Changes to K-12 governance give Kasich major ed reform opportunity

Education reform is moving fast in Ohio, and a sudden
membership shuffle on the State Board of Education has given Governor Kasich the
opportunity to ramp up the pace further, putting his imprint on the state’s
schools much faster than his predecessors.

The Ohio House will begin hearings this evening on several
pieces of education legislation (see the article above), and the Senate is
expected to follow suit next week. While Governor Kasich isn’t likely to unveil
his full education platform until he introduces his biennial budget proposal in
mid-March, at minimum he is certain to dismantle the evidence-based school funding
model, expand school choice options, and revamp Ohio’s public sector collective
bargaining laws, including those that affect local teacher and school employee

But whether serious education reforms will be achieved (and
sustained) depends on more than just the governor’s and lawmakers’ best ideas
and intentions. Success also depends on how well the reforms are implemented,
which in turn depends greatly on the governance structure and leadership of
education at the state level. In other sectors of state government, the
governor appoints agency heads and has fairly broad control over policy
implementation. Education is a different beast altogether.

The Ohio Department of Education, responsible for
implementing state education laws and policies, is technically independent from
the governor. Instead, ODE and its chief, the state superintendent of public
instruction, answer to the State Board of Education, a 19-member partially elected,
partially appointed body. The complex arrangement is a compromise from the
Voinovich era intended to at once give the governor some control over K-12
education while still buffering the sector from frequently changing political winds.
The result is a messy and often times ineffective governance structure.

Governor Strickland agreed as much in 2008 when
he announced
his intent to appoint a “director of education” to serve on
his cabinet and take on many of the responsibilities of the state superintendent
and state board of education. The idea went nowhere but such a power grab isn’t
unprecedented. In 2007, Strickland made a similar move to gain more control
over higher education. House
Bill 2
, which passed with broad bipartisan support, made the Chancellor of
the Ohio Board of Regents a governor-appointed position and gave most of the
power held by the board, which previously governed Ohio’s system of public
colleges and universities, to the Chancellor. The board was relegated to an
advisory role. Few argue that arrangement hasn’t served Ohio well. In other
states, governors have made similar moves in K-12 education. Massachusetts’
Governor Deval Patrick appointed
a cabinet-level education secretary
in 2008, and Washington’s Governor
Christine Gregoire is seeking
to establish
a similar position in the Evergreen State.

Coming off of November’s election, most observers thought
Kasich would need to make a similar move and put in place his own education “czar.”
This person would usurp power from a State Board of Education that was seen as
hostile, or at best not receptive, to the sorts of education reform ideas
coming from the governor-elect.

What a difference two months makes. Kasich now has a number
of options when it comes to the optimal education governance arrangement for
putting his reform plans into action.

Thanks to power politics in the Ohio Senate, Kasich found
himself appointing
to the State Board of Education just a week after taking office.
(In contrast, it wasn’t till after two years in office that Governor Strickland
could appoint enough members to get the board to his liking.) Now the governor
has options beyond creating an “education czar,” including:

  • With a Republican-led State Board of Education
    that appears largely in-line with him, Governor Kasich could leave the current
    governance structure in place, and even the current ODE leadership. The board holds
    sufficient power to exert pressure on Superintendent Deborah Delisle and her
    top staffers to help, rather than hinder, the governor’s reform agenda.
  • Alternately, Governor Kasich and the board could
    make a bold move and replace the superintendent with an education reformer more
    obviously aligned with their agenda. If Kasich intends to bring in someone new,
    this arrangement is preferable to creating a new and separate education
    director position. A new superintendent could hit the ground running promoting
    and implementing reforms without having to first build up a new office and team
    the way an education director would, and could take advantage of current talent
    at the education department and the knowledge base those people bring.

If Kasich takes the latter option, could the Buckeye State
be the next landing spot for one of the big names in education reform?

The (arguably) biggest name in the game, former DC Schools
Chancellor Michelle Rhee, is off the table, having set up her Students First organization and
indicating she doesn’t intend to return to a superintendent position at any
level. But what of other known reformers? Certainly any number of big-city district
chiefs would view the top Ohio post as a great opportunity to move up to the
next level. And might state chiefs who are feeling anti-reform pressure from their
new governors, like Rhode
Island Commissioner Deborah Gist
, be interested in taking the helm in Ohio?
Or might the governor turn to some of Ohio’s better known reformers like Bart
Anderson, who leads the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio, or Cincinnati
Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan?

When it comes to education reform, Governor Kasich is in as
strong a position as any modern Ohio governor. National reform momentum is
converging on the Buckeye State, the GOP-led legislature seems eager to help
the governor take on tough battles, and Kasich has the ability to exert more
control early on over the state education system than any of his predecessors. There
is real potential for him to make great strides and make Ohio a leader in
education reform.