Cincinnati Public Schools old foe prepares for another anti-levy fight

Many others undecided or neutral

CINCINNATI –A coalition of business leaders, clergy and preschool advocates may be supporting Cincinnati Public Schools' upcoming school levy campaign, but district gadfly, COAST, won't be joining them.

State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Mount Lookout Republican and COAST spokesman, is not a fan of the district's performance, to put it mildly.

"Cincinnati Public Schools is a failure across the board. To give something that has performed so poorly more money is insanity. It's always funny how we're always celebrating that it's the best of the worst," he said, referring to CPS consistently ranking first among Ohio's eight large urban districts.

Rep. Tom Brinkman

The Ask

The Cincinnati school board has given preliminary approval for a levy that would seek another $48 million a year for five years atop current funding. The district hasn't asked for new money since 2008, and this levy would dramatically expand funding for two years of preschool as well as invest in new technology and career readiness as part of the My Tomorrow initiative.

The district plans to spend $15 million a year of the levy on preschool, making it tuition-free for children from families making 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less.

In keeping with a plan championed by Cincinnati Preschool Promise, Children could choose between CPS preschools and private operators that are deemed high quality by Ohio's star rating system.

An undetermined number of families that make more money would be partially reimbursed on a sliding scale. They cite multiple studies like this one that point to quality preschool changing the course of impoverished children's lives. Researchers believe children who are well prepared for kindergarten are much more likely be reading at grade level by third grade.

Third graders who can read well are statistically far more likely to graduate high school and, in turn, either attend college or get a job. They're also more likely to avoid drug abuse, poor health choices, committing crimes and needing to go on welfare or disability benefits.

Brinkman doesn't buy it. "Preschool Promise is nothing but glorified babysitting. It's babysitting," he said. "There's no evidence that this is going to make people smarter."

He contends that CPS could cope without new money and, if teachers were worried about funding, they could give back some of their salaries, which he thinks are too high.

"Maybe they go to the teacher's union, which is tremendously over-compensated, and saying how about giving back a little," Brinkman said.

How deep will opposition be?

How broad the coalition of levy opponents will be remains to be seen. Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou said it's too early to say whether the county GOP will take a position on the levy or remain neutral.

Its policy committee will investigate and make a recommendation to the executive committee, a process that may not play out until fall given how many levies are under consideration for the November ballot in the county, he said.

Many others are undecided while they wait for more information to be shared by the school district.

City Council Member Christopher Smitherman, an independent who has allied with COAST on issues like opposing the streetcar, said he needs to know a lot more about the way Preschool Promise will be administered, among other questions.

Cincinnati City Council Member Christopher Smitherman.

He was kept abreast of Preschool Promise when advocates were strongly considering a campaign for a separate property tax levy or increase of the city payroll tax and to funnel funding through a new nonprofit clearinghouse.

Now that preschool has been folded into the broader levy after Cincinnati Business Committee and others pushed for a united front, he wants to know why.

"All the meetings I had about Preschool Promise were before this marriage. The reasoning behind it is incredibly important to me," Smitherman said.

Clarity is Coming

Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, has expressed concern herself over how Preschool Promise is administered. But she's happy with the way negotiations have clarified details internally.

She said the plan is shaping up for CPS to be the fiscal agent overseeing preschool funding but that a not-for-profit agency will receive money through CPS to distribute to both public and private preschools within the CPS boundaries.

That includes Catholic preschools as well as small operators.

"It will be done with transparency and public oversight. I'm sure (Smitherman) will approve of the final details. As you know, I have been the most critical of the details but I think that the final details have addressed my concerns," Sellers said.

The union will do most of the pro-levy organizing and presents a strong case for success, she said. 

"I would think that Brinkman would love expansion of preschool because, conservatively, it has a 4:1 retun on investment and up to 7:1 (by some estimates)," Sellers said."He should know that CPS does very well academically in comparison to their poverty rates. That is in part due to Cincinnati's nationally known Community Learning Center model."

Learning More
 
Smitherman says a levy year where the district is asking for new money should be seen as an opportunity for the public to ask about how old problems can be fixed and new challenges met.

"I've been sharing with the school board that we have to have a vocational education school. Many of our students for no bad reason are not heading to college and there's nothing wrong with that," he said.

Smitherman also wants to see offerings in the arts can be emphasized and is looking for concrete plans for improving the performance of schools like Aiken and Withrow that don't have the same level of high-flying achievers as Walnut Hills High School or Clark Montessori High School.

 

A ballet class at SCPA. Photo by Phil Didion.

 

"We have these jewels like SCPA and Walnut, good Montessori schools  but there's still a swath of our schools that are having trouble. What I'm looking for is not just a blank check (for CPS)," he said.

And he's been frustrated trying to get answers.

"It's amazing that you try to have these discussions, and the leadership around the school system is almost put off that you have some questions you need answered," Smitherman said.

The Cincinnati native and graduate of the School for Creative and Performing Arts has sent four sons through CPS schools, including two who have graduated from Walnut Hills and two who are current students there. He parts ways with Brinkman on CPS's contribution to the community.

"Where Tom Brinkman and me do agree is that there's waste. But having a good public school system is critical for the health of our community," he said.

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