Ohio Senate Democrats today said Republicans want to step backward in education, that Gov. Ted Strickland and the Ohio House have identified what needs to be done in schools and how to do it, that the evidence is clear on the issues, and that more money for education -- when the economy revives -- will be there, too.
Standing before a "count up" clock depicting the time since the first DeRolph Supreme Court decision in 1997 found the state's school-funding system unconstitutional (it's been 12 years and two months), they said Democrat plans are vital to push Ohio education in this new century. A Republican proposal to study education needs is not necessary.
"We can have one report after another. They add up to a mountain of paper," said Sen. Tom Sawyer (D-Akron), who added the evidence for the Democratic program is clear. Republicans have attacked the governor's so-called "evidence-based" education plans as unreal.
But Democrats said it's Republican opposition to their proposals that is not realistic. "The real tragedy we face, if we simply return to that which is comfortable, is the tragedy of aiming too low," Sawyer said.
Republicans in the Senate, fearing recession-wracked Ohio does not have enough money to pay for state needs, including those in education, have thrown out the House-passed Democrat plans. The House budget passed shortly before the administration announced that, due to lagging state tax revenues, the current state budget has a shortfall of nearly $1 billion.
Republicans have called for more study of education. In their own bill, they have called for what amounts to a continuation of current education policies, although they have promised that school funds will not be reduced in the new budget cycle.
State Sen. Dale Miller (D-Cleveland) said Democrat ideas will be hashed out in conference committee and he clearly expects some Democrat ideas to be accepted. "We're willing to work with them on an issue that is important," he said, adding "the GOP status quo is simply not acceptable."
The Republican proposal would deliver $82 million less to schools over the next two fiscal years, he said, than the GOP claims.
He called Republican funding proposals a "starving the beast" approach to state government. "This doesn't work anymore," Miller said.
Sawyer and Miller attacked the way charter schools are funded and said money for schools should not be deducted from school-district state funds but should be treated separately. They also called for the creation of a school-funding research and advisory council (as called for in the House version of the bill) to help study and recommend future, long-term changes to state education.
Miller plans to offer an amendment to the Senate legislation to reinstitute the House-passed Democrat proposals.
Charter schools, as a group, he said are not performing well, especially when compared with charters in other states. "More than half of Ohio charters are in academic watch or academic emergency," he said. Miller called for stricter accountability for charters.
However, he said he wanted to avoid conflict between district schools and charters. "The last thing we want is a debate that pits regular schools against charter schools," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Capri S. Cafaro (D-Hubbard) said fundamental education reform is needed to educate Ohioans for the 21st century, particularly to boost the number of college-educated residents.
She also said the Democrat plan would reduce reliance on local property taxes. Cafaro said the large number of school-tax levies turned down by voters is an indication of voter fatigue and anger at property taxes, although reporters questioned her logic.
Democrats seem to offer a carrot-and-stick approach to school improvement -- a carrot for public district schools and a stick for charters. "Good charters should be funded," Sawyer said. "Those not performing well should be systematically removed from the funding stream."
When asked why chronically poor public district schools should be tolerated and whether they should be closed, Miller, declined to comment, although he later said, an "escalating series of actions" might be taken to push district schools to improve.
When asked what it told him that seven percent more Ohio public school students are expected to enroll in charter schools this autumn, Miller said "It means we still have too many school districts not working well enough."