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In Face of Fire, Ohio Officials Seek Backing for Bill

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Ohio's Governor and state school chief are engaging in damage control after a far-ranging school-reform bill they rolled out earlier this month drew fire from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, the state's largest teachers' union, and Roman Catholic educators.

Gov. George V. Voinovich and Superintendent Ted Sanders appeared at a news conference early last week and later met with newspaper editorial boards to drum up support for the Republican Governor's "Education for Results'' reform agenda.

The two officials describe the plan as the product of two years of study and consensus-building and say it will put Ohio on the cutting edge of reform.

Its main thrust is to set performance standards for teachers, students, and schools and to hold them to account for not meeting the objectives. For failing to measure up, teachers would lose their jobs, students would be denied high-school diplomas, and schools would be subject to "appropriate interventions'' directed by the state education department.

The plan, however, seems to have touched a raw nerve among lawmakers from across the political spectrum, drawing criticism simultaneously for being "politically correct'' and insensitive to the concerns of African-Americans. Other legislators, meanwhile, said they were disturbed by the vagueness of the proposed "learner outcomes'' that students would have to demonstrate mastery of to get a high school diploma.

The Ohio Education Association, meanwhile, blasted the plan's teacher-accountability provisions, saying they could expose union members to unwarranted firings by unscrupulous school administrators.

And according to press reports, in testimony before the House finance and appropriations committee on March 10, a lobbyist for the Catholic Conference of Ohio said the organization has asked its lawyer to examine the constitutionality of the Governor's plan to extend a state high school exit-test requirement to students in private schools. A spokeswoman for the church group was unavailable for comment last week.

Plan's Provisions

Highlights of Mr. Voinovich's proposal include:

  • Requiring school districts to assess the performance of teachers and other educators at "regular'' intervals. Those deemed unsatisfactory would receive "intervention and support.'' Educators who failed to correct their shortcomings would be fired.
  • Creating a state professional-standards board composed of individuals certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The panel would set requirements for initial and continued licensure, and define and enforce professional ethics and practice.
  • Adopting some two dozen "learner outcomes'' and linking them to student proficiency exams at grades 4, 6, 9, and 12. Passage of the 9th-grade exam is already required for high school graduation. That requirement, in turn, would be extended for the first time to private schools.
  • Amending an existing school-recognition and -intervention law "to assure the system emphasizes and supports school improvement in addition to accountability.''
  • Setting aside $10.5 million over two years to provide every Ohio 8th grader with an "individual career plan and passport to employment or higher education.''
  • Earmarking $135 million during the next biennium to help narrow the gap between rich and poor school districts.

"The Governor feels he has a very comprehensive, significant reform package,'' said Jean Droste, an executive assistant to Mr. Voinovich. "We feel it is very sound education policy. What has happened is that people have focused in on what they think is part of the program but is not.''

On March 12, members of the legislature's black caucus proposed several amendments to the Governor's plan, including waiving the high school exit-test requirement for the classes of 1994 and 1995; diverting $20 million from the $135 million proposed by Mr. Voinovich for finance equity to programs for at-risk children; and requiring parents to enroll in adult-education programs as a condition for enrolling their children in Head Start.

"Why spend money on grading and measuring schools instead of spending money on things that are tried and true--that we know will work?'' asked Rep. C.J. Prentiss, a member of the black caucus who represents Cleveland and also is a former member of the state board of education. "We need to get about the business of helping teachers and students.''

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