The anatomy of a levy defeat

As the dust settles after the November 5th election in Columbus, it may be instructive to parse the 69 percent to 31 percent trouncing that Issue 50 (a combined 9.01-mil levy and bond issue) experienced.

The victors: No cheaters, no charters—no new taxes

If Winston Churchill was correct and “history is written by the victors,” then the takeaway is “no cheaters, no charters.” A group of this name was the most organized foe of the ballot issue. It opposed any measure that would “reward” a school board or district still mired in state and federal investigations of data rigging, and it opposed distributing local property tax dollars to charter schools of any type.

Were levy opponents correct? Did Columbus voters follow their lead and base their decisions on the ongoing investigations and inclusion of charter schools?

There is some evidence, but not much data, to suggest that this happened. First, the pro-levy campaign brought together a broad array of supporters who were able to raise and spend in excess of $2.3 million. Opponents were armed with their aforementioned mantra and a “staggering” $4,000. For the results to be that lopsided, the levy opponents’ message apparently resonated with Columbus voters with little more than a mantra to reinforce it.

In addition to defeating the levy, voters also replaced two of the three school board incumbents running for re-election. Given the success that incumbents typically enjoy, this points to some general dissatisfaction. That being said, the school board results do not necessarily match up perfectly with the narrative being advanced by levy opponents. One of the defeated incumbents was Mike Wiles who was often viewed by critics of the levy and school board as being above the morass on issues of integrity. He himself can’t account for his loss in the anti-levy environment. To add to the uncertainty, voters also reelected an incumbent who largely went along with the majority of the school board on most issues.

The inclusion of charter schools in the levy request also seemed to affect the outcome of the vote. In a poll the Columbus Dispatch published on October 27th, just 40 percent of respondents supported including nonprofit charter schools in the levy.

While levy opponents cited support for charters as a key reason to sink the ballot measure, even levy supporters spotted the potential weakness with voters and tried to pre-empt criticism. Case in point: The first salvo of mailers to Columbus households from levy supporters touted that a “Yes” vote would close charter schools. While one can envision a world where high performers are given a competitive advantage in the form of some local levy dollars, to say that this would necessarily lead to the closure of lower-performing charters is a stretch without verbally connecting the dots. At another stage, Mayor Coleman went out of his way to assert that the “community schools” he was envisioning weren’t the same thing as “charter schools”. Finally, near the end of the campaign, great pains were taken to ensure voters knew that for-profit charters wouldn’t receive levy dollars.  

Beyond the cheaters and charters narrative, the third reason given for opposition to the ballot measure was the sheer size of the property-tax increase—nearly 24 percent. This is a good point, and it most certainly affected some voters' decisions. However, the levy amount wasn’t without historical precedent. In November 2008, in one of the worst economies this country has known, Columbus City Schools passed a combined 8.98-mil operating and bond levy that nearly equals this year’s 9.01 mil request. The outcome couldn’t have been more different. The 2008 levy garnered 63 percent of the vote—twice the percentage of supporters as this year. And the administration floated the idea of a 9.15 mill levy in Summer 2012 just a month before the data-rigging allegations came fully to light. Given these numbers, it’s hard to assert that the amount of the levy was the proximate cause of this year’s staggering loss.

The losers: Disappointment, acknowledgement, and hope

Mayor Coleman was the most ardent supporter of Issue 50. He recognized the need to make bold changes in the district, and he worked with the Columbus Education Commission and with Republican Governor John Kasich to help pass the necessary legislation to put Issue 50 before Columbus voters. The voters’ response to the levy had to be especially disheartening for the mayor. Coleman, like other levy supporters, acknowledged the decision of the voters. He was just as a quick to provide his own narrative as to why the levy was defeated: lack of trust in the district and the board members for all their public sins.

In the wake of defeat, Interim Superintendent Dan Good made it clear that the district will have to work harder to earn back the public trust. That acknowledgement is important and represents a step forward. If Good’s efforts during his short tenure so far are any indication, trust could be reestablished sooner rather than later. But even if the trust issues are addressed, where does that leave the fundamental reforms the mayor and the commission were attempting to establish with Issue 50?

Beyond the vote, what really matters: Columbus’ students

We have attempted here to determine "what happened" with Issue 50. But what is missing from the story, and what has always been missing from this story, is the best interests of students. Too many kids attend a low-performing school in Columbus. Unless something changes, they will languish in these schools tomorrow, next week, and next year. A levy campaign on its own, especially an unsuccessful one, does nothing to improve the state of the schools and the children in them. Columbus City Schools and the city’s charters are still plagued by low achievement, achievement gaps, low graduation rates, and astronomical college-remediation rates.

At the end of the day, the failed levy attempt has left us with more questions than answers. Will Mayor Coleman continue to demonstrate strong leadership and push for improved educational outcomes for all Columbus students? Will the business community stay engaged? Will they continue their focus on ensuring the city’s children have the skills and education necessary to lead successful lives? Can Interim Superintendent Dan Good continue leading the district’s reform efforts in a way that brings the community together and rebuilds trust in the school system?

The challenges that remain are great, but the leadership shown by members of Columbus’ political, business, philanthropic, faith, and education communities gives us ample reason for optimism.

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