By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer
How good are they?
The 15-year-old school-choice movement has prevailed in Ohio, shifting more than $1 billion in state taxes and more than 150,000 students to charter and private schools on this premise: Parents are capable of making good decisions about the education of their children.
Opponents of choice, meanwhile, must withstand charges of “arrogance” as they counter that many parents — inundated by road sign advertisements, TV and radio ads, robo-calls and mailers soliciting their children’s education — are not able to make those good decisions. If they did, the issues of so-called failing schools would have been solved long ago.
That stark difference became clear in more than 20 hours of interviews with members of the Ohio State Board of Education as they discussed ways Ohio must act to improve the academic performance of all children.
Now overwhelmingly dominated by school-choice advocates, the state board’s members express strong support for placing increasing authority in the hands of parents, and that belief is the foundation for school policy.
The interviews were conducted as part of a joint project of the Akron Beacon Journal and the student-driven NewsOutlet, a consortium of journalism programs at Youngstown State University and the University of Akron.
The interviews crystallized a stark contrast in opinions about the role of parents and how the board helps steer Ohio’s roughly $10 billion investment in 1.8 million school children.
“This is the greatest issue facing America right now: under-performing schools and our capacity, ability and willingness to take on and address the multitude of problems primarily in urban education or education in low-income environments,” said Michael Collins, an elected board member from north of Columbus and whose children attended upscale suburban schools.
He said blaming schools is not the starting point.
“As the co-chair of the urban education committee, what we have already identified at the request of the Legislature is the largest common denominator of difficulties for urban kids is not what happens in the classroom,” Collins said.
Many urban students lack food, adequate medical care and safe shelter. Parents, many single and lacking a college education, are ill-equipped to provide a learning environment at home, let alone make choices about where a child should go to school.
And while the state is taking a heavy hand at holding traditional public schools accountable, it is doing a poor job with charter and private schools, which are chasing public money and producing poor results. Parents cannot easily determine whether choice is better than their neighborhood school.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. And between the politicians and the educators, we are not doing our job,” Collins said.
Elected board member Jeffrey J. Mims Jr., the only African-American on the board and whose children attended Dayton city schools, took an even stronger position.
He said too many poorly informed lawmakers and fellow board members are making policy decisions based on a poor understanding of people.
Mims said a major mistake is that his colleagues, none of whom send their children to a charter school, think urban parents can make the best decision.
“They’re not [able]. There-in lies a big part of the problem. [Charter school companies] are preying on the sympathy of the parent who wants the very best for their child. They think they”re moving to something better. They don’t know that it’s not better until later on when the child gets put out.”
School board member Bryan Williams, one of the strongest advocates of choice, saw Mims’ reaction as arrogance.
“When he says that, this is what I hear. I hear, ‘Many parents are too stupid to know what’s best for their children. Thank God there’s those of us in government who know better,’” said Williams, from the upscale Akron suburb of Fairlawn. “That is a very dangerous attitude for a public official to have. And we have a lot of those folks throughout government. And they tend to be Democrats.”
Williams said Mims wrongly assumes that parents “make bad decisions about what school to send their children to because they’re not perceptive enough to see past all the fancy marketing.”
The ads are abundant.
Some for-profit charter-school management companies operating in Ohio spend heavily to compete with public schools for children but are under no obligation to disclose how much of the public money they receive ends up in classroom instruction.
In Akron last summer, a robo-call saturated urban neighborhoods telling parents: “Your child is eligible to enroll for this school year at no cost and will receive a free uniform and school supplies. ... We can only hold this opening for so long. Do not hesitate to call us immediately.”
Websites often offer free transportation. Signs placed by public and charter schools solicit enrollment while billboards and television or radio ads promote charter schools as “free” public schools. Still others entice students with free laptops to attend online charter schools.
For school-choice advocates, these are market forces that result in improvement.
Williams said that choice is forcing all sources of education to be competitive by getting better. In the end, parents will force failing schools out of business, and only the quality schools will survive.
Mims counters that the free market is destroying efficiency as parents are encouraged to make bad choices. Hundreds of charter schools require additional buildings, thus emptying public schools, require buses that public schools must provide, and create new bureaucracies. Meanwhile, traditional school districts are forced to share services, cut transportation and contemplate consolidation.
But Mims is leaving the board at the end of the year, and members who say parents can make good choices already rule.
Sarah Fowler, an elected board member representing Northeast Ohio, was home-schooled and never attended public schools. She said that there is statistical evidence that involvement of parents in a child’s education is one of the most significant factors in success. That’s the solution, she said. “I would say that schools need parents to continue to be involved and to choose to be more involved in their children’s education.”
Debe Terhar, board president from suburban Cincinnati, sent her kids to private schools. Asked to identify one of the most outstanding achievements in Ohio in recent years, she said: “I think the opportunities that we’re offering to parents to be able to make choices on their own on what the best venue for their child’s education is.”
Darryl Mehaffie, appointed by Gov. John Kasich and active in the Republican Party, has a unique perspective. He was an educator in rural Ohio schools all of his life, retiring as a superintendent.
“One time, I had to have an interview with three sets of parents of the same child,” Mehaffie said. Asked about solutions for kids who are failing, he said: “I’m not sure if there’s an easy answer to that question. I think those people on our board like Mary Rose Oakar and others who come from those big urban districts probably have a better sense of what’s needed there than I do.”
And, he said: “I just know, that if you don’t have a good family background where you have a father present and a mother present, what we used to call the nuclear family, the kids suffer.”
Contributing to this story were NewsOutlet reporters Natalia Fenton, Harry Evans, Rachael Kerr, Ashley Morris and Lee Murray.