By Andrew Ujifusa
This post first appeared on the State EdWatch blog.
Fed up with what they see as harmful state and federal programs that only end up bogging teachers down, a group of districts in Ohio have formed an education advocacy network to increase local control over schools.
The Greater Cincinnati School Advocacy Network consists of districts in four Buckeye State counties. Its members argue that the “avalanche” of federal and state policies, to use the word of Mason City district Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline as reported in the local Journal-News newspaper, has effectively robbed local school boards and communities of control of K-12 without actually helping schools perform better. She and the roughly 40 other superintendents in Ohio that make up the new network want more of that power back.
She later tweeted about the group’s launch event:
— Mason City Schools (@MasonSchools) August 3, 2015
The group plans to build its message by having conversations with the communities in their local districts and in turn push to return more control to districts.
“Most schools look alike because they’re being given mandates from the states and the federal government to implement curricular changes, assessment changes, accountability measures, all under the auspices of education improvement,” Jon Graft, the superintendent of the Butler County Education Services Center, told me in an interview. “In reality, what they’ve done is taken away local control.”
UPDATE: Graft told me that in the districts represented by the new network, student enrollment totals about 204,000.
Too Important for Locals?
The network is critical of both Washington and Columbus for snatching power away from elected school boards and communities. But many of the group’s specific gripes are directed at Ohio policies implemented under Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who is running for president. And they don’t just have a problem with K-12 governance in Ohio—the superintendents in the network also believe the policies adopted by the state regarding teacher evaluation, career education, and other matters are just bad practice.
For example, Graft told me that the 3rd grade reading guarantee in Ohio, under which students who fail to demonstrate literacy can be prevented from advancing to the 4th grade, ends up simply hurting many students and doesn’t make sense “when differentiation is what we’re asking all of our teachers to do.” At the same time, the democratic controls over schools at the local level, as represented by local school boards, end up being subverted or bypassed, he told me.
“We in turn are forced to comply with the unfunded mandates, and that has caused tension among the communities,” Graft said.
He also weighed in with criticisms of the No Child Left Behind Act, saying it has pushed school accountability in the wrong direction over time.
I’ve called the Ohio Department of Education for a response, and will update this when I hear back. (UPDATE: In response, the Ohio department issued this statement: “We are working to help Ohio’s students succeed in the classroom and have little interest or time to play politics.”) However, skepticism about such efforts to increase local control isn’t hard to find. For instance, Peter Cunningham, the executive director of the Chicago-based Education Post communications and advocacy group, linked approvingly to a website criticizing the argument that the federal government shouldn’t have an aggressive role when it comes to oversight and interventions in public schools:
— Peter Cunningham (@PCunningham57) August 3, 2015
I asked Graft about the argument that K-12 education is a matter of state and national concern, and therefore shouldn’t rely too heavily on local decision-making and power. His response? “The thought that the state has a greater interest in what happens in our local communities ... as opposed to our locally elected school boards just doesn’t hold water for me.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.