I'm not given to hyperbole. I'm not one of these guys who tells you that something is the "Death of Democracy", or that education reform efforts are trying to completely privatize the public education system. I really try to be level headed when analyzing various education policies, no matter how out there they may be.
But when I received an amendment to House Bill 70 -- the plan to fix Youngstown City Schools -- I was absolutely stunned. It is, without a doubt, a direct attack on Democracy. Why some feel the best way to fix a school system is to create a dictatorship, I have no idea. Democracy's biggest problem is what has always been Democracy's biggest problem -- we keep electing people who think that the best way to fix a school system is to give absolute power to one person ... and other crazy stuff.
According to the amendment, which I've posted here, Youngstown (and any other district that's in "academic distress," but for the moment only Youngstown) would be taken over by a "Chief Executive Officer" who would have "complete operational, managerial, and instructional control" of the district.
That's right. All those elected officials the people of Youngstown bothered putting into office? Forget them. Because, apparently, the problem with the elected board is they're not making decisions fast enough? I really don't get this.
Anyway, the amendment would allow this CEO to make all decisions. In fact, throughout the amendment, the CEO would be given "sole" authority to reconstitute buildings, put any whackadoodle in charge there, decide which schools get which resources, which schools get turned into charters, etc.
By the way, it bugs the crap out of me when education officials are called CEOs. I get it. You want to run schools like a business. Yet they can never explain which business education should look like. Wal-Mart? Costco? Anne's Donut Shoppe?
And there would be zero input from the public. That's right. He (or she) could just do this because they felt like it. Total dictatorship.
And here's the thing. Only when the district gets an overall C grade on the state report card will the district even start to get out of this academic distress thing. So, essentially, we are creating a city-wide, more or less permanent dictatorship in Youngstown.
Why do I say this is permanent? Because all the grades on the state report card are based on test scores, which are nearly perfectly correlated with a district's poverty rate. So Youngstown, with its nearly 100% poverty rate has almost zero chance of ever getting out from under this dictator's thumb.
We've seen how dreadful this situation has worked in Michigan. Why, in God's name, would we want this to work here?
Look, we know what works to turn schools around. First of all, it's recognizing that test scores are an extremely limited way of looking at schools' missions in our most needy communities. They are a part of the story, absolutely. But urban schools -- especially in places like Youngstown -- serve so many other purposes, like community centers, places of safety and comfort for kids, places where hungry children can eat, etc. that judging their community value based just on test scores is extremely unfair.
The best way to improve schools is to engage the community in a community-based solution. Will some schools need to become charters. Perhaps.
But let's not get nuts with the charter thing because 40% of the money sent to charters from Youngstown go to charters that perform the same or worse on the state report card. Yes. Even in the state's one academically distressed district that is allegedly in such bad shape we need a dictator, charters are still outperformed a significant portion of the time.
The point is this: Dictatorship should never, I mean never be the solution for the public sphere. We fought a pretty big war (World War II) over this principle. In fact, the reason we were told we needed to get Saddam Hussein and other guys like that is because they were dictators who ignored and tortured their people.
After fighting dictatorships (and founding our country to get out from under a king's thumb), why do we then say the very thing we have spent the last nearly 240 years fighting against is the solution for our own communities?
If I'm a vet, I'm pissed.
Look, Democracy isn't perfect. Yes, sometimes school boards are obstinate and don't function well. But I have a hard time thinking that the legislative body that has ignored the Ohio Supreme Court for nearly 20 years is in any better position to dictate terms.
I would always side with our communities over removing their power to self-determination. Youngstown is a struggling community. My wife's from that area. A significant portion of my family's from there. I am quite fond of it. Yes, it has its quirks. Yes, there are areas where the wilderness has claimed back what once was an asphalt jungle. But I can tell you that the people there are hard-working, tough, proud, and want exactly what every Ohioan wants -- a better future for them and their kids.
By eliminating their voice in their community's future, you are telling the people of Youngstown this:"You are so messed up that the only way to fix it is for us to bring you the form of government we thought was so awful we spent trillions of dollars and millions of lives fighting."
I doubt even if the CEO ended up being Jim Tressel (a Youngstown God), the community would be happy about their new "benevolent dictator."
This is Youngstown, after all. Of all the cities in Ohio to mess with, Youngstown is the last one on my list.
Good luck, General Assembly.
Good luck, Gov. John Kasich.