State of the State

Boosting Ohio's economy, expanding health care for families and children, and retooling the Buckeye State's manufacturing and technological base for the 21st century have clear ties to education and Governor Ted Strickland deserves praise for vision in these areas. But in yesterday's State of the State address, he offered only glimpses of his vision for education proper-we assume he has one-and made no mention at all of school funding.

To his credit, the governor emphasized that Ohioans should disabuse themselves of the idea that a high school diploma is an end in itself. The need for continued education and training can't be repeated enough. The one hard education proposal in his speech, a "Seniors to Sophomores" plan to allow interested high school students to spend their senior year on a state university campus-at no cost-is truly innovative. Alas, there were precious few other details in the speech, save six vague core principles that the governor says will guide his upcoming plan to transform education. (Upcoming when, he didn't let on.)

It's often said in government circles-national and international, too-that if one doesn't have programs, policies, or money to offer, one is apt to reorganize the deck chairs. That's pretty much what Strickland did yesterday. He proposed, much as Deval Patrick has done in Massachusetts (and as Maryland's Martin O'Malley was bent on doing until he got cold feet a few days ago) to take a separate and largely independent education governance system and put it under his own direct control. There are places where that's a good move and places where it's manifestly unnecessary and ill-advised (see here).

Ohio is a close call. The current structures have not succeeded in bringing about the education renaissance that the state plainly needs and the improvements that they've yielded have been threatened by some important failures of policy or implementation.

Would putting the governor squarely in charge and making him squarely accountable produce a better result? There's much to be said for making the buck stop in the governor's office. (When Michael Bloomberg persuaded legislators to make the New York City education buck stop on the mayor's desk, he said "I was hired to make the schools better....Hold me responsible." (See here and here.)

Does Ted Strickland really want that, with all of its implications for his own re-election? He appears to. He would appoint a cabinet-level education "director" and subordinate the state board of education and state superintendent of public instruction to that person. Indeed, the state board (whose existence is provided for in the Ohio Constitution but whose duties are spelled out only in statute, which the legislature can change tomorrow) would turn into an advisory committee.

We also suspect that Strickland may intentionally be deferring the unveiling of his education "vision" until he's actually got control of the system. Perhaps that's wise.

Ohio's state board of education has frequently been a target for would-be reformers. In fact, Strickland's proposal might not be needed if the current board were more functional. (Who else recalls the embarrassing tumult from 2002 to 2006 over evolution education?)

Indeed, the board's current set up resulted from dissatisfaction in the 1990s when members of the 11-member, all-elected board began to push their individual social agendas and delve into the nitty-gritty of day-to-day education rather than focus on major policy decisions. In 1995, Governor George Voinovich sought to end the chaos by exerting his own version of control over public education by proposing a board appointed by the governor as a logical alternative. Many states have such a structure-an "independent" state board but one appointed entirely by the governor, albeit to fixed terms.

Although times were changing, they had not changed enough for Democrats to swallow the prospect of a series of Republican governors appointing all the members of the board. The current structure resulted, a board that's partly elected by the people and partly appointed by the governor-a compromise worked out by Voinovich and then-House Speaker Vern Riffe.

Unfortunately, this 19-member board doesn't work very well. It's too large for thoughtful policy deliberation and ends up either having much of its agenda spoon-fed by the bureaucracy or worked out in subcommittee.

From Strickland's perspective, his proposed changes at the top of the Department of Education seem a no-brainer. He is responsible for managing the state's budget, yet 40 percent of that money goes to fund primary and secondary education through an agency he does not oversee or control. In principle, doing away with separate governance of K-12 education gives the governor the ability to make fundamental changes in education policy and tighten the accountability chain. Moreover, at a time when more and more thoughtful education reformers are trying to build bridges between K-12 and higher education, it's well known that the Ohio Department of Education and the Board of Regents don't work well together. If they're both cabinet-level agencies, the governor could force collaboration and cooperation between them. Maybe in time a single "director" or "chancellor" would preside over both.

But there are big risks, too. What if the state test results are embarrassing to the "accountable" governor when he's running for re-election? What if his successor seeks to differentiate himself by promising to abolish standards and accountability? Is the public really well served by adding to the powers of a governor who is already a foe of school choice-both the voucher kind and the charter kind? Would a governor this deeply in thrall to the teacher unions be apt to lead a move (that Ohio desperately needs) for radically different ways of compensating teachers and funding schools?

Some functions of the Ohio Department of Education must continue regardless of who is in office. Appointing a new education director every time there is a new governor would open the door for much instability and turnover in operations that are critical to Ohio's thousands of public schools and 1.8 million students. There have to be people in place at the department who know how to perform some pretty important tasks, like overseeing statewide testing and accountability, managing a mammoth finance system, and complying with federal mandates.

Probably because the Ohio Constitution calls for a state board of education and state superintendent and Strickland did not want to get tangled up with constitutional amendments, rather than simply abolishing those entities he proposes to neuter them. Surely that's a bad idea, one that calls to mind Machiavelli's famous dictum that if you're going to attack the king you'd better make sure to kill him, else he will come after you. Perhaps nobody would equate Ohio's state board of education and superintendent of public instruction with royalty. Still, does it make any sense to cripple, anger, and dis-empower them, yet keep them on the scene to work against you and your initiatives?

Rather than relegating the board to an advisory role, as Strickland proposes, perhaps he should simply try to pare it down-and appoint all of its members, perhaps with legislative consent. This arrangement could strengthen the accountability chain and would at least ensure some level of transparency in decision making.

Massachusetts has a nine-member board fashioned along these lines and, although there are calls within the Bay State to change education governance structure, it must be noted that Massachusetts has the highest-rated education system in the nation.

Governor Deval Patrick inexplicably wants to alter that arrangement even though it's manifestly not broken.

Ohio's current set up is more broken and probably calls for change. But Strickland's approach at this point is lofty on goals and short on details. The General Assembly should ask, and get answers to, the following before signing off on this: what are the ultimate goals and outcomes of this redesign, how will this change improve student achievement, and what will it cost?

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