Ohio's Biennial Budget Sets the Conditions for Education Success

Gov. John Kasich is slated to
sign Ohio’s biennial budget today (it’s a 5,000 page document), legislation
that not only appropriates funding for the Buckeye State until 2013 but that
also includes hundreds of pages of education-policy changes—most of which will
move Ohio forward in significant ways.

The ultimate success of the
budget’s education reforms will depend greatly on the quality of implementation
by the State Board of Education, the new state superintendent, and his team at
the Ohio Department of Education. This may sound obvious, but it’s worth
hammering home: The budget puts an enormous amount of responsibility and faith
into the Department of Education (to sponsor new charter schools, a move we
opposed during the debate), the State Board (to approve model frameworks for
teacher evaluation), and already thinly-stretched staffers who are still
deciphering what the budget provisions actually mean.  

Now that the legislative
debate has ended, where does Ohio stand on the big education-policy issues of
charter schools, teacher policy, and school accountability and improvement? And
why will implementation be so crucial? Let’s dig in.

Charters & Choice

Fordham is a long-time
supporter of school choice and believes in the expansion of quality options for
families. However, we made
it clear
in recent months that we opposed proposals in the House that would have
severely undermined accountability and the quality of authorizers and charter
schools. Thankfully, the most egregious House language offered by some
for-profit school-management companies was stripped out in the final budget
deal, so Ohioans need not worry about charter schools or groups of individuals
running schools without oversight. Plus, lawmakers strengthened accountability
for charter-school authorizers, stipulating that those ranked in the bottom 20
percent of all sponsors cannot open new schools.

Other positive provisions
include: shortening by one year the timeline for automatic closure (“death
penalty”) of failing charter schools; putting in language to establish and fund
a public boarding school; giving charter schools better access to unused
district facilities; and dramatically expanding the number of EdChoice
Scholarships available and the students eligible for them. The budget also
launched a new special-needs scholarship program.

On the troubling side, the
budget reinstates the Ohio Department of Education as an authorizer of charter
schools, a duty it fully botched a decade ago, with many risks remaining today.
These risks include an understaffed and ill-prepared charter-school office,
conflicts of interest (the department now will sponsor schools, oversee the
state’s other charter-school sponsors, provide technical assistance of myriad
sorts, and fund charters), and enormous pressure to sponsor charter schools
quickly and without a proper vetting of applicants. However, a rigorous
screening process, combined with strong leadership from the State Board and the
interim and new state superintendent, can help mitigate these risks. 

Teachers

While not as strong as
language approved in the House, the final budget deal is still two steps
forward for the Buckeye State when it comes to improving teacher effectiveness.
Most critically, Ohio districts will now have to dramatically improve their
teacher-evaluation systems, and must no longer make layoff decisions based on
seniority alone.

Moreover, the legislature
wants to see action quickly—maybe even too quickly. By December 31, 2011, the
State Board must develop a model evaluation framework to guide the development
of local evaluation systems. Those systems must be in place by July 2013, and
must base 50 percent of a teacher’s rating on the academic growth of his or her
students. The systems also must rate teachers according to four tiers
(accomplished, proficient, developing, and ineffective). School districts—rather
than the state—will then decide how to tie policies on dismissal, tenure,
retention, and pay to the evaluations. The primary state mandate governing all
of this is that districts can no longer make seniority the predominant
determiner of layoff decisions, except in cases of a tie (when teachers have
the same rating).

Merit pay, one of the more
controversial provisions debated during the budget process, will now only be
mandated in districts, STEM schools, and charter schools participating in Race
to the Top. Others will be encouraged, but not required, to create a performance-based
salary schedule, and hopefully an abundance of teacher-effectiveness data
accumulating over time will prompt local officials to reward highly effective
teachers accordingly. Other provisions worth lauding include: Teach For America
applicants won’t face any new barriers to entry, and alternative licensure will
extend across all grades (K-12, instead of only grades 4-12). Teachers at the
state’s persistently lowest-performing schools will be required to be tested on
their subject-matter knowledge, but will not incur the costs of exams or be
required to take the test more than once every three years provided they pass
it. Finally, the Board of Regents’ Chancellor will report aggregate student
growth data and trace these data to teacher graduates from various teacher-prep
programs.

Accountability and School
Improvement

Fordham has long advocated
holding all schools accountable for performance (not just charter schools) and
the budget does that well. District schools performing in the bottom 5 percent
of schools statewide for three or more consecutive years will undergo major
restructuring (“turnaround”). The controversial “parent trigger”—whereby
parents and families can precipitate school reconstitution—will be piloted within
Columbus City Schools. Schools wishing to operate outside of traditional
regulations and rules (imposed by the state, teachers unions, etc.) can now
apply for status as innovation schools or zones in an effort to spur rapid
change and achievement improvements that might not otherwise be possible in
traditional and more regulated settings.

Finally, individual school
performance as well as classroom expenditures (an attempt to measure return on
investment) will be published by the state and schools will be ranked and
recognized accordingly. This transparency—especially in spending as it relates
to achievement—is a leap forward in terms of changing the dialogue in public
education. Instead of measuring inputs and dollars in a vacuum (i.e., regardless
of achievement), Ohio will begin asking, “What bang are we getting for our
buck?”

Conclusion

Considering the fiscal
climate in which this budget was written, it is an impressive piece of work
that sets the conditions for moving Ohio’s education system forward. There is
still plenty that could be derailed through poor implementation by the Ohio Department
of Education, the State Board, and individual school districts. But there is no
doubt that the budget language moves Ohio towards a performance-based system of
education that rewards success, highlights problems, and punishes abject
failure. Let the hard work begin.

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