Governor taking a wait-and-see stance on the ‘Youngstown Plan’

With several school districts facing a possible state takeover in the next two years, House Bill 70, known as the Youngstown Plan, is gaining attention in Columbus.

I asked Gov. Mike DeWine during his Tuesday editorial board meeting with The Vindicator, about the policy.

“It’s a discussion we have to have as a state,” DeWine said.

He said the three communities – Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland – that are already under state control “will play a role” in the policy.

“I don’t know anyone very happy with the status quo, but we cannot turn our back on these schools,” he said. “More importantly, we cannot turn our back on these children, so doing nothing is not an option.”

DeWine said he is “very open” to a discussion on changing the law.

But he is currently noncommital.

“While the state has a long history of local control, ultimately the state is responsible,” DeWine said.

The bill was signed in July 2015 by then-Gov. John Kasich after a quick state Senate committee hearing with some Youngstown leaders concerned about the long-failing city school system testifying in favor of it.

The law enables a state-appointed academic distress commission to hire a CEO to lead poor-performing school districts, taking away local control.

The law allows that to occur when a district gets three-straight F grades on the state report card.

DeWine said he wants to first hear a report from Paolo DeMaria, the state superintendent of public instruction, about the state takeover program before taking further steps.

DeWine said the report is done. It’s supposed to be delivered by DeMaria by May 1.

According to The Columbus Dispatch, DeMaria told the state school board earlier this week: “One of the big criticisms of [HB 70] is that by creating a completely different governing structure, what you actually do is create a wedge between the academic institutions and the community, and more specifically the political interests of that community.”

He added: “If you look at it in the abstract, and if everything went absolutely perfectly ... it could work. But at the same time, there are enough pieces and parts to it that create challenging circumstances that make it challenging to be effectively deployed. I think that is some of what we are experiencing.”

State legislators representing Mahoning County have tried to overturn the law, but received no traction.

Now that several other school districts – including Columbus, Dayton, Canton, Toledo, Euclid and Lima – are on their way to a state takeover, things have changed.

Two bipartisan bills will be in the Ohio House for consideration that change HB 70 though only one would impact Youngstown’s school district.

A bill from state Reps. Joe Miller, a Democrat from Amherst, and Don Jones, a Republican from Freeport, would get rid of academic distress commissions, restoring local control over public schools and “moving toward a building-based, bottom-up reform model. Poor-performing schools would be allowed to provide coordinated support services like after-school enrichment and social/health services,” according to a press release from the two.

“We need more local control, not less,” Jones said. “Academic distress commissions have not only taken away school and community pride, but have proven to be unsuccessful in their mission.”

Miller said: “Placing these districts under state control has been a disaster. In each case, the academic distress commission has been unable to work effectively alongside the district’s teachers, school leaders and community at large. After three years, we haven’t seen any evidence that state takeovers improve academic achievement. It’s time for us to restore local control and give struggling schools the support they need to succeed.”

State officials have previously said it would take five to seven years for Youngstown to show actual improvement. I don’t know if Youngstown will ever get on its academic feet.

Another bill introduced this week by state Reps. Kent Smith, a Euclid Democrat, and Steve Hambley, a Brunswick Republican, would stop the state from taking over additional school districts, but would keep Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland under state control.

Hambley said, “We are close enough to see that the volatility and uncertainty [state takeovers] breed is counter-productive to improving the public education system.”

Smith said HB 70 “was poorly designed, rushed into law and done with zero public input,” and the law “has made the situation worse, not better.”

If that’s the case, why not include the three schools under state control in the bill?