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Published in Print: August 13, 2008, as Ohio Governor Listens on K-12—But Action Awaits

Ohio Governor Listens on K-12—But Action Awaits

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Despite a faltering economy and a political rebuff from state lawmakers earlier this year, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is pressing ahead with a project to collect school improvement ideas from citizens statewide, with an eye toward eventual legislation.

To date, the first-term Democrat has held five public forums throughout Ohio on K-12 education, drawing crowds of 200 to 300 willing to consider such options as an extended school day or school year, and nontraditional age groupings for classes.

This fall, he plans to follow up with a series of meetings on ways to change the state’s school funding formula, which the Ohio Supreme Court in 1997 struck down as unconstitutional because it relied too much on property taxes, creating inequalities between school districts.

“He introduced a broad draft of reform proposals,” said Fred Pausch, the director of legislative services for the Columbus-based Ohio School Boards Association. “He’s now taking it to the grassroots level around the state of Ohio to get feedback from about everyone who wants to be counted on the issue.”

Talking About Ohio Schools

Gov. Ted Strickland has floated a number of possible approaches to improving his state’s public school system—some more specific than others. He’s also heard from hundreds of citizens at a series of public forums throughout the state. Among the possibilities he’s heard raised so far:

• Better tailoring education to individual students. That might include greater attention to gifted students.

• Giving teachers more time for joint planning and collaboration.

• Extending the school day, or the school year, to provide for more instructional time.

• Changing how students are currently grouped for learning; for example, by mixing various ages or grades in a particular classroom.

But Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs and policy for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said the forums could be intended by the governor to help put a positive face on the Democratic Party for the November elections, given that Democrats need to take four seats away from Republicans in the Ohio’s House of Representatives to gain control of it.

“It’s a bit disingenuous to come out and take ideas and talk about all the ideas that take more money without acknowledging there’s not more money to pay for these,” Mr. Ryan said, who attended the governor’s forum in Dayton, Ohio, and noted that 13 individuals stood up from the audience and gave examples of aspects of schooling that needed more funding.

Gov. Strickland is among a handful of state chief executives moving aggressively on education at a time when the gloomy fiscal forecast has forced many governors to concentrate first on budget issues.

He has some company. On June 23, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, a fellow Democrat, unveiled proposals for an early warning dropout-prevention program and the creation of universal prekindergarten and full-day kindergarten.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., also a Democrat, is proposing to revamp that state’s system of standards and assessments. ("Colorado Moves Ahead on Ambitious K-12 Package," May 21, 2008.)

Kathy Christie, the chief of staff for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said “the governors who tended not to have education as a significant piece of their state-of-the-state addresses are few and far between.”

But Michael Griffith, a senior school finance analyst at the ecs, observed, “The general rule is it’s a lot easier to make changes in education during good economic times. We saw that in the late 1990s through 2001.”

Campaign Promise

Gov. Strickland, a former congressman born in Lucasville, Ohio, campaigned for governor in 2006 in part on a promise to work to revamp the K-12 education system in Ohio, which enrolls 1.8 million students.

Eager to expand his influence over education policy, he sought a change in the state constitution that would have let him create a new director of the state department of education—who he would appoint—to oversee the state education department and the board of education. The board-appointed state superintendent of schools would have remained, but in a more advisory role.

Lawmakers rejected that proposal, although they had previously agreed to permit him to appoint the higher education chief for the state.

But in the aftermath of that battle, Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio’s appointed superintendent, turned in her resignation letter, effective in December.

“The board has said that they will work with me so we can find a superintendent who is compatible with me to work out my agenda. That was my goal initially,” the governor added.

Any school improvement ideas also will have to take place in the context of Ohio’s economic situation.

The state, which enacted a biennial budget for 2008-09 of $52.3 billion, was among 13 forced to make cuts to eliminate budget gaps after their fiscal 2008 budgets were passed, the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers reported. Ohio’s actions included layoffs and early retirements.

The K-12 education budget of $7.7 billion for 2008 was reduced by almost $52 million in February; at the same time the $8.1 billion for K-12 for 2009 was slashed by $50 million, according to Ohio Department of Education spokesman Scott Blake. The cuts included money for education service centers and early-college high schools, he said.

Ohio’s economy is suffering high unemployment and a high number of mortgage foreclosures, according to William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, the nonprofit organization that filed the successful constitutional challenge against the state’s funding system.

Still, he believes Gov. Strickland is serious about his commitment to revise the funding system for schools.

“He is personally involved,” said Mr. Phillis. “The problem is, the economy of Ohio is not that great.”

Fiscal Pressure

The governor appears well aware of the fiscal squeeze Ohio faces. The state is already spending a lot of money per pupil, he said, and “what I don’t want to do is talk about more resources so we can continue to do what we are doing. I want us to think more deeply about how we need to change.”

In the 2006-07 school year, Ohio spent $9,587 per pupil in state, federal and local funds, according to the state education department.

“I’m talking about having the flexibility within the classroom and the way schools are structured and organized that would enable the student to progress at his or her own speed,” he said in an interview.

As an example, he noted that he attended as a child a one-room school house where grades 1-4 were in the same room, enabling students to learn from one another.

Politics could yet prove an obstacle for the governor to push through whatever changes he ends up favoring on school improvement and K-12 funding. The governor is a Democrat, and both the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate are controlled by Republicans.

But the governor holds out hope that Democrats could gain the upper hand in the House after the November election.

In the meantime, he is pressing ahead with his statewide series of forums, dubbed the Governor’s Conversation on Education. He insists he is open to other people’s ideas. “I’m trying to talk as little as possible at these events,” he said.

Vol. 27, Issue 45, Pages 13,16

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