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Focus Shifts Away From Cuts, Back to Reform in Ohio

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As they emerge from a year dominated by state budget cuts, leading Ohio lawmakers and educators appear to be making progress toward drafting substantial school-finance changes and wide-ranging classroom and governance reforms.

The turning point in what has been a difficult political season for educators may have come late last month, when Gov. George V. Voinovich announced that he would order no more budget cuts for elementary and secondary education, even in the face of ongoing revenue shortfalls. As a result, the education focus in the state capital has turned to a series of projects that have been largely eclipsed by the past year's fiscal woes.

A coalition of state education groups spearheaded by Superintendent of Public Instruction Ted Sanders earlier had called for the Governor to exempt education from further cuts, which cost schools $78 million this year, and to move reform issues to the front burner.

To make good on his promise, Mr. Voinovich must now persuade the legislature to accept his budget plan, which would raise alcohol and tobacco taxes while targeting other programs for cuts. Nevertheless, he is expected to be a strong force in the reform debate that observers said may take center stage after the November elections.

Sweeping Changes Foreseen

A panel of top corporate executives, lawmakers, and education advocates appointed by the Governor has already issued a blueprint for a massive overhaul of the state education department. In the coming months, the 17-member panel will finalize its reform aims.

The group also has commissioned a study of shortcomings in the state's classrooms, which is due this fall.

"It is under way, but it's too early to say which way it is going to go,'' said John Brandt, the executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association and a council member.

If its earlier work is any clue, the panel will not hesitate to recommend sweeping changes. Last August, its study of the state education department produced a call for a major overhaul of both the agency's structure and mission.

Following the lead of several other states, the panel recommended shifting the thrust of the state agency from regulation and auditing to increased support and guidance for local districts.

The panel noted that its recommendations for the department marked the first step in a larger reform plan.

"Real systemic change can occur only with substantial deregulation of the current education system,'' the group wrote in its report. The document detailed 25 tasks for Mr. Sanders to complete by the end of this year, ranging from developing a school-based-management campaign to creating regional support centers.

The department is in the midst of making many of the changes.

"It's really still in the beginning stages, but we are talking about a different structure and redefining our mission,'' said Shane Jenkins, the agency's spokesman.

Taking the Lead on Finance

Parallel to the reform study, the Governor has also asked the group to consider options for Ohio's school-finance system.

The current system, which allows wide gaps in per-pupil spending between wealthy and poor school districts, already faces two court challenges. Both Cleveland and a coalition of mostly rural districts have filed lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.

The Cleveland Foundation and researchers at the Ohio State University will study the system and present recommendations by year's end, according to a top aide to Mr. Voinovich.

Still, the panel's school-finance efforts clearly are lagging behind the work of a number of lawmakers, who have been considering revisions to the school-finance formula for some time.

After a series of hearings, the Senate Select Committee on School-Funding Equity is preparing a modified version of a bill produced by a House-Senate special committee last year. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)

The bill would target the state's school-finance formula for a host of changes, including adding median family income as a factor in determining foundation aid, phasing out a guarantee that state school aid not fall below the previous year, and updating the system's sensitivity to local cost differences.

Further, the bill would begin to equalize state funding for categorical programs and increase its capital-improvement fund.

Funding Recapture Eyed

Observers said much of the school-finance program has received wide support. Other aspects, however, face an uphill fight.

Provisions that would recapture some new local funding in an effort to speed equity, for example, have drawn criticism from wealthy school districts.

Under the bill, half of the new proceeds of commercial and industrial school taxes would be pooled and redistributed within county lines in an effort to aid low-wealth districts. Further, half of districts' growth in utility-tax receipts would be recaptured at the state level and redistributed to poor districts.

Lawmakers also anticipate a battle over the bill's call for committing a set percentage of the state's general-revenue fund to education.

"We need stability, and that's about the only way we can get it,'' said Senator H. Cooper Snyder, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the select committee that is working on the finance bill.

Mr. Brandt of the school-boards association said he is encouraged that the school-finance debate will soon become part of a broader reform effort with strong backing.

"It may be just because it's good for my mental health, but I think Governor Voinovich is sincere and impatient about change,'' he said.

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