Yearning to break free

Education in Ohio, as in most of the country, is coming to
terms with a challenging “new
,” as Arne Duncan calls it—the prolonged period ahead when schools
must produce better results with diminished resources. The Buckeye State faces
a daunting budget shortfall over the next two years, the resolution of which
will powerfully affect K-12 education, which now consumes about 40 percent of the
state’s money. And Ohio’s situation is far from unique.

Yet schools—in Ohio and beyond—can produce better-educated students on leaner rations so long as their leaders are empowered
to deploy the available resources in the most effective and efficient ways,
unburdened by mandates, regulatory constraints, and dysfunctional contract
clauses. That’s the message that comes through loudest from a new survey of the
state’s school superintendents. And again there’s no reason to believe that
Ohio’s situation is unique.

While governors and lawmakers are responsible for balancing state
budgets, it is district and school leaders who must make their schools work on
tighter resources while still boosting achievement and effectiveness. Over the
past year, as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has organized various
discussions, conferences, and symposia across Ohio on the big challenge of
“doing more with less” in K-12 education, we’ve been privy to innumerable
comments—usually off the record—by superintendents and school leaders along the
lines of, “We could survive these cuts if we had real control over our
budgets.” They called in particular for greater authority to manage their spending
on and deployment of personnel. Many even said that enhancing that authority
was more important than receiving more funding.

These school leaders don't view lack
of funding as the central problem with K-12's 'how and
where the money is spent.'


Due to political sensitivities, few of these leaders attached
their names in public to such comments. But when the door was closed, they voiced
them over and over. Keen on opening that door to the public—without making
trouble for individual superintendents—Fordham enlisted the FDR Group to
undertake a careful survey of Ohio superintendents and other public-education

to Break Free: Ohio Superintendents Speak Out
, released today by Fordham, shows
that superintendents understand the scale of the fiscal challenges that the state
and its districts face, and they crave the authority and flexibility to make the
tough calls necessary to see their schools through budget cuts while also
helping their students to succeed.
Further, the report shows a major disconnect between the people who
teach in our public schools and those who lead them. While many teachers and
other school employees resist education reforms that might affect them, especially
changes to collective bargaining laws, superintendents recognize the need for
such fixes. In fact, they’re hungry for them. 

Indeed, it’s the realm of collective bargaining and related
“personnel management” issues where district leaders most ardently seek change.
Seventy percent favor the abolition of “step and lane” salary increases while a full 80 percent believe state law
should be changed to make it “easier to terminate unmotivated or incompetent
teachers—even if they are tenured.” As for statutory “last hired, first fired”
requirements, two-thirds of supes called for their repeal.

Read the report hereThese school leaders don’t view lack of funding as the
central problem with K-12 education. Even
in today’s tightening fiscal environment, just 37 percent say the real challenge
is “that too little money is spent on the schools.” Instead, 52 percent say
it’s “how and where the money is spent.”

To that end, they want greater management authority,
particularly in high-need districts; 73 percent of urban and 60 percent of
economically disadvantaged districts opt for “significant expansion of
management authority over staff” rather than “significant increases in school

Superintendents say that, if state leaders want academic
achievement to rise in a time of austerity, they must give district and school
leaders more autonomy. By an overwhelming 72 to 14 percent margin, they say
increased authority would result in measurable improvements in achievement, not
just efficiency. Moreover, they are so confident that they can deliver better
student achievement that nearly eight in ten (78 percent) favor linking their
own pay to improved outcomes – in exchange for greater authority over

Among other survey findings:

  • Superintendents
    support testing and accountability. Fifty-seven percent believe that evaluating
    schools and districts based on how well students do on standardized tests and
    publicizing the results is a good thing.
  • They
    believe that Ohio’s teacher-licensing system (much like that found in nearly
    every state) fails to assure good instruction. Almost none say “that going
    through the licensure process in Ohio guarantees that a teacher is
    well-prepared to succeed in the classroom.”
  • Superintendents
    accept some blame for the imbalance between managers and staff, with 55 percent
    agreeing that there have been labor issues where “the leadership of my
    district—including myself—should have done more to hold the line.”

To be clear, untying such state mandates is not solely about
granting flexibility to administrators or saving money. Empowering education
leaders to ensure that the most effective instructors occupy the classrooms
that need them most is critical if Ohio and the nation are to succeed in
boosting the achievement of their children. And the need to strengthen academic
achievement has never been greater, as recent PISA and NAEP assessments

In this tumultuous period of drying state coffers,
America must rethink its attack on the stagnation of student performance and
the achievement gap. And district leaders are key to this assault. They are the
educators-in-chief for millions of needy kids, the front-line professionals
responsible for executing state and federal education policies. They are the
decision makers charged with making schools and districts more effective even
as resources shrink. Ohio’s superintendents are ready and willing to lead. They
want the flexibility to do so. So, we strongly suspect, do their counterparts
across the land. Now is the time to give it to them.

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Click to listen to commentary on Fordham's latest report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.