The privatization of Youngstown’s public schools
By Simon Davis-Cohen
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.eridani, 7wo7rees like this
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