Kasich educaton budget: Fiscally sound and student-focused, but many details still lacking

Governor
Kasich unveiled his much-anticipated biennial budget proposal Tuesday.  True to his word, the budget doesn’t raise
taxes and will change, in some cases significantly, how Ohio government – including
the state’s 610 local school districts – does business. 

The
governor didn’t mince words about the fiscal reality facing K-12 education in
Ohio: 

  • Money isn’t the
    answer.
    Kasich
    acknowledges that, despite steady increases in school funding and significant growth
    in the number of adults working in Ohio’s public schools, academic performance has
    been flat.  More money isn’t the solution
    to improving public education.  Doing
    things differently at the state, district, and building levels is.
  • Stimulus money
    is gone, and won’t return.
    School budgets across the country were propped up
    the last two years by one-time federal stimulus funds.  That money bought time for districts, but led
    to little operational changes for schools in preparation for the “new normal.” Despite
    two years of warning about the impending funding cliff, few districts are well
    prepared to deal with their post-stimulus budgets.

Still
and all, Kasich allotted more funds to K-12 education than most observers had
anticipated, defying expectations that he would slash funding to schools.
Instead, state funding will increase by 2 percent in FY 2012 and another 1.5
percent in FY 2013, keeping pace with inflation. Overall revenue for schools
will fall, as one-time federal funding dries up this year – but this is a
reflection of federal funding realities, not draconian cuts on the governor’s
part.  (Claims
that Kasich is reducing funding to schools by hundreds of millions are
disingenuous.) 

But
much is still unknown about the governor’s education spending plan. Kasich has
outlined how much money Ohio’s schools will receive, but hasn’t yet revealed
how that money will be doled out.  He has
vowed to scrap the “evidence-based” funding model but hasn’t said what formula
he’ll use to distribute dollars across Ohio’s 610 school districts and 300+
charter schools.  Further, while the
governor wants schools to do more with less and have greater flexibility and
fewer burdensome rules and mandates, he has not yet outlined the specific
policy changes he’ll make to achieve this.

Admittedly,
the only blueprint available so far is a two-page summary of K-12 education policy
changes and the short line-item budget for the Ohio Department of Education, thus
details are lacking. We’re hopeful that once detailed legislative language
emerges in the next couple of weeks that many of the uncertainties and criticisms
will subside.  

Thematically,
this budget is a breath of fresh air when it comes to articulating high
expectations for all children, even those attending schools “in tough
environments.” Kasich argues that highly successful schools are those where
educators take responsibility for student learning rather than placing blame on
“poverty, parents, or poor support.” This is the first step toward improving school
performance: acknowledging that all students can learn and that schools and
teachers are critical to improving achievement. But promising rhetoric and good
intentions can only go so far. The budget documents released thus far lack
important operational details, especially in budget sections related to teacher
effectiveness, charters and choice, and transparency and accountability.

Teacher
Effectiveness

Teachers
are the single most important component of a state’s education system, and
Kasich’s budget proposal offers important reforms for improving the
effectiveness of Ohio’s teaching force. He calls for Teach For America to take
root in Ohio so that the state will become a “preferred destination for
creative, talented educators.” Opening pathways to talented and effective
educators who want to work in low-income schools is a no brainer. And the
messaging is right when it comes to rethinking personnel policies.
Specifically, rewarding “superior educators” for achieving dramatic gains in student
growth, acknowledging that teacher quality is a preferred metric to
seniority-based decision making, and streamlining the dismissal process for
poor performers. These policy changes would push Ohio’s teaching force in the
right direction, putting effectiveness ahead of antiquated (and arbitrary)
metrics like seniority, credentials or advanced degrees when it comes to pay,
retention, hiring, etc. 

But
there is room for improvement—and much need for greater specificity. While it’s
smart for the governor to support a Teach For America site in Ohio, it is
short-sighted to limit Ohio only to
TFA. There are myriad other high-quality alternative licensure programs, not
just for teachers but for principals (The New Teacher Project and New Leaders
for New Schools, to name just two) and Ohio should open itself to all such
programs with a proven track record. Finding ways to draw in talented mid-career
professionals (especially in high-need areas like math, science, engineering,
etc.) should be a priority as well. 

