Mr. Governor, what are you fighting for?

Governor Ted Strickland made it clear in his State of the State address, and more recently in comments in the press, that he wants control over what happens per K-12 education. What's been missing from this debate around the shake-up in the state's educational leadership, however, are details of the governor's plan for moving K-12 education forward. There has been much talk of vision, broad goals, and principles but few concrete details. The fight is important only if we know what the governor is fighting for. But, at this point it seems like a fight only for the sake of fighting.

As the governor has noted, Ohio's public education system was rated by the nation's leading education journal, Education Week, as the seventh-best system in the country. No doubt fair-minded people would say Superintendent Susan Zelman and her able team at the Department of Education deserve much credit for that.

Still, the state faces daunting challenges, the greatest of which is the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Ohio's black-white gaps exceed 25 percentage points in both eighth-grade reading and math scores on the 2007 NAEP assessments known as the nation's report card.

In 2006-2007, 46 percent of the 183,000 students in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton attended schools rated "academic watch" or "academic emergency," the two lowest-possible performance categories. Poor students and children of color score dramatically lower than their more affluent and white peers on all measures of academic success.

Many of the governor's strongest supporters-the teacher unions, urban school administrators, and urban school board officials-argue this pernicious achievement gap can be solved by simply spending more money. These groups no doubt are putting much pressure on the governor to deliver on his 2006 campaign pledge to "fix" the state's educational-funding system. Yet, it is not clear how the governor intends to fix the school-funding problem or even what he considers is the problem.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute's new report, Fund the Child: Bringing Equity, Autonomy, and Portability to Ohio School Finance (see here), shows the state has actually made great strides in addressing funding inequities across districts but that much work remains to be done to equalize funding across schools within districts. We also noted that Ohio has seen per-pupil K-12 expenditures, using inflation-adjusted dollars, rise 25 percent in the last 10 years (from $7,500 to about $10,000). In fact, in 2000, Education Week gave Ohio a D+ for school-funding equity. By 2008, Ohio had risen into the top half of states with a grade of B-.

Just pumping more money into K-12 education likely will not close the achievement gap, nor will it likely have much taxpayer support. Ohio needs to get more from what it spends, especially in the schools serving the neediest children. Any new growth in spending should be contingent on doing things more efficiently and effectively. This is the approach the governor and Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut are taking with higher education and these principles should be applied to K-12 education.

One promising concept is Weighted Student Funding. This system would make funding fairer within school districts and meet the increasing demand for portability of funding across schools as children move from their neighborhood schools to magnet schools, STEM schools, and charter schools.

The governor and his team could go even further and embrace a comprehensive, statewide education reform strategy proposed by the renowned consulting firm McKinsey & Company in late 2006. The McKinsey report is chock full of details and outlines a comprehensive, integrated, and holistic reform agenda for Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio (see here). This plan incorporates important elements of Weighted Student Funding, school choice, high academic standards, rigorous end-of-course exams, principal empowerment, merit and performance pay for school leaders and teachers, and serious support for helping all students meet high expectations.

The strategy in the McKinsey report offers a detailed plan for moving K-12 education forward. It also demands, as would any profound reform strategy, significant bipartisan support. It's disturbing, therefore, to observe that as the current power struggle for control of the state's K-12 education apparatus gets uglier and more personal, with Republicans rallying around the state superintendent and Democrats rallying around the governor, the opportunity for doing something really significant actually diminishes.

This editorial originally appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on March 19, 2008, under the title "Ohio schools need reforms, not bickering"(see here). The following week, Governor Strickland's office released a document entitled "Summary of Education Reform Process" that reiterates his core concepts and guiding principles. The document also explains the logistics of his Director of Education proposal and clarifies some misunderstandings about it. The document makes for interesting reading and can be accessed here.

See the Columbus Dispatch's take on Weighted Student Funding here.

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