Ohio Crafts Education Overhaul As Court Deadline Nears
The Ohio legislature approved a two-year, $45 billion state budget and a standards and accountability package last week that together were designed to satisfy a court mandate to overhaul the school finance system.
The bills would provide an additional $1.4 billion over two years for public schools, and call for statewide standards for all grades in core academic subjects to be developed by the end of 2002. They also would require end-of- grade tests and a new high school exit exam to replace the state proficiency tests now used to gauge student performance.
Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, was expected to sign the measures this week.
Some lawmakers and observers praised the state's plans for improving its schools, but critics said the legislation failed to remedy funding problems outlined in Ohio's 11-year-old school finance case. The state supreme court ruled last May that the state's initial efforts to change the financing system—first ruled unconstitutional in 1997—failed to pass muster. ("Ohio Lawmakers Differ on Funding Mechanism," April 18, 2001.)
"The budget is simply a veneer that addresses the state supreme court's concerns in a superficial way," said William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, which filed the original lawsuit, DeRolph v. State of Ohio, in 1991.
The budget, Mr. Phillis contends, does not provide enough money for schools with high proportions of poor students, for special education, for programs for gifted students, or for vocational education. Moreover, he said, it fails to significantly alter the state funding formula and reduce districts' reliance on local property taxes, and it does not provide money for an assessment of school facility needs, as required by the court.
Both sides in the case are expected to present arguments to the court later this month.
The Ohio Supreme Court, in its May 2000 ruling, also called on the state to set rigorous standards in core subjects and craft a plan for holding schools accountable for student achievement.
Under the legislation, academic standards would be developed by the end of 2002, and new assessments aligned to those standards would be phased in beginning in the 2003-04 school year.
The plan would abandon the state's controversial 4th grade reading-guarantee program, which was set for implementation next spring. It would have prevented students who failed the state reading test from advancing to the 5th grade. More than 40 percent of the state's 4th graders failed to pass the test this year, according to exam results released last week. The new legislation would push the test back to 3rd grade and require districts to offer failing students remedial instruction instead of holding them back.
"Ohio is textbook case of a state that went astray on the road to a standards-based system of education," said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "This [legislation] corrects those errors by first developing and validating the standards with a great deal of teacher involvement, and, assuming we get that right, creating new achievement tests aligned to standards."
But some lawmakers say the testing plan missed the root problems facing schools.
Said Rep. Edward S. Jerse, a Democrat, who opposed the portion of the plan dealing with standards and accountability: "It assumes the problem is bad teachers and bad schools, when it may be that the bigger problems are declining parent support, more single-parent households, and more poverty."
Vol. 20, Issue 39, Page 16