine forcefully with the same message, and more besides. Today’s Bites headline comes from their collective pen. (Youngstown Vindicator, 3/14/19)
- Those political games reviled by the folks in Youngstown are summarized pretty handily by this piece from the Chronicle. The legislation proposed to end a state intervention that’s actually working to correct manifold sins of the past, the fake “chaos” decried by folks responsible for ginning it up in the first place, and the self-serving concern for “the system” are abundantly clear. Concern for long-underserved students? Not so much. (Elyria Chronicle, 3/13/19) There is at least a half-hearted mention of underserved students in this piece from the Dayton Daily News, but the same overheated, manufactured talking points about ADCs are rehashed without challenge: “Disaster.” “No data.” “Chaos.” “Lack of local support.” There is a reason why Lorain City Schools is now front and center in Columbus’ circus sideshow and not Youngstown. Read Item 1 to find out. (Dayton Daily News, 3/15/19) According to the Vindy today—and despite what you might read in Lorain, Dayton, and Cleveland—Governor DeWine has not yet decided the final fate of the Academic Distress Commission paradigm. How do they know this? They asked him outright and printed his response. Rather than wallowing in braggadocio, wishful thinking, and innuendo like many other news outlets I
clip here on a regular basiscould name. (Youngstown Vindicator, 3/15/19)
- On a not-unrelated note, here is a piece looking into how Dayton City Schools spends more than a quarter-billion dollars a year, including a lot of talk about how the current sizeable surplus might be spent in addition to all the regular spending. This is a really long piece (over 2,300 words). It is not until after 1,046 of them have been expended that the phrase “low student test scores” appears. Exactly zero dollars appear to be on the fantasy-allocation wish lists—anyone’s list—to address this actual problem. P.S. – Aside from transportation (admittedly a perennial problem for the district to handle properly), there should be no discussion at all of what charter/STEM/voucher kids “cost” Dayton City Schools. But there is. (Dayton Daily News, 3/13/19)
- Speaking of Ohio’s independent STEM schools, here is some praise for the Tri-State STEM&M School (the extra “M” stands for medicine) from across the border in West Virginia. Why? Because enrollment is so open in the independent STEM school paradigm that kids from other states can actually attend in Ohio if they are willing to travel to it. Talk about selection effects! (The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, WV, 3/10/19)
- The members of the General Assembly’s Joint Education Oversight Committee seem to agree that the state’s school report cards are too complicated for reg’lar folks: “John Q. Public doesn't really know what the report card's measuring.” They have therefore generously offer the JEOC team’s research chops to dig into the matter. I’m not laughing in mirthful irony; you are. (Gongwer Ohio, 3/14/19)
- Finally today, we stick with the theme of irony. With apologies, I’m sure, to Kurt Vonnegut and to Wheaties, Fairborn’s Baker Middle School has won a 2019 Champion of Breakfast Award for its excellence and innovation in breakfast service to students. Their award will be presented over lunch. (Fairborn Daily Herald, 3/14/19)
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