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Ohio Teachers of the Year: Kasich's Agenda Hits Educators at Every Turn

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Two years ago, with his team building and his wheels spinning toward a run for governor, John Kasich told Ashtabula Republicans "we need to break the backs of organized labor in the schools."

Now that Kasich is Ohio's governor, the state's public-school teachers are indeed beginning to feel a pinch.

From tapping teachers' wallets for higher pension payments to providing money to send more children to private and charter schools, Kasich's agenda seems to affect public-school teachers at nearly every turn.

"It's difficult not to feel like he's coming after public teachers," said Tim Dove, a Worthington schoolteacher and Ohio's Teacher of the Year in 2011.

The Dispatch interviewed the state's past six teachers of the year to gauge their impressions of Kasich's proposals.

Some of those top teachers recently signed an open letter opposing Senate Bill 5—which would limit collective bargaining for teachers and all other public employees—and that came before Kasich unveiled his biennial budget last week.

Kasich's $55.5 billion spending plan is stocked with changes to K-12 education and a $1.3 billion cut in overall school funding. He also has called for a shift to merit-based pay, additional pension pickups and the end of tenure rights, among many other things.

Kasich insists his proposals are not an attack on teachers but meant to make the state and its schools more competitive. The state's top teachers, including Dove, agree that changes are needed in Ohio's education system but are skeptical of what's been proposed and how the changes are occurring.

"I'm not opposed to changes," said Deborah Wickerham, a Findlay grade-school teacher who was Ohio's Teacher of the Year in 2008. "I just want to be a part of the process. Teachers would be more open to change if they were a part of the process."

The governor said there "isn't a group more important as it refers to our kids than teachers," and his proposals are meant to strengthen classroom mentors.

Kasich cites his plan to give cash bonuses to teachers whose students improve and spend more dollars in the classroom and less on administration as ways he's trying to support teachers.

Kasich proposes giving teachers bonuses of $50 for every student who shows more than a year's worth of improvement based on existing state measurements. The measurements are taken using the state's value-added system, which shows the degree to which a child improved over a certain period of time.

"I just want the best practices," Kasich said. "Some of these union bosses with the teachers unions are in it for themselves and are not out for teachers. When you have a last-in, first-out rule, quality teachers lose, and that's a terrible outcome."

Jennifer Walker, an English teacher at Youngstown's East High and the 2009 Teacher of the Year, said teachers at inner-city schools should not be rewarded based on the same metric applied to suburban teachers.

"We are teachers whose students live in poverty, who hear gunshots on their streets at night," Walker said. "I feel like teachers are a scapegoat. Schools are not to blame for the problem, we just mirror society's problems."

Walker, who said she disagrees with all of Kasich's proposals on education, also acknowledged that teachers unions are sometimes too focused on teachers' rights instead of improving education for children.

Eric Combs, now an assistant principal at Fairborn Primary School near Dayton and Teacher of the Year in 2006, said he doesn't think the state has a rash of bad teachers. But Combs, as a former teacher and current administrator, said teachers' angry reaction to Senate Bill 5 has hurt their cause in the court of public opinion.

"Teachers unions have a function, and when that function is to improve work conditions—great," he said. "But the thug mentality, if they're out there portraying themselves that way, that doesn't help the kids.

"Shame on the government and shame on teachers for not putting the kids first."

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George Edge, a music teacher at Grove City High School and Ohio's top teacher in 2007, said he recognizes the state's need to make cuts to fill an $8 billion shortfall. But Edge also said he's worried that Kasich and GOP lawmakers are reaching too far with some of their proposed changes. He said he wasn't against merit-based pay or charter schools, but both initiatives need to be regulated.

"I'm very much nervous what all of this means for Ohio," Edge said.

Robert Davis, lobbyist with the Ohio Education Association, said Kasich can't blame teachers for Ohio's budget woes.

"Teachers shouldn't be scapegoats for the state of the economy in Ohio," he said. "It feels like swipe after swipe. First and foremost, teachers care about kids, and the job they do is helping students. You look at this budget, which claims to prioritize education, but it cuts education by double digits."

Rep. Gerald Stebelton, R-Lancaster, who served on the Lancaster school board from 1983 to 1991, said he doesn't think Republicans are reaching too far on education.

"I served on a board of education for eight years, and I know how difficult it is to negotiate contracts with teachers unions," said Stebelton, chairman of the House Education Committee. "They can be unreasonable at times. One of the things that has happened for the unions is, there has become a sense of entitlement."

Natalie Wester, the No. 1 teacher in 2010, rejects a common GOP theme: that teachers' compensation needs to be brought in line with the private sector.

Wester, now a third-grade teacher in the University Heights City School District near Cleveland, said she had her own consulting firm before becoming a teacher and took a 60 percent pay cut to switch professions.

According to the Department of Education, the average salary for public-school teachers is $56,994.

As Kasich and Republican lawmakers continue to press for changes and teachers unions fight back, at least some Ohio college students preparing to become teachers are taking notice.

Larry Johnson, dean of the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services at the University of Cincinnati, said students watching the political debate about teachers' salaries being too high and benefits too generous are beginning to question whether they are choosing the right career.

"The kids coming into our college feel like they are going into a profession where they are not going to make a lot of money, but they want to make a difference for kids," Johnson said. "They don't understand why teachers have become so vilified."

Even someone on the side of management, Tom Ash, lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association and a former superintendent, sees how the fight might affect aspiring teachers.

"It's not easy to get a teaching credential," he said. "If our young people think that teachers are not as honored and respected as they should be, are they going to want to go into that profession?

"I do worry that maybe the public dialogue will make young people believe teaching is not a good and honorable profession, which I believe it to be."

Ash said he's not sure whether teachers unions are the real obstacle to needed changes in Ohio.

"The problem is that management, myself included, have given away so much over the last 27 years. I don't think contracts stand in the way of real educational reform. But they do make it more difficult to manage more efficiently because you have to bargain the effects of decisions you make."

Dove, the Worthington teacher and Ohio's reigning teacher of the year, opposes Kasich's education agenda. He said the only benefit for teachers and schoolchildren is that the debate itself is making the public realize changes are needed.

"The downside is, when we get these short, quick answers and proposals on a subject that's incredibly complex," Dove said.

Vol. 30, Issue 26

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