Kimberly Mason, young black woman smiling

Kimberly Mason

Hardly anyone wants to be on the Columbus School Board. This year, five of the seven slots are up for election but there are only six people running. The sad state of the Columbus City Schools has suppressed interest in serving on the Board for many.

The State Board of Education has given Columbus Schools a series of annual grades of “F.” Had they gotten just one more “F” this year, the State would have appointed an outsider to run the schools, removing the Board from any meaningful power. Two incumbents on the Board saw that coming and decided not to run for reelection. However, by providing tutoring to 26 kids who were most at risk, the school administration gamed the scoring system and got a “D” grade for this year.

Gaming the system has always been an activity undertaken by the school administration to make the schools look as good as possible. When I was on the Board (thirty plus years ago) the Superintendent announced Columbus had a 92% graduation rate! When I asked how they got that statistic I was told 92% of the students who started their last year of high school got diplomas.

Other statistics were improved by poorly achieving students “withdrawing” from school only to “re-enroll” after state mandated tests were administered. Such activities were often the norm in education across the State of Ohio. But when the State Board of Education created a system to “grade” the schools, most of these manipulations became unethical and illegal. They didn’t immediately stop, but there is now an auditor who reports to the Board to make sure they have. The tutoring of the 26 students was a “legitimate manipulation” of the grading.

The grading of schools by the State started over a decade ago. The legislature had seen large chunks of the state budget being spent on education but was frustrated that children who were functionally illiterate were “graduating” from many high schools. Those kids were often better off than the large portion of students in many communities who never graduated at all. And it kept happening year after year.

Public education in Ohio is governed by local boards of education. Statewide there are 608 of them with 15 in Franklin County alone. Members are selected in public elections.

Beyond residency in their district there are almost no qualifications for board members. People with no idea how education or government works can be elected. The administrators and teachers of the district have a myriad of requirements to meet. But the people actually in charge, don’t.

This can occasionally cause problems. Columbus has had board members who didn’t understand statistics or history or even basic management principles. Some boards are essentially non-functional. But what one board doesn’t get right, another board sometimes just down the road often does. Thus, diffusion of the power has made American education more innovative and more capable of adapting to changing environments than many countries with centralized educational bureaucracies. But it can also create massive local failures.

If one is to believe the State of Ohio’s education grading system, Columbus is one of those massive local failures. But it isn’t. The failure is actually in the state’s grading system. 

There is no doubt it is easier to educate rich kids than poor kids. The research is conclusive. An equal amount of educational dollars spent on the rich and on the poor will produce better results with the rich. Since the State gives school systems serving the rich pretty much the same level of support as school systems serving the poor, the State’s grading system will almost always give rich school systems A’s and poor school systems, F’s.

This is obvious to pretty much anyone who tries to understand the current system. That seems not to include most of the legislature or even the public in Ohio. But anyone likely to run for the Board knows it and this explains why there is no big rush to serve on the Board of Education for Columbus Schools. The deck is stacked against Columbus.

Actually, the deck is doubly stacked against Columbus. Thirty plus years ago, Columbus was desegregated by the federal courts. To prevent integration from spreading, the State and all the Boards of Education in Franklin County decided most of the minority and poor students would stay in the desegregated Columbus Schools and most of the city’s white and better off students would be split among the “suburban” school districts. Currently about half of Columbus’ students go to “suburban” school districts. But, as compensation, Columbus was supposed to receive extra monies to educate this concentration of hard-to-educate students. That flow of money ended almost as fast as it took for the ink on the “Win-Win” agreement to dry.

Yet still six people were willing to step up and run for the Board. Which five will be elected was decided by the Franklin County Democratic Party and they were named on this year’s sample ballot. When the Free Press, WCRS and WGRN community radio stations asked for an interview, the three incumbents who are running for re-election refused, telling others they were “too busy.” They don’t care. They don’t have to. Since the Republicans didn’t even bother to endorse, they expect to be elected no matter what you think.

Yet three candidates did care enough to come in for an hour recorded interview with the radio stations and for this article. Carol Beckerle is a retired attorney and a retired Columbus school teacher. Tina Pierce is a professor at Ohio State. And Kimberly Mason is a parent and school activist. All are running for the first time.

Beckerle and Mason fit the mold of Board members being school volunteers moving up. Their interviews were conversational and genuine exchanges. Both tend to have a bottom-up view of their job on the Board and see their connections in the community as major assets. 

Pierce fits the mold of the aspiring politician. School Board is often recommended as the first office. With party backing, it’s easy to get elected, it builds name recognition and positions one for stepping up the political ladder. Her interview was less conversational and more an exposition of talking points. She often refused to be interrupted and continued talking to keep making whatever point was to be made. She was even accompanied by a political consultant supplied by the Democratic Party. Her clear aim is higher office.

The endorsed Democrats, which does not include Mason who is running with the Yes We Can coalition, are running as a “team.” No one seems to be able to articulate what that means other than they intend to be respectful of one another. No sweeping agendas such as year-round schools or pre-school for all kids are proposed. If the past is any predictor of the future, they will maintain unanimity by tweaking levels of improvement in the schools. BAU –Business As Usual. A “high” expectation for the new board might be raising the Columbus City School’s grade to D. We don’t know and they aren’t telling us.

Tina Pierce