Published Online: May 18, 2009
Published in Print: May 20, 2009, as Governor's Plan for Revamping Education in Ohio Challenged

Governor's Plan for Revamping Education in Ohio Challenged

Republican-led Senate questions costs when state facing deficit

Gov. Ted Strickland’s ambitious plan to overhaul Ohio’s education system—from revamping school finance to crafting new academic standards and extending the school year—appears to be facing a difficult political road.

Although the governor got a boost when the state House—controlled by fellow Democrats—last month approved a modified version of his plan as part of the budget package for the next two fiscal years, he’s encountering far more skepticism in the Republican-led Senate. Fueling doubts are recent reports that state revenue is well below the levels assumed in his budget plan.

Gov. Strickland has been working aggressively to promote his education package since he first rolled it out in his State of the State address in January.

"I believe the time has come to take an education system that in many respects is 200 years old and redesign it for modern students and the modern economy," he said this month in an address to the Columbus Metropolitan Club. "People call this an education plan, but quite frankly, this is a plan for Ohio’s economic revival."

He also applauded the House for "taking a good plan and making it even better."

But Sen. Jon Husted, a Republican and a former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, was sharply critical of Mr. Strickland’s approach, especially on the financial side.

"Both the governor and the House used fantasy-land numbers," he said in an interview. "One of the things you’re going to see [the Senate do] is to strip out all the mandates that are not accompanied by any resources."

A revised revenue estimate released by the state this month suggests the deficit for the current year could range from $600 million to $900 million, out of a total budget of $27 billion.

'Evidence-Based Model'

The House approved a two-year, $54 billion budget in late April that incorporates the core elements of Mr. Strickland’s proposal, with some changes, including how money would be distributed to school districts and a scaling-back of his plans for a longer school year.

The House bill provides slightly less money than the governor requested for districts and charter schools under the state funding formula, because he had assumed the use of certain federal money from the recent economic-stimulus package that cannot be rolled into state formula aid. As a result, state formula funding for districts would drop slightly from the current level of $6.8 billion, to $6.75 billion in fiscal 2010 under the House plan, and be at $6.77 billion the following year, according to the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Services Commission.

Gov. Strickland is seeking a wide range of changes to the state’s education system. He’s aiming to launch an effort to establish new academic standards and aligned assessments. He wants to gradually extend the school year from 180 to 200 days and require all-day kindergarten across Ohio. He’s proposing initiatives to improve teacher quality, including an overhaul of teacher preparation and professional development and a proposal to extend the time it takes teachers to earn tenure.

He also would revise high school graduation requirements.

On top of all that, Mr. Strickland wants to restructure the school finance system using what he has termed an "evidence-based model" that focuses on delivering the money the state deems schools need to succeed academically, rather than basing it on the money available. The undertaking would change how money is allocated across districts, and would gradually phase in a larger contribution from state coffers.

In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the state’s funding formula for public schools as unconstitutional, saying it relied too much on property taxes and thus created inequities between districts.

Selective Use of Research?

The governor has said that his plan would increase the state’s share of education funding in the upcoming two-year budget from 52 percent to 55 percent, and that over the next decade, it would eventually reach 59 percent. Put another way, he estimates that the state share of school funding would rise by 45 percent over the next decade, though critics have noted that figure does not take inflation into account.

Mr. Strickland’s plans, along with the changes made by the House, have received general support from some prominent education groups, including the two statewide teachers’ unions and the Ohio School Boards Association.

"We’re supportive, and we’re optimistic," said Richard C. Lewis, the executive director of the school boards’ group, though he cautioned that he’d like to see some changes. "We think it’s a good starting point, it’s a good framework, but ... it’s a work in progress," he said. "It’s not a perfect plan by any stretch."

But Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which has an office in Dayton, said that while he believes the governor’s funding redesign is “well intentioned," it is nonetheless faulty.

"The evidence in the governor’s evidence-based model is based on the selective use of research and rests on sand," said Mr. Ryan, whose organization sponsors six Ohio charter schools. “We know for certain his plan would ratchet up the cost of schooling during a time of historical fiscal stress for Ohio, but have little basis for which to think this is a smart investment for the future."

Rep. Stephen O. Dyer, a key Democrat on education issues, said he believes the House has made important changes to the proposed funding formula.

"We did a lot of things to the formula that ended up doing a much more effective and efficient job of driving resources to districts that need them the most," he said, such as poor rural school systems.

He also said that the House had "beefed up" a proposal the governor made for establishing an advisory council to review the school finance efforts over time. That panel would review the finance system every two years, he said, "to make sure it’s working right."

Mr. Ryan said he welcomes the governor’s call for new standards.

"The state has mediocre standards, and they need to be redesigned," he said. He hopes, however, the state will not pursue a "go it alone" approach and instead work with other states and national organizations that are beginning to look at devising rigorous common standards.

Meanwhile, Gov. Strickland’s plan is facing criticism from Mr. Ryan and other charter advocates for its call to cut more than $200 million to such schools over two years.

Some charter advocates recently began airing radio ads in urban markets accusing him of supporting "separate but unequal" treatment of schools. The ads say the governor’s plans would harm minority students because they make up a disproportionate share of charter enrollees.

Mr. Strickland has said he does not oppose charter schools, but wants them to be more transparent and accountable in their operations.

Vol. 28, Issue 32, Pages 13,16

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