Now is the time to be bold in pushing education reforms in Ohio

Education and politics go hand and glove. When it comes to education the question isn’t just whether or not a policy is right or smart, but whether it can politically fly. The debates swirling around Senate Bill 316 – part of Governor Kasich’s mid-biennium budget review – is an interesting case study in that it seeks bold policy change but collides with political calculations and complications.

In late March, Governor Kasich introduced his education proposals and major components included:

  • A greatly strengthened third-grade reading guarantee—Ohio has had a version of this guarantee on the books for years, but it has gone largely unenforced;[1]
  • An A-F school-rating system that more accurately reflects schools’ true performance and is more straight-forward than the current one (“continuous improvement”, etc.);
  • Increased charter-school accountability, including for drop-out recovery schools, which have been outside the state accountability system for more than a decade, and changes to how sponsors are ranked;
  • Increased reporting and tracking of student data, including tracking public preschool students through K-12, and reporting the performance of graduates of the state’s teacher preparation programs;
  • Required development of digital and blended learning policies at the state level;
  • Increased accountability for publicly-funded preschool and child-care programs; and
  • Necessary tweaks to the teacher-evaluation legislation passed last year, and various other small clean-ups to state education law.

After the painful referendum defeat borne by the governor and his fellow Republicans per Senate Bill 5 – the collective bargaining reform bill – in November 2011, reformers were pleasantly surprised that the Governor decided to push significant school reforms this year. Frankly, it would have been easy for Governor to do very little or nothing until after the November election, but he and his team put forth some pretty significant and necessary improvements to Ohio education policy. 

The Senate took first crack at SB316, and as part of their process to get things right they heard not only from a myriad of Ohio voices, but the Ohio Senate Education Committee also recruited national experts to testify on some of the thorniest issues. For example, Patricia Levesque and Mary Laura Bragg, of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and Marcus Winters, of the Manhattan Institute, testified about Florida’s decade-long experience with both the 3rd grade reading guarantee and A-F rating system. Their presentation was powerful and well received by the Senate. Their testimony also resulted in two front-page stories in the Columbus Dispatch and an editorial calling on all lawmakers to support the Governor’s proposed changes.

On another controversial issue –setting standards for drop-out recovery schools and holding these schools accountable for performance – the Senate recruited national expert Jody Ernst from the Colorado League of Charter Schools to share her state’s experience in drafting, implementing, and enforcing standards for drop-out recovery schools.

After hearing from the field and from national experts, the Senate took a thoughtful and reasonable approach to both the 3rd grade reading guarantee and the A-F rating system when they crafted policy that would implement both changes over a couple of years. The Senate also found $13 million in lottery funds to help districts meet some of the transition costs for the reading guarantee. The Senate passed its version of the education budget by a 30-2 vote.

But both Governor Kasich and the House had problems with the Senate version. The Governor was upset because he felt it didn’t force change fast enough (his plan actually called for new ratings for schools and districts starting this August) and he opposed new money being spent on the 3rd grade reading guarantee. There was much back and forth on these issues in Ohio’s newspapers and editorial pages, but the debate was an honest one – how fast should reform go and who should pay for it? Both sides had strong arguments.

The House, however, has been upset with the whole process because, they argue, the bill – as first presented by the Governor and passed onto them by the Senate, had too much policy for them to adequately understand it all in a very tight time frame.  Speaker Batchelder told reporters on May 24th that, “This (SB316) has been very tough to keep up with…That was a particularly heavy policy bill and a lot of our folks were concerned about reading it, and I would have to say frankly, a lot of them were concerned about having their superintendents take a look at it.” 

There is continuing disagreement among the Governor, Senate and House regarding the final version of education reforms and how bold these should be. This is where politics comes into play. It is not unreasonable – and certainly not irrational – for House members to be far more cautious than the Senate and the Governor on reforms that are both controversial and potentially distasteful to supporters. Many House members are up for re-election in November. Republicans control the House by a 59-40 margin, which if things went poorly in November could surely be reduced. (Recall that Democrats controlled the House from 2009 to 2011.) The Senate (where Republicans dominate 23-10 and have run the place since the 1980s) can be less concerned about the November elections. The Governor doesn’t run again until 2014.

But, maybe the smart politics here is to be bold. Governor Walker’s win this week in Wisconsin shows Midwesterner’s aren’t opposed to serious reform. And, Ohioans have repeatedly told pollsters over the years that they support education reforms that focus on increasing academic expectations for children, hold all schools accountable for their results, and advocate for smarter and better school choices. Politically there is surely never a perfect time to make tough decisions around education, but Ohio has done a number of things right in recent years and now is not the time to slow down.


[1] Ohio has had a "guarantee" on the books for years, a mandate that -- with few exceptions -- students who don't pass the state's third-grade reading test must be retained; but it has largely gone unenforced at the local level. The measure is opposed by traditional education groups who say it takes away the right of teachers and principals to make professional judgment about students' readiness to move up a grade and because of the costs incurred when a much higher number of students are held back in third grade (in 2011, 20.1 percent of third graders in Ohio did not pass the reading test yet just 0.6 percent were retained; the numbers are similar going back a full decade).

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