With the field of Republican presidential candidates narrowed from a high of 17 last year to three this month, only one remains who has both an extensive K-12 track record and a record that reflects many state policy prescriptions popular among GOP leaders in recent years: Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Over the course of his two terms as governor, Kasich has instituted a school accountability system based on A-F grades, signed into law a bill requiring students to demonstrate they are literate by the end of the 3rd grade (with some exceptions), and approved the creation of new tuition-voucher programs. Aggressive support for vouchers was also a highlight of Kasich’s record in Congress, where he served from 1983 to 2000.
He also signed a bill late last year to overhaul charter school accountability in the state, but only after a significant outcry about poor academic results at many charters, as well as financial mismanagement and corruption in the charter sector.
But in the Republican field, when it comes to K-12, Kasich—who’s been mathematically eliminated from obtaining the number of delegates necessary to win the nomination on the first ballot at the GOP convention in July—has also been defined in large part by what he doesn’t support.
In contrast to his remaining rivals, real estate developer Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Kasich has not attacked the Common Core State Standards as an insidious intrusion by the federal government into public schools. Kasich has defended the standards, albeit sometimes in vague and indirect ways, and Ohio has kept the common core on the books despite significant political pushback in the state.
(The standards, a project of governors and state superintendents, were not written or paid for by Washington, although President Barack Obama’s administration has supported them with grant incentives and funding for the creation of related tests.)
Nor has Kasich called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, as have Cruz and Trump. However, the Ohio governor has called for consolidating about 100 programs run by the department into four block grants that would be distributed to states.
Compared to Cruz and Trump, “I certainly think that Kasich has more progressive views on public education,” said Damon Asbury, the director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association. “I think his intent is to have strong public schools, whether they be traditional public schools or charters.”
Asbury added, though, that Kasich is usually more inclined to let the legislature deal with his proposals, and less interested in consistent collaboration with school advocacy groups.
Kasich’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
‘The Ultimate Accountability’
Over the past two biennial state budgets, Kasich has approved two, non-automatic K-12 funding-formula increases, one of about $1.2 billion for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, and another of about $1.7 billion for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. However, some otherstate aid to some school districts is slated to start dropping by the end of Kasich’s second term, Asbury noted. (In Congress, by contrast, Kasich advanced a federal budget resolution as the House budget leader in 1995 that would have cut federal education spending by $10 billion.)
In part, Kasich’s record as governor has been shaped by his responses to setbacks and controversy in two policy areas: collective bargaining rights and charter schools.
In 2011, his first year as governor, Kasich signed into law Senate Bill 5, which would have significantly curtailed collective bargaining rights for public employees and prohibited public employees from striking, among other shifts. Kasich told Fox News in February of that year that he backed the state Senate bill in part to give mayors and school boards “the tools they need to control their costs.”
But when the law was put before Ohio voters on the November 2011 ballot, they rejected it.
“I think that was an incredible learning experience for the governor,” said Chad Aldis, the vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. “That might be what you see more of on the campaign trail from him. That very well may have been a lesson from Senate Bill 5. He does seem to listen a lot more than potentially other candidates.
“You’ve had the ultimate accountability: You pushed for something, something you really believed in, and the voters said no, you went too far,” said Aldis. “But then you still have the task of governing.”
Aldis noted that the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, which Kasich signed into law in 2012 and highlighted in a March GOP presidential candidates’ debate to stress his record supporting improvement to urban education, contained at least a few elements similar to provisions of SB 5.
For more on the presidential candidates’ positions on education and the 2016 campaign, see Education Week’s online election guide.
For example, while the 2011 bill would have removed the teacher-salary scale from state law, the Cleveland Plan (through a contract agreed to in 2013) helped institute differentiated pay for teachers. And like Senate Bill 5 aimed to do, the Cleveland plan reduces the impact of seniority on personnel decisions.
In the GOP debate, Kasich used his discussion of Cleveland schools to make a pitch for block-granting a lot of federal programs, “because fixing schools rests at the state and the local level, and particularly at the school board level.”
However, the success of that plan and its long-term outlook is in dispute—and so is the extent to which Kasich was truly at the center of the Cleveland effort, said state Sen. Tom Sawyer, a Democrat who is the ranking member of the Ohio Senate education committee and served with Kasich in Congress. Moreover, Sawyer said, Kasichhasn’t always been so collaborative when it comes to significant K-12 efforts by the state.
“When he wanted to undertake a similar effort in the deeply troubled Youngstown schools, he claimed that he was following the same pathway,” Sawyer said. “But, in fact, it was the opposite. It would be fair to call it a coup. It lacked the broad-based support of a community.”
That’s a reference to a bill signed by Kasich last year that allowed the state to appoint a CEO of Youngstown schools to help turn around the district’s academic performance and take over responsibilities from the local school board. (It followed the creation of a separate Youngstown Academic Distress Commission by the state in 2010.)
And it’s possible the law could be construed in the future to apply to any number of districts deemed to be like Youngstown, Sawyer added. (Youngstown is not in Sawyer’s Senate district.)
Meanwhile, it’s Kasich’s handling of charters that has drawn perhaps the biggest share of broader attention to his K-12 record and continues to divide opinion inside Ohio.
Last year, the state’s top school choice official, David Hansen, resigned after it came to light that he omitted failing grades from some online Ohio charter schools from the state’s accountability system. State Auditor David Yost has investigated Ohio charters on multiple occasions. And a 2014 Stanford University study found that Ohio charter school students lag behind their peers in district schools in terms of academic progress.
Aldis of the Fordham Institute praised Kasich’s work with the legislature to clear up conflicts of interest and a general lack of transparency that “had crept into Ohio law over the years.”
“It probably takes a Republican school choice supporter at the state level to truly bring the parties together and get meaningful reformdone without it breaking down into some middle school food fight,” Aldis said. “If he’s able to get into office [as president], it does show I guess that he has been the grown-up in the room, at least on this issue.”
But Sawyer, the Democratic lawmaker, is more skeptical. He said the legislation’s durability is questionable, and it doesn’t change the extent to which charter schools—those run by for-profit companies, in particular—have (in the view of charter critics) benefited inappropriately on Kasich’s watch.
Still, Sawyer praised Kasich for resisting a rush among some GOP politicians to throw the common core overboard, and for trying to “balance the interests among different kinds of school districts” when it comes to state K-12 funding.
“Inside Ohio, people look at me and say, ‘How can you get along so well with Kasich? Look at the stuff you disagree about,’ ” Sawyer said. “And people outside Ohio say, ‘Aren’t you lucky to have John Kasich?’ … and both of those are true.”
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A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Kasich’s K-12 Record Heavy on State Policy