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Urban Problem Solving in Ohio is Devoid of Larger Political Context

22 February 2013 No Comment

The other day I was browsing through Twitter and I came across a tweet about Columbus Public Schools’ reorganization, or “reinvention”; I can’t remember the exact term they were using, but I’m sure it was snappier than that.

It got me thinking. Because when I was last living in Columbus, and that was about six years ago now, they were doing the same thing. I’m pretty sure if we had a time machine and we could travel to the future of Columbus, one, six, 12 years down the line, they’d be at it again. Columbus Public Schools would be in the middle of some reinvention scheme.

It is, afterall, an urban school district in Ohio–whipping boy for the broader community. I have lived in almost every major city in Ohio and it’s the same in all of them. The urban school district is somewhere in the range between terrible and pretty bad. And all the major power brokers and thought leaders in town love to fret about it, how it will drag the whole region down (which is true!).

The problem with the way the urban schools problem is always framed, in my opinion, is that the problem is internal to the school district. Test scores are lousy. Graduation rates are concerning. The problem is that the district isn’t performing. And so they jigger with the number of schools–close some, merge some, reorganize some. They switch the leadership. Blaming the incompetence of the school board is a favorite activity of concerned suburbanites.

But nothing really changes. No Ohio urban school district is really bucking the trend, although, to be fair, Columbus and Toledo do perform somewhat better than Cleveland or Youngstown. Nevertheless, if there is a magic formula for an outstanding Ohio urban school district, none of them have yet discovered it. The search continues in perpetuity.

The problem is, of course, bigger than the individual organization of the school district. It is political and sociological. In a lot of ways, it’s purposeful. We have decided it’s okay to have failing urban school districts in Ohio. And these biannual campaigns help appease our larger societal guilt from a safe distance.

Schools in Ohio are funded by property taxes within political jurisdictions called “school districts,” which roughly correspond to different cities and towns, again demarcated by political boundaries. The result has been that the “haves” migrate to cities and school districts with expensive houses and effectively form exclusive public school systems that are well funded and all of their students, or the vast majority at least, come from the demographic groups that tend to do well in standardized tests. In Ohio, that leaves urban school districts with the leftovers.

Since the schools receive most of their money from property taxes, well off school districts have lots of resources and less well off school districts never have enough. The Ohio Supreme Court found this to be a violation of young people’s constitutional rights. But it has never been remedied.

In the four years I’ve lived here, Cleveland has been embarking on its second reinvention campaign, and I’m fully supportive. I voted for the 9+ mill tax levy because I think it’s important to our region. Also, I have an added interest because I live in Cleveland, right next to a public school. Heck, someday I might have kids and consider sending them there.

So I support and applaud Mayor Frank Jackson and schools’ CEO Eric Gordon.

But because the problem is a systemic one, and not an internal one, I’m not expecting a radical change–an improvement would be enough.

Anyway, it seems like so many of our problems in Ohio are of this nature. They are the result of poorly conceived and now entrenched political or policy frameworks. And nobody has the guts to attack the root causes of the problem–which are political in nature–and demand real, meaningful reforms. Because while these issues create all sorts of economic and social problems, there’s always a handful of “winners” and challenging their interests is seen as wholly outside of the realm of possibility.

So urban leaders play nice. We have these regular high-pitched campaigns to reform the schools or tackle vacancy or rebuild urban neighborhoods and the strategies are completely divorced of larger context. We have a neighborhood approach to urban vacancy–although the problem is very clearly caused by the larger regional forces of the housing market, combined with suburban and regional decision making.

These strategies and always ostensibly aimed at helping poor urbanites, the perennial political losers in Ohio, but I can’t help see them as another sort of reinforcement of the existing conditions. Because truly solving them would mean actually challenging the political structures that produce them–challenging power. And we’re just not willing to do that. What these campaigns actually accomplish is making large-scale failure palatable for a more few years.

Cleveland schools will host a dozen reinvention campaigns before they are through, I predict, each time offering earnest promises of true reform. But true reform can only come from the outside and that’s something the people of Ohio are clearly not prepared to accept, no matter how high the price of ignoring it is.

So the failure of Ohio’s urban school districts is okay, whatever the regional leaders say. We’ve all decided to accept that.

-A.S.