Ohio: The Incubator of Education Reformers

(Editor's note: Beginning today, Fordham's Ohio team will be blogging on Flypaper. This first post is from Terry Ryan, Vice President for Ohio Programs & Policy.)

Ohio has long been known as the cradle of presidents. The Buckeye State has seen eight of its sons serve as the nation's top executive. More recently Ohio has been the incubator of education reformers.

Three national newsmakers with roots in Ohio and a passion for fixing schools are Michelle Rhee (raised in Toledo and a graduate of Maumee Valley Country Day School), Adrian Fenty (a graduate of Oberlin College in Lorain County) and Michael Bennet (former assistant to Ohio Governor Richard Celeste). All three have been at the forefront of American education reform over the last three years, and all three are Democrats.

Rhee is serving as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, where she has worked closely with the Mayor Adrian Fenty to turn around one of the nation's most troubled big city school systems. Their plan is audacious and, according to Rhee, seeks to transform D.C.'s public schools within eight years for its 50,000 children. The plan focuses on top-down accountability, standardized test scores, and, ultimately, working to close what she describes as "the achievement gap between wealthy white kids and poor minority kids."

In her first year on the job, and with the complete backing of Fenty, Rhee closed 23 schools, fired 36 principals and cut 15 percent--about 121 jobs--of the central office staff. Just today, Rhee announced "a dramatic overhaul of the district's 4,000-member teacher corps that would remove a ???????significant share' of instructors and launch an ambitious plan to foster professional growth for those who remain." Rhee and Fenty are both unabashed supporters of charter schools.

Michael Bennet has been serving as Denver Public Schools Superintendent where he supported charter schools and gave birth to a merit pay plan for teachers. Under his leadership, the district posted a 6.2 percent increase in reading scores over the three years--more than four times the state gain. In math, there was a 6 percent improvement, more than twice the state gain. And in the middle grades, Denver saw gains of 10 percent in reading and 9 percent in math. On Saturday, Colorado's Governor Bill Ritter named Bennet as the U.S. Senate replacement for Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar.

Ohio, facing a budget shortfall for the next two years of more than $7 billion, badly needs new thinking on ways to improve its schools during these tough times. We should look to former Buckeyes Rhee, Fenty, and Bennet for ideas and inspiration. No interests, other than those of children, should be sacred.

Ohio map from GreenwichMeanTime.com

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