[Postcard] | Class Takeover, by Simon Davis-Cohen | Harper's Magazine

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The privatization of Youngstown's public schools

Youngstown, Ohio, was once an icon of America’s industrial age. Well positioned on an ancient path connecting Lake Erie with the Ohio River, it was linked to the Erie Canal system in the 1830s. For more than a century, steamboats hauled all things steel to places as far away as the Panama Canal, and Youngstown blossomed: its population skyrocketed, and it became an outpost for settlers moving west. It was “Steel Town, USA.” But soon after World War II, the steel industry began its slow decline—and with it, the city’s fortunes. Though its black population largely remained, over the next fifty years, Youngstown’s total population was halved. And those who have stayed now make a median household yearly income of only $24,000, less than half the national median. Since 2013, residents have advanced six ballot initiatives to assert municipal control over the frack-waste-dumping and injection wells that have brought hundreds of earthquakes to the region, though to date no such ballot measures have been passed. Today, scrapyards and overgrown factories line the Mahoning River as it meanders downtown, where the historic district sits quietly. 

Since the fall of Big Steel, Youngstown has been vulnerable to get-rich-quick schemes for postindustrial America. Its education system is no exception. As in much of the rest of the Rust Belt, Youngstown schools are underfunded and underperforming, and in Ohio the response has been a steady shift toward profit-driven charters. Half of Youngstown’s youth aren’t enrolled in the district. Of those students who are, 98.6 percent are “economically disadvantaged,” and as of 2011, 25 percent go to charters. In 2010, it became the state’s first school district to be placed under an “academic distress commission.” The latest experiment in privatizing public education is what brought me to town.

Youngstown’s school district has experienced various forms of state oversight since the 1990s. Now, there is a documented, deliberate plan by Governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich to make Youngstown’s 65 percent–black school district the state’s first to be handed over to a state-appointed CEO with sweeping powers to establish a charter school-only district. Ohio gives close to $1 billion per annum to the privately run charter-school industry. But while charters divert funds from the public system, they remain exempt from most state laws governing public schools. They can deny students admission, and avoid some public disclosure, transportation, library, and credential requirements. They are pseudoprivate spaces, where only some constitutional protections apply. Consider the charter receiving funds from the Youngstown School District that charges students one dollar each to participate in dress-code-defying “Jeans Days.” The takeover mirrors what is taking place in cities such as Detroit, where budget cuts and seven years of emergency management have produced reports of overcrowded classrooms, rat-infested schools, and teacher walk-outs.

Shortly after I arrived in Youngstown, an antifracking activist took me to a trees-for-empty-lots fundraiser in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown. The church sits on a hillside that drains into Crab Creek, a tributary of the Mahoning. The church basement felt like a bunker. As I stepped through the side door, I was swept into a festive, bustling commotion caused by a power outage in the kitchen. Behind the pass-through window, volunteers hurried to stir pots of ginger-carrot soup and remove dishes from the oven.

In the main room, I introduced myself to Hattie Wilkins, a sixty-six-year-old African American, whose long, bleached dreadlocks matched her yellow Steelers sweatshirt and gold rings. I asked her about the education “takeover.” She motioned toward a small circle of people near the hors d’oeuvres: “They’re all city councilors, see what they have to say.”

Two of the councilors stood together, nibbling on cheese and meat skewers, with their backs to the kitchen. They wore blazers and seemed happy to talk to anyone, relieved to break the ice between them and the crowd. But when I asked them their thoughts on antifracking activism and the ramifications of removing all authority from the locally elected school board, they were demurred, and flagged down their colleague, Mike Ray, from the opposite side of the room. “He knows all about that stuff,” they told me of Ray, in lieu of answering my questions themselves. Ray, sporting a down vest over a collared shirt, said those hoping to ban fracking simply didn’t understand the law. He did however acknowledge the frustration in the city having more power over liquor licensing than it does quake-inducing injection wells. He didn’t comment on the impending public-school takeover, but he reached into his vest pocket, to fetch a business card. “Oops, wrong job,” he said, returning the mistaken card before I could read it. “Ah, here it is,” he said, handing me his city-issued card listing his councilor position. He has been working for American Electric Power, one of the largest electric utilities in the nation, since 2005.

