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Confronting Hate conference panel debates effects of HB 70

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ELYRIA — A law so far applied to urban, low-income districts was the topic of the final panel discussion at Monday’s Confronting Hate conference.

House Bill 70, the controversial 2015 law that allowed for the state takeover of Lorain, Youngstown and East Cleveland schools was up for debate as part of the first day of the two-day conference. Monday’s presentations focused on confronting hate in schools, with the House Bill 70 panel discussing the racial inequities surrounding the law.

“I am not here without public schools,” Eugene Saunders, panelist and superintendent of Sandusky Schools said. He went on to call the law an injustice to democracy and unconstitutional.

He noted the districts most impacted by state policies are high minority, high poverty areas plagued by quality of life issues — for example, East Cleveland is the fourth poorest city in the country, according to a 2018 study. He said House Bill 70, which removes local control in favor of a majority-state appointed Academic Distress Commission and CEO, creates an unfair dynamic, calling the system undemocratic and unconstitutional.

“If I lived in Lorain, Ohio, right now I’d be telling everybody who could hear this message, we want our school’s back,” he said. “We don’t want them in the hands of people who are not accountable, not responsible, don’t live in our community … I want to see my people at the grocery store. I want to see my people in the church. I want to see my people around the corner in my neighborhood. Those are the individuals that I live with, that I pay taxes with, I think that is one of the most damning things I’ve seen in my 39 years in public education.”

The other panelists: Jeff Isaacs, Shaker Heights Board of Education president; Susan Kaeser, League of Women Voters education specialist; and State Board of Education member Merle Johnson, agreed with Saunder’s sentiments — calling the legislation an attempt at privatization of public education.

That privatization has been happening since the 1990s, with the push toward charter schools, according to Saunders.

“Often the African-America, low-income, high poverty students who are targeted by the charters for this ‘elite’ education,” he said. “… Ultimately it’s that child who’s most at risk who really falters when it’s time for high school graduation and college and career opportunities.”

Johnson, who represents District 11 — including East Cleveland Schools — agreed. She said there is a national movement toward privatization, where venture capitalists turned what was meant to be a positive idea to give students more support than a traditional public school setting could offer, into a money maker.

She called the schools corrupt and implored attendees to educate themselves about the lack of oversight among charters.

“We have to advocate for our public schools, 90 percent of children attend public schools,” she said. “And so we have to make sure that we have the quality.”

Kaeser agreed, stating school choice programs undermine the “common good” by pulling resources away from public schools. Isaac added that, while improvements have been made to Ohio’s State Report Card system, it is still an apparatus that fails a large number of schools.

“That is intentionally done in order to make the case that students should make other choices and should take advantage of vouchers,” he said.

In the face of struggling districts and school choice programs that end in scandal, the closing question came from an audience member: What can those in attendance do to help?

Johnson replied: By doing what House Bill 70 was supposed to, help support students and create wraparound initiatives.

“There are so many things you can do, all the way from tutoring after school, if you have a community organization that you can partner with the school down the street — any kind of way you can reach out,” she said. “Our students need support, and they need to know that the community is there to support them.”

The conference, presented in part by the YWCA of Elyria, continues 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. today at the Spitzer Conference Center at Lorain County Community College, 1005 N. Abbe Road, Elyria.

Contact Carissa Woytach at (440) 329-7245 or cwoytach@chroniclet.com.

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