With two-term Ohio Gov. John Kasich joining the crowd of candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, it’s a good time to look at the public education mess that has developed in his state under his leadership.
Kasich has pushed key tenets of corporate school reform:
*expanding charter schools — even though the state’s charter sector is the most troubled in the country
*increasing the number of school vouchers that use public money to pay for tuition at private schools, the vast majority of them religious — even though state officials say that fewer than one-third of those available were used by families this past school year
*performance pay for teachers — even though such schemes have been shown over many years not to be useful in education
*evaluating educators by student standardized test scores in math and reading — even though assessment experts have warned that using test scores in this way is not reliable or valid.
Meanwhile, the Ohio Education Department in Kasich’s administration is in turmoil. David Hansen, his administration’s chief for school choice and charter schools resigned over this past weekend after admitting that he had unilaterally withheld failing scores of charter schools in state evaluations of the schools’ sponsor organizations so they wouldn’t look so bad. (Hansen’s wife, incidentally, is Kasich’s chief of staff, who is taking a leave from that post to work on his campaign.) There are growing calls now for the resignation of the Kasich-backed state superintendent of education, Richard Ross.
Under his watch, funding for traditional public schools — which enroll 90 percent of Ohio’s students — declined by some half a billion dollars, while funding for charter schools has increased at least 27 percent, with charters now receiving more public funds from the state per student than traditional public schools, according to the advocacy group Innovation Ohio. This despite the fact that many charters are rated lower than traditional public schools. Meanwhile, local governments have been forced to pass levies to raise millions of dollars in operating money for traditional public schools because of state budget cuts.
If Kasich’s goal for his reform efforts was to close the achievement gap, it hasn’t worked. The achievement gap in Ohio — when calculated by the Kasich-approved assessment method of using student standardized test scores in math and reading — is bigger than the national average, according to a new White House report. According to the report, Ohio has the country’s ninth-largest reading gap between its highest- and lowest-performing schools, as well as the second-largest achievement gap in math, and the fourth largest gap in high school graduation rates.
If the goal of his reform efforts has been to expand “school choice” then he has succeeded — but not in any way that he would want to trumpet on his upcoming campaign. Ohio charters, which in 2013-14 educated more than 120,000 students, or 7 percent of the total public school enrollment in the state, as, according to this recent story in the Akron Beacon Journal, misspends tax dollars more than any other public sector in Ohio.
The newspaper reviewed 4,263 audits released last year by the state, and said that Ohio charter schools appear to have misspent public money “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.” It says that “since 2001, state auditors have uncovered $27.3 million improperly spent by charter schools, many run by for-profit companies, enrolling thousands of children and producing academic results that rival the worst in the nation.”
The amount of misspending could be far higher, it says. Though Kasich promised in December 2014 to overhaul the charter sector and require more oversight, strong legislative efforts have gone pretty much nowhere so far.
Meanwhile, school vouchers — the vast majority of them for religious schools — have at least doubled in number under Kasich’s administration; Ohio spent $99 million in public funds to pay for private school tuition in 2010, a year before Kasich became governor, and it was more than $200 million in the last school year. As Innovation Ohio noted, Kasich initially said he supported vouchers to help children from poor families escape awful schools, but now, middle-class students from great districts can get vouchers too. The advocacy groups says, “And since voucher money is deducted from the amount public school districts would otherwise receive, the end result is that taxpayers are now subsidizing religious and private school educations at the direct expense of the traditional public schools attended by their own children.”
If Kasich’s goal was to curb union power and reduce public oversight of public schools, then he has succeeded. Last week, he signed a controversial bill that “drastically changes how the state can step in to run ‘failing’ school districts,” according to the Plain Dealer, “by creating a new CEO position, allowing mayors to appoint school board members and giving the CEO power to override parts of union contracts.” The measure, the newspaper wrote, was introduced in the House and Senate, which held hearings on it, and approved it — all in one day. Aside from what can only be called a secretive process to get the bill approved, critics say it strips power away from voter-elected school boards.
The Plain Dealer is now reporting that Ross helped push that plan — which was hatched to allow official intervention in the troubled Youngstown district but will also affect others — without telling members of the state school board, which hired him … “even as the board planned, took and discussed a trip to Youngstown to review how an existing improvement plan was working.”
And if Kasich’s goal is to work deliberately with people in the education world, he needs some lessons in how to get along. Earlier this year, he said he would “take an ax” and slash funding of Ohio’s public universities and colleges if they didn’t cut costs themselves. The Columbus Dispatch quoted him as saying:
“I reserve the right … to say that within the course of the next year, if they do not enact these changes … I think you just start cutting funding and tell them to deal with it,” Kasich said after meeting privately for an hour with presidents of two- and four-year colleges and universities in his cabinet room.
Kasich, incidentally, supports the Common Core State Standards and has criticized Republicans who turned against it, saying they were playing politics. He did support the Ohio legislature’s recent decision to dump the federally funded Common Core test known as PARCC, after schools administered it in the 2014-15 school year and faced numerous problems with the online exams.
That is Kasich’s public education record. In some crowds, it may be a great record to run on. To public school advocates, not so much.