Ohioans Speak Out: Are Their Elected Officials Listening?

Last week, Fordham and the FDR Group, a respected national survey research organization, released "Ohioans' Views on Education 2007"--a revealing look into the attitudes of Buckeye residents on a host of pressing education issues at the state and federal level. The findings suggest that Governor Strickland and those who share his education policy preferences are, for the most part, out of step with rank-and-file voters, taxpayers and parents.

Consider the divide on three core issues:

  • Standards and Accountability. On the issue of accountability and testing--two fundamental elements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act--Ohioans broadly support setting standards and holding students to them. That includes the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT). In spite of recent hand-wringing and protests by students and some parents over the stricter requirements to pass the OGT (see here), most Ohioans (66 percent) strongly favor it. Indeed, a full 89 percent of those favoring the OGT requirement would still support it even if it meant that their own child would be denied a diploma.

Yet Governor Strickland has cited NCLB's testing measures as one reason that, given the chance to relive history, he would vote against the federal bill (as a U.S. Representative in 2001, he supported it.) "I think the well-intentioned emphasis on standardized testing is presenting the danger of us trying to squeeze all students into a single mold, having a single outcome," Strickland noted. If that outcome is, at the very least, a set of basic skills, then the governor will find himself even further separated from many Ohioans, 43 percent of whom said that a diploma from their local public schools cannot guarantee that students have learned the basics.

  • School Choice. The governor has been merciless in his criticism of charter schools and the state's EdChoice voucher program (even calling the latter "undemocratic"). His version of the biennial budget would have placed a moratorium on all new charters, crippled many existing ones, and completely eliminated vouchers (except in Cleveland) for parents seeking a way out of failing schools for their children. The governor's position has been bolstered by speeches and rallies (see here) hosted by teachers unions, school superintendents, and some House and Senate Democrats.

Yet Ohioans, when asked, remain supportive of both programs. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed were in favor of charters--a figure that jumps to 59 percent for large-city residents--and just 38 percent were opposed to them. As for new charter schools, 68 percent of Ohioans surveyed signaled support for opening more of them, so long as they are run by organizations with a proven track record. And 63 percent agreed that only the worst charters should be shuttered.

Buckeye residents were equally well disposed toward the EdChoice Scholarship program (with 57 percent in favor), which provides a $3,000 to $5,000 tuition voucher to parents seeking private options for children attending failing public schools. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said that vouchers will force public schools to improve as a result of competition. When asked specifically about the governor's proposed elimination of the EdChoice program, a whopping 69 percent of Ohioans turned thumbs down. Three-fifths even favor making vouchers available to all children, regardless of a school's academic rating. The program is hardly "undemocratic" by these measures. In fact, Ohioans appear intuitively to support the concept of choice because it feels democratic to them. What's more democratic than the idea that all families should have access to high quality school choices? And who better to make these choices than parents?

  • School funding. More money for schools is always a tricky issue in surveys because most citizens support it--as long as it doesn't mean raising their taxes. Ohioans are no different, as many recent levy failures reveal (see here). The FDR group found that 46 percent of Ohioans believe that funding for their district should increase even if it meant higher taxes. Seven out of ten think that any additional funding would "get lost along the way" instead of improving classroom instruction.

These concerns are largely absent from the rhetoric of advocates for a potentially bankrupting school funding amendment to the Ohio constitution (see here). The governor has so far voiced his opposition to such a "blank check" approach--though he hasn't ruled it out, either. Perhaps he should take the citizenry's pulse on this issue before tying his administration to the views of adult interest groups that crave the money they see for themselves on the other side of this ballot initiative.

Naturally, there are some education issues on which the views of Buckeye citizens and their governor overlap. Most notably, both favor expanded early-childhood education opportunities. Governor Strickland has also signaled an interest in pursuing a weighted student funding scheme, whereby per-pupil funding would follow the child to whatever school he or she attends. Presented with the idea, 63 percent of Ohioans favor it. And in recent remarks at "Beyond Tinkering"--a seminar on the future of Ohio's education system (see below), the governor advocated rethinking the school day and calendar to include extended learning time. The FDR group found that 53 percent of Ohioans also support lengthening the school day/year.

Yet when it comes to key reform efforts--such as maintaining rigorous standards and accountability linked to them, and providing parents with expanded schooling options--Ohioans are of a different mind than Governor Strickland. Let's hope he takes the time to listen to the system's end-users (namely, parents and taxpayers) and not merely its producers.

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