Lawmakers get schooled on schools

Ohio Senate President Bill Harris believes Gov. Ted Strickland has generated high expectations on education, especially when it comes to the issue of school funding.

Harris, who pledged to a mixed gathering of Democrat and Republican lawmakers and state education policy groups, Monday, that he would be bipartisan on education issues, is waiting to see what reforms the governor will propose next year for the state's K-12 education system.

"He's made this a high-stakes issue," Harris said in an address at the lawmakers education briefing in Columbus. The event, Closing the Gap: Moving Ohio to a World-Class Education System, was hosted by the Fordham Institute, KidsOhio.org, the ESC of Central Ohio, the Ohio Business Roundtable, and the Ohio Business Alliance for Higher Education and the Economy (see here).

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday shows Strickland remains the most popular of those thinking about running for governor in 2010 (see here). This is important because he will need all the political capital he can muster to make good on his promise to "fix" school funding at a time when the state faces "historic" economic problems.

Money certainly was on the minds of those attending the new lawmakers meeting. Both Harris and outgoing House Speaker Jon Husted brushed aside questions regarding the constitutionality of Ohio's school funding formula, which was the subject of repeated Ohio Supreme Court rulings stemming from the 1990s DeRolf case (see here). After the high court repeatedly found the formula unconstitutional, the General Assembly added billions in state money and built new schools across the state's neediest urban and rural districts. The high court, exhausted with the issue, eventually bowed out of the case in 2003, although that left many in the state education establishment unsatisfied.

Both lawmakers vowed to keep education a priority, even though the state will likely be strapped paying for it. Harris, for example, called on putting Ohio's innovative experimental STEM science program in every high school in the state. He didn't say how that idea might be funded, and there is a real possibility that primary and secondary education may be in for unprecedented budget cuts during the upcoming biennium.

"It looks like the state budget will be tight and this will crash with Gov. Strickland's intent to ‘solve school funding for good,'" Husted said. "I'd be happy knowing what ‘solving for good' meant."

To show just how limited are the governor's school-spending options, Husted said an across-the-board 10 percent cut in the budget would reduce the expected $7-billion shortfall only to about $4.7 billion over the next biennium.

Democratic leaders, including the governor, were invited to address the group but could not make the meeting.

Former Massachusetts education commissioner David Driscoll told the group America needs national K-12 education standards. The No Child Left Behind Act has left the nation with 50 widely varying sets of state standards. "Think about a national standard. It's almost un-American. Well it's not un-Finlandian or un-Korean," he quipped. Students in both of those countries-and in others-now out-perform American students. See the latest TIMSS international testing results in the review below.

While the challenges facing K-12 education in Ohio might seem overwhelming to many lawmakers and citizens, Driscoll said Ohio can make progress by staying focused on what works-high standards for students, teachers, schools, and districts. Driscoll says now is not the time for any state to waiver from standards and accountability.

Massachusetts is America's top performing state when it comes to education. This fact was validated this week with results on international tests showing Massachusetts in the same league as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore when it comes to math and science performance (see here). Driscoll, who is now a member of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute board of trustees, said it wasn't always like that in the Bay State.

The state's schools were sinking, especially those in urban areas, and some classroom teachers were barely literate in the subjects they were teaching. Some had never had a math course. "I always called it the second ‘shot heard round the world,'" Driscoll said of Massachusetts' top-to-bottom reform effort of the past decade. 

Led by Republican governors and Democrat legislatures, Massachusetts instituted an overhaul against strident opposition from teachers unions attempting to protect teacher prerogatives and parents who considered the reforms too tough on their children. "We stuck with it and they were wrong," Driscoll said. "Everyone was waiting for us to blink. It was a long road and it wasn't easy."

If students, teachers, and schools don't have meaningful standards, young people leave high school without needed job and college skills and "they pay a terrible price later on," he said.

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