Published Online: October 7, 2010

School Spending Hot Issue in Ohio Governor's Race

Ohio Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, left, and Republican candidate for governor John Kasich debate one another last month in Columbus, Ohio.
—Chris Russell/AP-Pool

Education may not be the top issue in the Ohio gubernatorial race—by virtually all accounts, that spot goes to jobs—but it’s attracting considerable attention, with an emphasis on spending for schools.

Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat seeking election to a second term, led the way in promoting an ambitious plan to revamp the state’s K-12 education system, including with a school finance approach that he calls an “evidence-based model.” He has said the new model, adopted last year, would over time dramatically raise the state’s share of funding for education.

But Gov. Strickland’s Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. John Kasich, said last month that if he’s elected, the new finance model will be “gone.” Mr. Kasich also has been emphasizing what he says is the need to ensure that more dollars reach directly into the classroom, rather than “putting money into bureaucracy.”

The debate on education is “playing out mainly around money,” said Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank that has an office in Dayton. “That’s very different from four years ago,” he said, “when there was a lot of talk about charter schools and vouchers and things like that.”

Political observers say that maintaining state spending on education, much less increasing it, will be difficult for Ohio, given the state’s fiscal straits, including a budget shortfall projected to be as high as $8 billion for the upcoming biennium. In a Columbus Dispatch commentary last month, senior editor Joe Hallett was blunt: “At this juncture, it makes no difference what model is used, because there is no money to fund it.”

In an election year in which Republicans are widely seen as likely to make gains in federal and state elections, recent polls indicate that former Rep. Kasich has an edge over the incumbent governor.

But John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron and a longtime observer of state politics, said he sees the race as still in play. “The issue that matters the most in Ohio is jobs,” he added, “and the loss thereof and job creation.”

Education is getting some attention, though. For Mr. Strickland, it’s an issue to which he has devoted considerable time, and political capital, since becoming governor in 2007. He rolled out a broad package of proposed education changes in his 2009 State of the State address. ("Governor's Plan for Revamping Education in Ohio Challenged," May 20, 2010.)

After intensive negotiations, a modified version of the plan was approved by the legislature later in the year.

The package addresses a variety of matters, from a call to revamp state standards and assessments, to a requirement for all-day kindergarten, to an overhaul of teacher preparation and tenure. It also contains big changes to school finance, with the state gradually expected to take on a bigger share of spending from local jurisdictions. Those changes were driven in part by a series of court decisions finding the state’s school finance system unconstitutional. ("Ohio Forces Spar Over Constitution," Jan. 31, 2007.)

The state’s portion of formula-funding for schools was about $6.5 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30. If the new formula had been fully funded, that level would have been about $3 billion higher, according to the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Services Commission.

Observers note that the legislation does not guarantee that the extra aid will be available.

“The economy has conspired against Governor Strickland and his school reform plan,” said Mr. Ryan, from the Fordham Institute. “He exerted a ton of energy to create [the plan], but ... one can’t see how it’s going to be paid for any time soon, if ever.”

Mr. Kasich, who has said he would work to overturn the new school funding approach, last month put out a television ad on education.

“We have to do everything we can to make sure that our kids have the training, the education, and the tools to compete,” Mr. Kasich says in the ad. “[P]utting money into bureaucracy is not the ticket. It’s dollars in the classroom.”

That language was inspired by a 2010 study from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and the Greater Ohio Policy Center, which ranked Ohio 47th out of the states in the amount of money that goes to classroom instruction, but ninth in the share that goes to “administration.”

Rob Nichols, a spokesman for the Kasich campaign, said the Republican nominee, if elected, would work to “redirect money from bureaucracy and overhead into the classroom.” He declined to say whether Mr. Kasich would seek to maintain or cut overall state spending for K-12 education, noting that it depends on the budget situation.

“He hasn’t made any promises to anyone,” Mr. Nichols said.

Union Backs Incumbent

The Strickland campaign did not respond to a press inquiry for this story, but Sue Taylor, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed strong support for giving the governor a second term.

“The stakes for ... education are very very high,” said Ms. Taylor, who argues that Mr. Strickland has proved himself a “champion for public education” and has put the state on a track to provide strong spending increases for schools.

“It is a commitment, it is a notice of intent for how this governor wants to proceed,” she said. “And the intent of his opponent would be to rip apart the evidence-based system and go back to an old system ... that is very inequitable and unpredictable.”

The Kasich campaign has been endorsed by at least one education organization, the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, an advocacy group for charter schools and expanded school choice.

“We felt that John Kasich would make a much more supportive candidate for charter schools, vouchers, and parents’ right to choose,” said Ron F. Adler, the coalition’s president. “Governor Strickland in his last two budgets has not been a supporter of educational choice or charter schools or vouchers.”

Vol. 30, Issue 07

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