One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Struggle for Equity in Public Education and the Demise of House Bill 70

More than half of Cincinnati children live in poverty, according to a 2012 American Community Survey. That’s second only to Detroit’s 59 percent child poverty rate.

Many of these children attend public schools, and providing children with a fair and equal opportunity to education can pose a challenge for educators and advocates.

Years ago, Oyler School in Lower Price Hill had experienced many of the effects of poverty. Because the school only provided education to elementary and junior-high school children and no high school was in the neighborhood, many kids dropped out.

The school garnered national attention after a PBS documentary released last month attempted to answer the question: can a school transform despite being in a poverty and crime-stricken community, and ultimately produce more high school graduates?

The then-principal Craig Hockenberry was quoted by PBS saying he could walk “not even 15 steps” out the door of Oyler and get “just about any drug” he wanted. Cincinnati tax-payers voted to support massive capital funding campaign to rebuild its schools. Along with fixing the buildings, it was clear the district also needed a new plan of action.

About 60 people attended the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition event on June 18.

About 60 people attended the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition event on June 18.

That’s when the decision came about to transform Oyler and other Cincinnati public schools into “Community Learning Centers” (CLCs). CLCs take in a variety of partners – community members, parents, teachers, and administrators – and identify the needs of the students and the community; once identified, partnerships with needed organizations are created and implemented into the schools.

Today, Oyler contains a health clinic with dental services and mental health counselors. Children are able to eat all three meals at school and bring home food for the weekends. The school even includes a vision center, where children can receive free eye examinations and glasses. Oyler now educates children up to 12th grade; and 40 to 50 students graduate each year.

Whether it is a mental health clinic or a service to provide breakfast and dinner to the children, the partnerships created with CLCs can positively affect a student’s education experience.

Oyler School is what State Representative Denise Driehaus calls the “poster child for the success of Community Learning Centers,” especially in high-poverty areas.

When a school district is failing, often their only option is to shut the school down, fire the principal, or turn into a charter school; House Bill 70 proposed another alternative to failing districts that Ohio will recognize: CLCs.

However, on June 24th a last-minute amendment to House Bill 70 was inserted, which would not only allow the community-learning center process, but now Cincinnati schools could potentially be dismantled and privatized.

The added amendment allows the state to transfer control of a school district that has received an “F” rating after 3 years to a five-member panel. This panel can then appoint a “CEO” who doesn’t need to have any background in education, to run the failing district.

Driehaus, who co-sponsored the original bill and said she has been working on it for four years, said while she is pleased with “the CLC part of the bill,” she did not vote in favor because she said the amendment could lead to privatization of school systems.

“There are these contracts that have been negotiated between teachers and school districts,” Driehaus said. “To throw them aside and have the CEO have so much authority that these contracts are no longer valid, I think that in itself is a huge concern.”

Public Education advocates like the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition (CEJC) assert that while privatizing businesses may be widely considered to make things more cost-efficient, imposing this “business model” on children doesn’t work.

“Our children are not products, and we can’t afford to leave any child behind,” spokesperson for the CEJC Michelle Dillingham said. “When you have young teenagers shooting guns at each other in our streets, the question is, are we leaving them behind? And when we do leave them behind, they’re not going anywhere; they are our neighbors, so we need to make a commitment to them.”

She said the CLC model provides a commitment to every child, rejecting the business model and the idea that “you can simply pick out the high performers.”

At a Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition event on June 18, before House Bill 70 was amended and passed, about 60 people gathered to provide updates on threats to the education system and discuss changes that need to be made.

At the event, teachers Christine McDonough and Glenda Nix presented local data about inequity and its effect on student achievement.

“Equality is when everybody gets the same thing. If you have an apple, you cut it eight ways, everybody gets the same amount of that apple. Equity is people get what they need,” McDonough said. “So how do we impact lower-achieving schools that have high poverty? Why is it that they’re not getting what they need when there are other schools doing well with a high socioeconomic status?”

They presented slides showing the stark differences among our schools, then compared those with test scores. Among statistics presented were schools including Pleasant Ridge Montessori, where 62 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and there are no librarians, and reading specialist and psychologists were present only 2.5 days a week. The goal of these slides showed the correlation between resources available and test success.

Providing schools like these with resources through a CLC is vital, Dillingham said.

“At Oyler, when that school was wrapped with services to help reduce the impact of poverty, we saw a transformation in school culture where children are now going to college at a school where graduations were not happening.” Dillingham said. “These are children, and every one of them deserve an opportunity.”

Without a satisfactory educational environment, Driehaus says, students are at risk of falling into poverty again.

“Without education, you are so limited on job opportunities. It’s how people pull themselves out of challenging situations,” Driehaus said. “Education is imperative for success.”

Featured Image: Wesley Barnfield and his Youth Drum Circle play before the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition event on June 18. 

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