Wilkins and another woman selling greeting cards for the fundraiser told me of their visions for community control over new development projects. Meanwhile, other activists continued to whisper in my ear, pointing out more characters in the room—including an oil-industry attorney and Brenda Kimble, the elected president of the school board and an outspoken opponent to the takeover. After I picked out a card for my grandmother’s birthday, the woman behind the booth joked to Wilkins about how much white people like the cards with the trees. I laughed nervously: “seems to be the theme of the night.”

Kimble approached me by the wine bar, on her way out. “I have some documents I would love to share with you,” she told me. “Give me a call.”

A few days later, Wilkins and other antifrackers and antitakeover residents took me on tours of trailer parks, abandoned schools and residential neighborhoods where empty lots seemed infectious. Homes at all stages of decay were on display. Missing brick walls exposed foyers and bathrooms to the street, where children played. We passed by large fracked-gas flares upwind from residential homes, the fresh-water reservoir, and a wooded area where contractors had been caught illegally dumping frack waste in the river. At one of downtown’s main attractions, a bar and grill, Wilkins told me she sees both fracking and the education takeover as two battles in a longer war over local control. “We’re fighting for local control of schools, water, land, and air,” she said. “The governor is trying to take away our public schools.”

The story of the takeover of the elected school board starts in September 2014, when, as one local newspaper reported, John Kasich started “to talk with business leaders and develop recommendations for improving the [failing] district.” Later that month, Kasich told freshman legislators in a closed-door orientation meeting in a back room at the state capitol that the Youngstown “school system is in such a mess, I want to just shut it down and put one great big charter school in there,” according to Youngstown state representative Michele Lepore-Hagan. “Everyone,” Lepore-Hagan told me over the phone, “kind of just stopped and looked at him,” in disbelief. (When asked for a comment, a governor spokesperson pointed me to an article that denied the statement: “When [Kasich] talked to Lepore-Hagan,” it read, “he wasn’t suggesting that a transformation was imminent.”) The plan was set in motion the following month, when the regional chamber of commerce convened a secretive “Youngstown City Schools Business Cabinet.” Eight months later, on June 23, 2015, the governor’s office began reaching out to legislators and lobbyists. “We have kept this low key,” Kasich’s Director of Legislative Affairs wrote that day in an email subpoenaed by a state court to a lobbyist, “but it will be intro’d [as an amendment] to [House Bill] 70. . . . Creates charter accelerator.” Twenty-four hours later, the takeover mechanism was passed into law. In May of 2016, the state-controlled Youngstown City Schools Academic Distress Commission appointed the CEO, who, thanks to HB 70, enjoys unilateral authority to cancel teacher and employee union contracts, hire and fire at will, close schools, convert them into charters, and shape curriculum.

That summer David Hansen, the husband of Kasich’s chief of staff and head of charter-school oversight in Ohio, was caught omitting online charters’ F grades in the state’s evaluation—a blunder that was followed by ODE Superintendent Richard Ross’s resignation. Two days before Hansen himself resigned in July 2015, he submitted an application for federal funds to “integrate quality charter development into the State’s new authority to create achievement school districts serving the children of the most dysfunctional districts.” It has since been shown that Hansen lied in the application, claiming there were six rather than fifty-seven failing charters in the state. Ohio was afforded the grant, though it has not yet been disbursed.

