John Kasich’s education legacy

Courtesy of Ohio.gov

John Kasich is wrapping up his second term as Governor of Ohio and likely his career in public service. In a moment of reflection, he recently quipped, “I've tried to change two institutions during my career. One is the Pentagon and the other is the education system. And I've largely failed on both.”

His influence on military reform is best left to someone else to analyze, but let’s dig into his education record. What follows are a few of the most noteworthy K–12 reform efforts—in no particular order—occurring under his watch and a brief assessment of their likely long-term impact.

Instituting A-to-F school grades

Governor Kasich’s first term included establishing a few significant academic accountability measures, most notably A-to-F school grades intended to make school quality data clearer and more useful for parents and the general public.

Implemented in phases over several years, A-to-F school grades have ruffled more than a few feathers. The pushback has been strongest in suburban areas where schools sometimes receive lower grades than popular perception would suggest they deserve. The complexity of some of the graded measures combined with the sheer volume of grades received by each school cuts against the purpose of clarity and has taken some of the shine off this reform. Recently introduced legislation by Republican Representative Mike Duffey suggests that there is an appetite to eliminate school ratings or rankings altogether, going far beyond just undoing A-to-F school grades. If enacted, accountability in Ohio for student achievement would be virtually nonexistent.

Verdict: This is probably the boldest education reform undertaken by Governor Kasich and could, if adhered to, be a useful tool for driving long-term increases in student achievement. However, the lack of legislative champions in the face of serious challenges puts its future in jeopardy.

Adoption of a Third Grade Reading Guarantee

Less controversial but no less ambitious, this is probably the reform Governor Kasich has talked about most passionately. Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee was enacted with the hope of ending social promotion by requiring students to demonstrate reading proficiency before promotion to fourth grade. Districts, especially those with large numbers of high poverty schools, have implemented a variety of local efforts to help students attain the vital skills. Bold on its face, this reform hasn’t been as disruptive as anticipated, with almost 94 percent of third graders being promoted in 2016–17. The promotion rate is at odds with state assessment results showing that only 64 percent of third grade students achieved proficiency—a worrying discrepancy.[1]

Verdict: The jury is still out on this reform’s effects. Its focus—helping young students to read—is undeniably good, but the gap between proficiency and promotion rates will need to be closed if kids are going to reap the benefits of heading into fourth grade reading on grade level.

Implementing charter school accountability

Supportive of charter schools broadly, Governor Kasich’s early efforts focused on lifting limitations surrounding the creation of new online and brick-and-mortar charter schools and providing some facility assistance.

Rather quickly, Kasich seems to have surmised that all wasn’t well in Ohio’s charter sector. House Bill 555 (HB 555) in 2012 saw the establishment of a charter sponsor evaluation system; however, it was given a couple of years before it would be fully operational. The interim period saw a rash of charter school closings and a report showing that Ohio’s charters were underperforming academically.

By late 2014, Governor Kasich publicly committed himself to pursuing a more comprehensive charter school reform package and was very engaged in efforts surrounding the passage of House Bill 2 (HB 2) in 2015. HB 2 is significantly reshaping Ohio’s charter sector, but its effect on student achievement is still unclear.

Verdict: Kasich’s decision to emphasize quality over quantity in Ohio’s often politically charged charter school environment was likely something that only a Republican could accomplish. If Ohio’s charter sector has truly turned the corner, this could very well be one of Governor Kasich’s lasting legacies.

Revamping educator policies

As Kasich took office in 2011, efforts to revise teacher policies were sweeping the nation. Ideas like merit pay, basing retention on performance rather than seniority, and making it easier to remove low-performing educators from the classroom featured prominently in Governor Kasich’s first budget proposal. These policies and a host of others also found their way into Senate Bill 5 (SB 5), which took a much harder line toward public employee collective bargaining writ large. Although Kasich signed SB 5 into law, voters overwhelmingly repealed it in a statewide referendum in November 2011, delivering a “sharp rebuke” to the governor.

This setback led Kasich to leave teacher reform issues largely untouched during his tenure, with a couple notable exceptions. First, Kasich championed the introduction of Teach For America (TFA) into Ohio and provided some budgetary support to the nonprofit. As his term winds down, state support for TFA has already started to decrease, leaving the organization to depend more heavily on philanthropy for its long-term future.

Second, Kasich continued down the data-driven statewide teacher evaluation path initiated during the Strickland administration. Unfortunately, its effect on teacher quality is unclear. Thus far an overwhelming percentage of teachers have received a favorable evaluation, and even those who receive low ratings are unlikely to lose their positions as a result.

Verdict: Although Governor Kasich challenged the status quo, it’s difficult to see much lasting change in educator policies.

Expanding private school choice

Another early area of focus for Governor Kasich was expanding private school choice. His first year in office saw passage of the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship and an increase in the cap of Ohio’s flagship voucher program, the EdChoice Scholarship, from 14,000 to 60,000 over two years. The Peterson scholarship, designed for students with disabilities, has grown steadily and serves nearly 5,000 students.

On the other hand, the EdChoice Scholarship—intended to give students in consistently low performing public schools a private school option—has grown more slowly. Because of safe harbor provisions in state law, the list of affected public schools has remained frozen over the last few years and likely contributed to slower growth. In 2013, Kasich agreed to expand EdChoice eligibility to low-income students based upon a specific line-item appropriation each year. The program started with kindergarten students and added a new grade level of eligibility each year. Limited to approximately 2,000 scholarships per year, the program now serves students in grades K–4, and demand has outpaced available funding each of the last two years.

Verdict: Governor Kasich greatly expanded private school educational options for many Ohio families, especially parents of students with disabilities. But safe harbor has limited the effect of increasing the EdChoice Scholarship cap, and many of Ohio’s lowest income students—despite clear indications of demand—have little opportunity to access private school choice.

Reworking school funding

It’s hard to improve education without venturing into the treacherous waters of school funding. Even knowing its perils, Governor Kasich endeavored to remake Ohio’s system. He started with repealing Governor Strickland’s “evidence-based” funding model. Using a placeholder formula for a couple of years, Kasich labored to move Ohio toward a weighted-student-funding system, including advocating for eliminating caps and guarantees for districts. The current formula is a vast improvement over the inputs-driven evidence-based model. But his efforts to fully move Ohio to a student-centered formula have fallen short in large part because significant structural funding reform is almost impossible unless it’s a year when the state revenue coffers are overflowing and the state can ensure that everyone gets more dollars as the funding mechanism is modified.  

Verdict: Despite dedicating significant time to the issue, it’s not clear how much long-term change will result from Kasich’s education budgets. It seems likely that, at the very least, serious conversations about caps, guarantees, and how and when money should follow the child are now an integral part of budget discussions.

*****

Governor Kasich dreamed big on education reform, which is likely why he feels that he’s fallen short. His tenure saw some significant changes to Ohio schools, but he’s right in thinking that there are areas where change has struggled to take hold.

At the end of the day, his education legacy is likely to rest on two important questions. First and foremost, has student achievement improved? Second, were the changes he championed long lasting or were they poorly implemented and weakened or repealed as soon as he left office? The achievement question, as it always does, will take time to reveal itself. Even if student achievement ends up improving, early signs suggest that implementation challenges could result in those changes being short lived.


[1] State law allows for the administration of alternative assessments, a limited number of exemptions, and a transition period allowing students with a score lower than proficient to be promoted for a period of time.

 

 
 
Chad L. Aldis
Chad L. Aldis is the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.