POLITICOS BEWARE! Ohioans are 'Halfway Out The Door'

Nobody doubts that the "powers that be" in Columbus have been busily tinkering with the K-12 education system. Over the past half-decade legislative changes have come on six fronts:

  1. The state launched a results-based accountability system that has been modified and shaped by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
  2. Ohio's school rating and school report-card systems are yielding high-visibility and attention-getting annual appraisals of every school and school system in the state.
  3. The state made changes in its teacher preparation and certification processes.
  4. Ohio developed a charter school system of 250 schools serving upwards of 70,000 students.
  5. The state enacted the Ohio Education Choice Scholarship Program—a voucher program for children in the state's most troubled schools.
  6. There has been nonstop revision of the state's approach to school financing, partly dictated by the courts, and partly led by the executive and legislative branches.

But what do ordinary Ohioans think about all this? How do parents, taxpayers, and citizens view public schooling in 2005? Do they like these reforms? Seek more or less of them? Have confidence that they'll succeed?

Fordham decided to find out. So, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we enlisted analysts Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett to examine the attitudes of Ohio residents toward their public schools. Nobody does this better than Farkas and Duffett, who have a combined 25 years of experience in opinion research and social policy. Their bona fides, as well as the full survey, are available here.

Ohio's politicians should heed the survey's findings—especially the one indicating that the state's residents don't have much confidence in their leaders' efforts to improve the schools. Just four percent of survey respondents say that state elected officials and legislators are "doing a good job" when it comes to public education.

This is a problem. Serious education reform demands strong, competent leadership for two reasons. First, kids don't have lobbyists to look after their interests. The inertia and resistance to change manifested by the education system and its myriad adult interest groups are so powerful that, absent first-rate leadership, one must expect nothing much to change. This is particularly dangerous for a state with weak job growth, anemic economic growth, and signs of a brain drain.

Second, while Ohioans substantially agree about many of the problems facing public education and the reforms needed to address those problems, they are split down the middle on others. Effective leadership is mandatory, else nothing will change.

This would be okay if nothing needed to change, but Ohioans surely don't think so—and plenty of objective evidence says they are correct. Only a third of survey respondents—and fewer than one in five African Americans—believe their local public schools are "doing pretty well and need little change." Virtually all others want "major change" or "a whole new system." This is no surprise in a state where close to half of respondents also see the economy as a serious issue. Ohioans know that education and economic opportunity are connected, and they're worried about both.

But there's good news in the survey, too. On many important education issues and reform ideas, Ohioans manifest broad agreement as to what's wrong, what's important, and what ought to happen.

Here are five key education topics where we see something akin to consensus:

  1. Money alone won't accomplish much. Respondents believe it would "get lost along the way" to classroom improvement (69 percent).
  2. Stop social promotion and automatic graduation. Teachers should pass kids to the next grade "only if they learn what they are supposed to know" (87 percent) and high school students should pass tests "in each of the major subjects before they can graduate" (83 percent).
  3. Free-up the front-line educators. Local schools ought to have considerably greater freedom and control over curriculum, budgets, and, especially, firing "teachers that aren't performing" (89 percent).
  4. Reward good teachers. Good teachers should be rewarded with higher pay (84 percent) and paid more if they "work in tough neighborhoods with hard-to-reach students" (77 percent).
  5. Enforce discipline. Schools should enforce strict discipline with regard to student behavior, dress, and speech (91 percent).

Putting these ideas into practice would be a good first step for Ohio education. But it's not enough. However, the public hasn't made up its mind about other promising reform initiatives such as charter schools, the No Child Left Behind Act, interventions in low-performing schools, public-school choice, virtual schooling, and vouchers.

That's no big surprise. All these reforms are new and as yet have incomplete or conflicting evidence as to how they're faring. Some charter schools, for example, are doing a superb job of educating the state's neediest children, but others are performing dismally. No Child Left Behind has only been in force for a few years and most of the actions it is supposed to trigger have not yet happened. The statewide voucher program has not even begun. So there's no reason to expect the public to have made up its mind about these efforts.

Knowing that the jury is out, opponents of such reforms will no doubt intensify their efforts to persuade people that these are bad (or even failed) ideas. Nonsense. They're innovations that need honest implementation and fair-minded evaluation. Reformers must recognize, however, that because the public hasn't made up its mind about these, much hinges on how successfully these reforms are put into place and how well they work.

But state officials also have a weighty obligation in this regard. Once they place Ohio's education system on a reform track, they need to ensure that it's properly implemented, not undone by bureaucrats, or nibbled away at the edges. At Fordham, for example, where we've recently shouldered responsibility for sponsoring some charter schools, we're reminded every day of how little freedom "to be different" these schools actually enjoy, how heavily they're still regulated, and how meagerly they're funded. That's no fair test of this promising idea, which means policymakers haven't really done their job.

Maybe that's what the public had in mind when 69 percent said that elected officials "could be doing a lot better"!

At day's end, however, observers and participants in the Ohio public education scene need, above all, to keep in mind the depth of the public's discontent with what they're being provided today. That's why this report is titled "Halfway Out the Door." Its single most compelling finding is that "if money were not an issue," only 46 percent of white public school parents and 30 percent of black parents would prefer that their child continue to attend a district-operated public school. A staggering 48 percent of white public school parents and 68 percent of black parents would opt for private (or charter) schools. Everyone who wants public education to succeed in Ohio needs to pay attention. There is profound frustration with the state's K-12 education system, and the cry for leadership is loud.

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