| The Columbus Dispatch
Can a member of a public school board work for a group that advocates for private and charter schools?
It’s a simmering issue that recently boiled up for Columbus City Schools teachers and board member James Ragland. Ragland is the director of provider outreach for School Choice Ohio, a nonprofit group that informs Ohio families about the educational options available for their children, including private and charter schools.
The Columbus Education Association, the district’s teachers union, recently rescinded its endorsement of Ragland and took a vote of “no confidence” in his ability to serve the district, it announced Monday.
“He is actively trying to take money out of the pockets of our students,” association President John Coneglio told The Dispatch. “While the school board may not always agree with us, we want a board that reflects the schools that Columbus students deserve. Clearly Mr. Ragland does not.”
State funding in Ohio — just over $6,000 per student — moves with students. That means that if a child enrolls in a public charter school, the state deducts money from the student’s home district and sends it to the charter school.
In the 2019-20 school year, more than $164 million was shifted from Columbus City Schools to charter-school deductions, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
About 19,400 students living in the district attended a charter school, either online or in person, according to the district’s annual state report card. About 6,900 used state-funded vouchers or scholarships to attend private schools, and 4,100 others attended a different public district through open enrollment or “other means.” By comparison, about 44,600 students stay enrolled in Columbus City Schools.
Ragland told The Dispatch he disagreed with the union’s presentation of the situation as a “partisan issue.”
“Parents reserve the right to decide what school option is best for their child,” Ragland said. “Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of middle-class families move away from Columbus City Schools, and we’ve got to do what’s necessary to be competitive and to get those students back.”
Ragland noted that his son and daughter are 2015 and 2020 district graduates, respectively.
“I entrusted the district with the education of both my children,” Ragland said. “It doesn’t get any more loyal than that.”
Ragland was appointed to the school board in January 2019 to fill part of a vacant term. In November 2019, he ran unopposed to fill the remainder of the term, which expires December 31, 2021.
Ragland took the job with School Choice Ohio shortly after his election. Coneglio called the group “anti-public education.”
The debate came to a head in late July after Ragland participated in a roundtable discussion at a Tree of Life Christian Schools campus in Upper Arlington with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Republican lawmakers who support school choice. Democrats and representatives of public schools, including one from Columbus City Schools, said they weren’t told of the event.
“Anytime the U.S. Secretary of Education asks to speak with an educational leader, you go,” Ragland said. “I was honored.”
Ragland said he was invited because of his breadth of education experiences. He previously worked as the development director for Cristo Rey Columbus High School, a Catholic school, and he also runs a consulting firm specializing in minority business development.
Ragland said he hopes to run for reelection next year.
“I want to see Columbus City Schools become the best public-school district in the country,” he said. “I think we have the ability to do that.”
The no-confidence vote against Ragland isn’t unprecedented for the Columbus teachers union. In 2017, for example, the union voted similarly against the entire school board during contentious contract negotiations.
The union isn’t the only group that has been critical of Ragland recently. Last month, CPD out of CCS, a student and alumni organization advocating for the permanent removal of police officers from schools, protested outside Ragland’s home because of his responses that were not supportive of their efforts.
“It’s not surprising — we’ve had ‘no confidence’ for quite a while,” said Julia Allwein, an organizer and 2018 Columbus Alternative High School graduate, about the union’s vote. “He is serving his own power and political clout over what students need.”