House Bill 695: Admirable Ends, Redundant Means

The General Assembly is now debating House Bill 695, which would create a new system of secondary schools dedicated to stronger science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) instruction. Texas has a similar program, it’s on the National Governors Association agenda, and it’s being promoted nationally by business leaders and major foundations such as Dell and Gates.

The goals of the STEM initiative are laudable: to prepare young people for college and employment in a new economy centered on STEM-related fields, and thereby to promote Ohio as a center of high-tech innovation, enterprise and prosperity, powered by a highly-skilled workforce.

Bravo, we say, to worthy goals that have elicited keen legislative and gubernatorial interest in Columbus. Where we stop clapping is when we inspect the mechanism for creating and operating such schools. House Bill 695 proponents would, in effect, create a third species of public schools in Ohio. That part is neither necessary nor desirable.

 Apparently seeking to elude both the rigidities of the regular district-operated system and the embarrassments of the charter-school system, House Bill 695 would create a new structure of schooling answerable to a new governing authority appointed by the Governor with members chosen for expertise in business, science and technology. Like charter schools, STEM schools could be “converted” from existing public schools or created from scratch, but high quality charters can’t convert to STEM status. Like charters, STEM schools would be free from certain existing education regulations (through waivers)--for instance, qualified STEM teachers would be exempt from some licensure provisions. STEM schools would be funded like traditional public schools (meaning they’d receive about 30 percent more funding than charters, plus facilities dollars), and would practice a policy of open-enrollment, welcoming all students that apply.

Here’s the odd part: the best and most innovative ideas here can already be glimpsed in the charter-school world. Indeed, the original STEM model, San Diego’s exemplary High Tech High school, operates as a charter school, as do its numerous clones within California. So, too, is the Denver School of Science and Technology, another exemplary model oft-cited by STEM backers.

So why create a redundant and confusing non-charter mechanism in Ohio? One answer may be that chartering has left a bitter taste in some lawmakers’ mouths, due to the state’s many underperforming charter schools and weak-kneed sponsors. In a political climate growing weary, if not hostile, to the challenges and opportunities offered by Ohio’s charter schools, it doubtless strikes some as cleaner to create yet another new program than to strengthen and cleanse an existing one--or to take on the even more arduous task of making local school districts, the Ohio Department of Education and the state board of education hospitable to (and flexible enough for) STEM schools.

Then there’s the matter of money. The pending bill would provide new STEM schools with $16 million for facilities (unheard of in Ohio’s charter program) and a $600,000 in set-up costs for its new state-level superstructure (something wholly lacking in the charter domain). Untold additional millions in philanthropic grants also await these new schools. (The planners are already spending Gates dollars.) The bill, moreover, has been exquisitely tailored to be acceptable to the teacher unions--although, ironically, it was the charter schools’ recent vanquishing of those unions in the Ohio Supreme Court that made the constitutional environment safe for STEM schools.

Tempting as it may be for legislators to rush this bill to Bob Taft’s desk, three concerns might invite them to consider a partial change of course. First, there is no doubt that Ohio’s charter-school program needs repairs, that a repaired charter-school program could easily accomplish every single objective of the STEM program without creating a third system--and that creating a third system will inevitably ease the pressure to reform systems one and two.

Second, some elements of House Bill 695 are so praiseworthy that they ought not be confined to STEM schools. For instance, relaxing licensure requirements to encourage qualified professionals to teach STEM subjects (as contemplated in this bill), and circumventing Ohio’s absurdly restrictive teacher-certification system (which, for example, blocks the acclaimed Teach for America program from entering the Buckeye State), could also help meet the growing need for able teachers in urban and rural school districts. Indeed, some of the greatest statewide shortages are in science and math, the very fields where the STEM bill creates flexibility--but only for STEM schools!

One can’t help but note how warmly many Ohio universities are receiving the STEM idea in contrast to their frigid stance toward charters. No doubt they see dollar signs, plus the STEM bill is artfully crafted to minimize its offense to the unions and its dollar cost to school districts. Yet lawmakers need look only as far as Indiana and Michigan to see places where universities work closely with charter schools, in fact create and monitor them as sponsors. Ohio’s current charter law invites state universities to sponsor schools here, too, and nothing except timidity prevents O.S.U., say, or Wright State, or Cleveland State, or the rest of them from giving birth to STEM high schools via the charter route. One could readily imagine regional STEM initiatives led by universities in Ohio’s major cities, institutions better attuned to the needs of their students and communities than an appointed body located in Columbus. A tiny tweak of the charter law would allow community colleges and private universities to do the same.

Third, House Bill 695 in its current form lacks the same creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that it seeks to infuse into Ohio in the form of new businesses and jobs. Why create a centralized system of school governance when the goal is to propagate innovative high- quality secondary schools that meet the unique needs of children in Ohio’s different regions? The traditional districts need to be made to think this way--and the charter program needs to be fixed so it has the resources and quality-control to play its part, too.  

Proponents of House Bill 695 are right to promote greater educational and economic opportunities for the next generation of Ohioans. The state urgently needs enterprise and the likeliest route is by becoming a science/technology powerhouse. Strengthening students’ knowledge and skills in STEM fields is crucial for that to happen. Yet the state already has the structures and mechanisms to do this. Ohio would be better served by revamping its charter program, redirecting its districts, engaging the state’s universities and business leaders in the creation of high-powered schools dedicated to excellence in math and science, and offering these schools the funding that they need to succeed.

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