Schools still yearn to break free

“If the state shackles them [school leaders] with rules and envelops them in mandates even as it cuts their budgets, achievement will inevitably head down, not up.” We penned this sentence three years ago in a report entitled Yearning to Break Free. Though Ohio’s economy—and school funding—is much improved compared to 2011, state lawmakers still haven’t loosened the ties that bind school leaders.

That is why the recent comments by Governor John Kasich grabbed my attention. At the Ohio Newspaper Association convention, Kasich told the audience, “We really need a flexible education system“ and “we need to bring about some deregulation.” Agreed, wholeheartedly— but what does a “flexible” public-school system look like? It hinges on the reform of three policies: licensure, the salary schedule, and collective bargaining. The points that follow outline these policies and where the state should go.

Give schools latitude in hiring

Ohio has raft of regulations related to teacher credentials. They can be found in state law (ORC 3319) and in administrative code (OAC 3301-23 and 3301-24). Generally speaking, the completion of a teacher-prep program and the passage of a standardized exam guarantee licensure. These have proven to be woefully mediocre requirements. Teacher-prep programs will admit practically anyone, regardless of academic accomplishment, and the quality of these programs is spotty at best. Meanwhile, the assessment requirement is worse—something of a joke—as virtually everyone passes it.[1]

Licensure does set a minimal threshold for entering teaching. It surely keeps the riff-raff out of our schools. But is the minimum what our students need? And do hiring managers really need a credential that doesn’t say much about the applicant’s potential for effectiveness? (Wouldn’t most schools prefer to hire an Ivy League grad with a 4.0 GPA, with no credential, over a typical ed-school grad with a credential?) In fact, why bother with hoops that shrink the pool of potential teachers and discourage talented individuals from entering the profession? The opportunity lost to our schools due to worthless licensure requirements is great.

It’s time to obliterate the licensure process as a barrier to entering teaching. Already, Ohio has a law that gives public schools (especially STEM schools) some leeway to hire non-licensed teachers (ORC 3319.301). Alternative teacher-certification routes also exist, though there are still burdensome requirements. State law should make it clear: licenses don’t matter much when it comes to hiring great teachers. Instead, school managers should hire whomever they judge to have the highest potential to learn the job quickly and ultimately get it done. That’s really what matters.

Give schools flexibility on teacher pay

The state’s minimum-teacher-salary schedule in state law requires districts to adopt a pay system based on credits earned and longevity (ORC 3317.13 and 3317.14). In short, the law formally requires that schools reward teachers for degrees unrelated to effectiveness and for just being around the school for a long time. Meantime, the salary schedule also incentivizes teachers to pursue superfluous master’s degrees or to teach for a longer time than they really want.

A formal salary schedule is no way to organize a school for effectiveness. It limits school management’s ability to adopt a compensation scheme that adjusts to (1) the overall labor market conditions for a particular specialty (for instance, if there is a shortage of math teachers in a locality); (2) the context of the school (for instance, if a high-poverty school has a shortage of great teachers); and (3) teacher performance. In essence, the salary schedule steals discretionary power from the hands of school managers. State law should untie their hands when it comes to teacher pay by removing the minimum salary schedule.

Give schools relief from rules

Most states require or allow teacher collective bargaining. Ohio is no exception, as it permits—though it does not require—collective bargaining. If a labor union and district negotiate a teacher contract, state law requires that it govern the wages, hours, and the “terms and conditions of employment” for teachers (ORC 4417.10). The “terms and conditions” clause opens up a veritable Pandora’s box of work rules that tie up school managers, restricting their ability to deploy resources (human and financial) efficiently, to establish a distinctive school culture, and to order the school day and classrooms in a manner that best promotes learning.

Among the work rules that may be found in a teacher contract are rules that specify procedures in an effort to dismiss a teacher, rules that limit class size, rules that limit the nonteaching duties of teachers (e.g., “lunch duty”), rules that specify the amount of time for breaks or planning periods, rules that govern teacher transfers between schools, rules about secretaries, rules about vacation days, rules about procedures to reduce the teacher workforce, and rules that limit the number of parent conferences.[2] (Read for yourself Ohio’s teacher contracts.) Public schools slog through a rules-based culture—and much of that culture is the direct result of collective bargaining.

This is no way to organize for effectiveness. State law should weaken or eliminate collective bargaining. One such arrangement may specify which items are not up for negotiation. Indiana and Wisconsin, though they require collective bargaining, specifically take a number of terms of employment off the negotiation table. Ohio could do this. Or it could strike down collective bargaining for teacher unions altogether.

Conclusion: Give schools freedom but hold them accountable

Governor Kasich is right to push for greater freedom in Ohio’s schools. (He did some of this in 2011 with the passage of Senate Bill 5, which was overturned by referendum.) Such freedom, however, must come alongside strong and determined accountability for school outcomes. The Ohio Department of Education should identify schools that struggle and need intervention. State policymakers could help the agency by establishing and funding an entity—a recovery district, perhaps—that can directly manage a floundering school. Schools, whether district or charter, that persistently fail to meet desirable outcomes ought to be closed. Conversely, the state ought to reward schools that regularly perform at a high standard of academic achievement or growth.

Under the bold leadership of the governor, state legislature, and the state board, we can cut the regulatory mumbo-jumbo. Licensure, the salary schedule, and collective bargaining are good places to start. They can free public schools to operate with the mission in mind, not regulation; with effective resource allocation, not rules; and with the best possible talent, not credentials, licenses, or seniority. As we do this, however, the state should enact strong accountability measures for outcomes. Ohio’s kids are still waiting for something better in their public schools.

[1]Starting in September 2013, the state switched from the Praxis II exam to a Pearson assessment as the main educator-licensure assessment.

[2] See Terry Moe, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2011): 174-175.


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