Youngstown charters are underperforming their public counterparts—eighteen of the twenty reporting charters that receive funding from Youngstown received F or D grades. The problem is statewide. In 2014, a Stanford study found that compared to public students, Ohio charter school students “[lose] out on 14 days of learning in reading and 43 in math.” In response to the takeover, the Youngstown school board together with the teachers and employees union are suing to postpone the takeover and overturn HB 70. They argue the expedited passage of HB 70 violated constitutional guarantees to public participation, and that the bill’s gutting of the elected school board’s power is a violation of Youngstown residents’ equal protection under the law and right to vote. Their preliminary injunction was denied on October 20, 2015; they are appealing to the county appeals court.

Meanwhile, the takeover proceeds. On September 5 the CEO unveiled his “plan” to turn the district around. The reforms proposed include providing “high-quality, responsive customer service to students,” monitoring teachers through “daily walk-throughs,” reforming “compensation packages for all employees,” and developing “a system to analyze the return[s] on investment.”

After our conversation at the bar and grill, Wilkins and I decided to see if Kimble was home. As we crossed Federal Street toward Wilkins’s dented, sticker-laden white pickup, a young African American man yelled “Ms. Hattie!” as he emerged from the deli next door. He was looking for a ride home. “I’ll give you three dollars,” he offered. “Alright,” Wilkins said, “but we’ll have to make space.”??“I didn’t know you were with Brentwood [Pillow Factory],” he said, after spotting Wilkins’ retired union card dangling from the crowded rearview mirror. Wilkins had been the union president at Brentwood Originals, in the industrial district northwest of town, for twenty years. “I talked them white folks into going on strike,” she told us.

“I work there seven days a week,” he said.

Wilkins objected: “That against the rules!”

“Now they telling us we gotta work on Good Friday.”

“That’s a holiday!”

“No holidays for me,” he said, as we let him off.

Ten minutes later, we arrived at Kimble’s home, a small pink house in a neighborhood not unlike those I had toured. She was again on her way out, but she told me that if we came back tomorrow, she’d show me handwritten letters she received from the anonymous source who leaked her the first cabinet minutes that went public. 

The next morning, Kimble, Wilkins and I returned. “Dear Brenda,” the first letter reads, “I can’t go into a lot of detail and I can’t delay any longer. I also can’t reveal my identity or specific sources. Time is of the essence.” The letter, sent to Kimble after HB 70 was passed into law and before it went into effect in October 2015, was accompanied by minutes from the meetings, showing that members included top officials such as ODE’s Ross and at least one member of the governor’s office, as well as locals such as the bishop of the diocese of Youngstown, the president of Youngstown State University, and local entrepreneurs. Lepore-Hagan says she was not invited, nor were any public teachers, parents, or members of the school board.

The governor’s office and the ODE called the shots. One meeting was kicked off by Ross “by reminding everyone that confidentiality amongst the Cabinet is essential until the plan begins to take place.” And just before the “plan” went public, cabinet minutes show the governor’s office’s director of legislative affairs “clarified the [PR] message and articulated that the way the messaging is framed and presented is extremely important.” Subpoenaed emails reveal that the governor’s office even prepared the local chamber of commerce’s draft testimony in support of HB 70. Others in the community, including Youngstown NAACP president, George Freeman, seem to have fallen in line. Weeks before the CEO was appointed, Freeman told me in the hall outside an ongoing school-board meeting that “they need to hire someone who can oversee the school district and have absolute power. . . . There needs to be absolute decision-making power.” 

In the years since World War II, Youngstown has found itself in the unfortunate position of becoming a sort of testing grounds for futurists offering solutions to the Rust Belt’s postindustrial decline. It is big enough to test new programs and policies on, small enough to ignore when they fail, and poor and black enough for those in power to silence opposition. The suburban strip mall, the privatized prison, ice cream on a stick: each of these innovations began in the Youngstown area. And eventually, they spread across the country.

After I left the city, I called Lepore-Hagan, the local state representative, on the phone. It had been days since the CEO was appointed, and Lepore-Hagan sounded exhausted. “They blatantly lied to everybody.” She mourned the thought that this experiment might be one of those that spreads. “Youngstown,” she said, “is the tip of the iceberg; it is going to go across the state.”

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