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Education in Ohio, as in most of the country, is coming to terms with a challenging ?new normal,? 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.

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 leaders.

Yearning 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.

These 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 funding.?

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 staff.

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 showcase.

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.

This piece also appeared in today's Education Gadfly. Check out the full report here.

- Chester E. Finn, Jr., Terry Ryan, Emmy Partin, and Jamie Davies O'Leary

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