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The Ohio Senate will unveil its version of the state's biennial operating budget early next month. As we ? and others ? have made clear in many venues, the members of that body have their work cut out for them when it comes to the charter-school provisions inserted by the Ohio House.

Governor Kasich's original version of the budget sought to find a balance between expanding school choice and ensuring that schools of choice are held accountable for their students' performance. For instance, it expanded the state's EdChoice voucher program to provide immediate education options to more students who would otherwise attend failing public schools. It also imposed a ?smart? cap on charter authorizers while removing other barriers to opening new schools. In marked contrast, the House version significantly diminishes charter school accountability and basically empowers school operators as the functional equivalent of private schools unburdened by state rules and accountability requirements.

But that's just one small piece of a big story. Amid the clamor over the charter provisions, too little attention has been paid?or applause offered?for the many terrific features wrought by the governor and/or the House. In several key areas, the House built on the solid foundation laid out by Governor Kasich, upholding his dual goals of improving education in the Buckeye State while helping schools and districts adjust to doing more with less. Without raising taxes, the governor and House have proposed a balanced budget that would free schools to manage their resources at a time when those resources are diminished.

For example, HB 153:

  • Encourages the creation of innovation zones in which schools could seek waivers from many state regulations to achieve cost savings or efficiencies, as well as improvements to student achievement, by working together in new ways;
  • Promotes the expansion of distance learning opportunities by school districts not only as a potential source of cost savings, but also as a way to customize student learning and deliver courses currently unavailable to pupils in smaller schools and districts; and
  • Expands innovative and cost-conscious educational service centers (ESCs), while reducing their state subsidy, setting the conditions for ESCs to compete in offering professional services not only to school districts, charter and STEM schools, but also to municipalities, counties, and other public entities.

The House also deserves plaudits for strengthening sections of the governor's education budget, most notably the provisions dealing with teaching personnel. In the governor's budget, these reforms were headed in the right direction, but language that would allow districts to regress and use antiquated measures (e.g., paper credentials and years of service) to retain and reward teachers still lurked within the new language.

The House dramatically improved those provisions. If the Senate keeps them intact, and it should, teacher evaluations in Ohio will be radically different in the coming years, as will several other personnel policies:

  • Teacher evaluations will incorporate students' academic growth (50 percent); use three year's worth of data when measuring such growth; and rate teachers according to four tiers ? highly effective, effective, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory.
  • Principals will undergo similar evaluations, which will also incorporate student growth.
  • Teachers' level of effectiveness will determine the order of layoffs (ending the woeful, dysfunctional, and costly practice of ?last in, first out?) with teachers who are rated ?unsatisfactory? facing job loss first, followed by teachers rated ?needs improvement,? and so on.
  • Principals will be able to reject assignment to their buildings of teachers rated ?unsatisfactory? or ?in need of improvement.?
  • Decisions around tenure and dismissal will be tied directly to performance evaluations, with teachers earning unsatisfactory ratings placed on limited contracts and eventually let go.

Besides such reforms of teacher policy, the House made other thoughtful improvements. Realizing that the ?parent trigger? is an untested idea (done only in one school in California), lawmakers approached it cautiously, partnering with the Columbus City Schools in a pilot instead of going statewide. They increased the scholarship amount for the Cleveland voucher program to match that of the EdChoice program. This is important as the Cleveland program has long been sorely underfunded (even when compared with Ohio's other school-choice programs). And in an attempt to stanch the brain drain, state representatives also created opportunities for Ohio high school graduates who leave the state but return within 10 years of graduation to receive in-state college tuition rates.

No one envies the work confronting Ohio's lawmakers. They inherited an $8 billion budget shortfall and a host of tough decisions and painful trade-offs. That they are now tackling these massive fiscal challenges while also pushing needed education reforms is to their credit.

The last several weeks have seen much to-do about charter schools, due to the House's ill-advised budget changes in that realm. We fervently hope that the Senate makes the needed repairs. But it is also important to note that the budget sent to the Senate by the House contains many important reforms that deserve to be highlighted, applauded, and retained.

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

This piece originally appeared in today's Ohio Education Gadfly

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