Achieving excellence: some school districts can

With great fanfare, the Ohio Department of Education released on Monday the ratings of 608 school districts, happily trumpeting that the legislature's call for achievement and accountability was finally paying off in many Ohio school districts, with 75 percent passing at least one more indicator than they had passed last year.
The number of districts in academic emergency dropped from 35 to 12 as some moved into the "academic watch" category or into "continuous improvement." More school districts were rated "effective, passing 21-25 of the 27 standards included on the state report cards. That's welcome news.
And this year, school districts could aspire to a new level, "excellent," meeting 26 or 27 of the standards, and 71 were up to the challenge. But a look at those 71 district reveals some surprises. Districts that complain that their demographics alone make it impossible for their children to achieve or that in rural areas they're too isolated or that they can't afford to provide a decent education will have to rethink their excuses.
Certainly, the list of the 71 Ohio school districts that achieved ratings of "excellent" shows that most of them represent affluent communities that have plenty to spend on their schools.
Here, it has been taken as a matter of faith that Boardman, Canfield, Poland and South Range school districts, considered locally as well off, would necessarily have the high ratings they attain on the state report cards.
What counts for wealth? But the average household income of really wealthy districts ranges from $45,000 to $61,000, a far cry from the $34,000 average income in our local excellent districts. On average, "excellent" districts spend $7,583 on each student's education, but the Valley's excellent school districts have much lower budgets. Compare Poland's $6,165 per student with Beachwood City's $14,684, or South Range's $5,955 with Indian Hills Exempted Village's $10,606.
Other excellent Ohio school districts have even less. The average household income in New Knox ville is $24,311, the lowest among districts rated excellent. But residents there tax themselves enough -- a school levy has never been rejected -- to spend $7,393 per student. Households in the Fairland Local School district bring home on average $27,407, and the district has only $5,220 to spend for each child's education -- the least of the excellent districts. And 28 percent of children qualify for free lunch programs, another indicator of a poor district.
No one should be surprised that the wealthy suburbs of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, with their high incomes and high per pupil spending, had the highest number of excellent districts: 13 in Cuyahoga County, five in Franklin and seven in Hamilton.
The bigger shock must have come to districts like Dublin in Franklin County, with an average household income of $49,607, that still did not reach the "excellent" level. And there are others like it.
So achievement is not simply a matter of wealth.
Distinguished group: In fact, three less-than-wealthy counties distinguished themselves. Despite lower than average household incomes and per pupil spending among districts rated excellent, these counties each could boast four districts that this year reached the top of the list: Mercer County, Putnam County and Mahoning County.
Yet despite their similar achievement, there is still considerable disparity among the Mahoning, Putnam and Mercer county districts. The Miller City-New Cleveland Local District in rural Putnam County is so small -- less than 500 students -- it doesn't even have a football team. Boardman, the largest excellent district of the three counties, is one of the 13 largest districts in Ohio to make the excellent list. Its size allows it to offer a wide range of enriching arts, athletic and scholastic programs like other big, successful districts. But the average household income in Boardman is only $30,384. The average for the other 12 big districts is $44,256. Obviously, size isn't everything either.
In all, only 30 of Ohio's 88 counties had at least one school district attaining an excellent rating, with the six counties mentioned above accounting for more than half those excellent districts. But if the factors that determine excellence are neither the wealth of a school district nor its size, what is making the difference? We will address that question in a follow-up editorial soon.

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