And
while other suggested reforms around teacher personnel policies look promising,
crucial details are again missing. Kasich calls for rewarding superior teachers
and dismissing poor performers.  But the prerequisite
for the implementation of either of those is a robust, rigorous, and fair
teacher evaluation system that differentiates levels of effectiveness. Ohio
currently does not have such a system statewide – or at the district level
(though local systems are being developed in many districts via Race to the Top
dollars). Abolishing “last in, first out” layoffs is critical to save effective
teachers and especially those teaching in low-income schools, but it must be
replaced with a defensible teacher performance system. The governor’s
legislative language here will be critical because what is currently being
debated (in Senate Bill 5) is no real improvement over seniority-based layoffs.
That bill still relies on arbitrary factors like educator licensure level and
being a “highly qualified” teacher as evidence of teacher effectiveness.  

Charters and Choice
Gov.
Kasich is keen to expand school choice, as demonstrated by his intent to double
the number of EdChoice scholarships available to students in failing public
schools and by trying to provide charters more equitable funding.

It
is fair for the governor to eliminate special line-item funding for STEM
schools, which, like charters, will still receive foundation funding. Caps on
charter schools will be lifted, and charters will be granted better access to public
school facilities. Currently, charter schools – regardless of performance – generally
face significant obstacles in securing facilities as school districts don’t
like to share these with their competitors. Kasich also wants Ohio to encourage
significant technological innovations for schools.

Without
details here either, however, it’s difficult to laud Kasich’s plan for school
choice expansion. Absent from his budget summary is any mention of e-schools.
Currently Ohio has an ironclad moratorium on new charter e-schools, but that
cap must be lifted to invite new and innovative providers into the state. It is
odd to call for more choice and competition while maintaining e-school
monopolies. Moreover, while emphasizing technology is a step in the right
direction, Kasich should call for specific legislation to allow for hybrid
schooling. Schools should be able to combine online learning with “seat time”
requirements and not have to bifurcate those options for students. Currently
Ohio allows for one or the other, but lacks clear guidelines for schools that wish
to strategically implement hybrid learning.

Perhaps
most important, expanding choice qua choice won’t guarantee that Ohio students
– especially those in low-income communities – actually have access to better options. It’s no secret that the
reputation of Ohio’s sizable charter sector has been tarnished by the state’s many
low-quality charters. . Kasich should ensure that current caps be replaced by
“smart” caps that will only allow charter operators and authorizers with  proven track records to grow more schools in
Ohio; the same policy should apply for charter e-schools and other virtual
programs. Further, the “death penalty” for charter schools should be preserved
if not strengthened, and similar penalties should apply for all failing public
schools (charter and district alike).

Transparency and
Accountability

Standards
and accountability are the lynch pin of a strong and successful education
system.  A transparent, top-to-bottom
accountability system helps state and local education leaders determine what
programs and policies are working, and which aren’t; and allows taxpayers and
parents to fairly judge their local schools and educational options, as well as
principals and teachers ultimately responsible for student performance.

Kasich’s
budget puts the accountability focus squarely on student achievement.  He intends to maintain Ohio’s decent academic
accountability system and put in place new mechanisms aimed at improving
student success.  He calls for “parent
triggers” like those in California that allow parents to vote to reconstitute
their failing schools.  Further, the
governor wants to provide rankings of schools based on both academic
performance and cost effectiveness so that the public can see the educational
“return on investment” for their tax dollars.

These
moves are smart in concept and could be game-changers for education in Ohio.
But, key details are still missing and some of the governor’s accountability
notions appear slightly off the mark. For example, Kasich would “test teachers
in failing schools” but it’s unclear what they’d be tested on or how this would improve instructional effectiveness in Ohio’s
neediest schools. Further, why wait
until teachers and schools have failed children for years to gauge their
competency in the classroom?  A better
teacher testing system might resemble the one Massachusetts put in place nearly
20 years ago – a rigorous exam for teachers before
they enter the classroom – coupled with, as noted above, a robust
evaluation system that measures teacher effectiveness in terms of student
achievement throughout their careers.

Kasich’s
budget overview is silent on at least two other important accountability
issues: whether he’d institute much-needed value-added analysis in the EdChoice
program and whether he will prepare Ohio’s accountability system for the
upcoming transition to the Common Core standards and aligned assessments in
mathematics and reading.

In
sum, there’s much to like about this budget from what we’ve seen so far. It’s both
fiscally responsible and far more generous to K-12 education than what many
expected. It rightly focuses on the need to create performance-based metrics
for teachers and schools alike, and opens Ohio’s doors to innovations when it
comes to school choice, technology, and alternative teacher certification
programs.

Key
details are still missing and we wait in great anticipation for the actual
budget language in coming days. We hope that the full version of the budget
will dive much deeper into issues related to school performance and how it is
measured, how schools are held accountable for their performance, how teacher
effectiveness will be measured and details for how the state will distribute
funds to districts.

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