In spring 2013, Ohio policymakers approved a two-year, $250 million investment aimed at spurring innovation in public schools. Known as the Straight A Fund, this competitive grant program has since catalyzed sixty new projects throughout the state, many of which are joint ventures between schools, vocational centers, ESCs, colleges, and businesses.
As a member of the grant advisory committee, I gained a firsthand view of the exciting projects happening around the state, everything from “fab labs” (a computer center outfitted with computer-aided drawing software and 3-D printers), outdoor greenhouses, and robotics workshops. Those who are interested in these projects should plan to attend this conference in Columbus on February 5.
In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers should continue to invest in innovation by reauthorizing the Straight A Fund. At the same time, the legislature should also consider a few alterations that could give an even stronger boost to the most innovative project ideas. The suggestions are as follows:
Remove the cost-reduction mandate.
A small provision in the Straight A legislation required grantees to show “verifiable, credible, and permanent” cost reductions that would result from the grant. As a result, applications were evaluated significantly on the cost-reduction criteria. (You can read applications online here.) Although well-intended, this provision created two problems:
First, applicants clearly struggled to quantify the cost reductions attributable to their project proposals. In some of the applications, the proposals made half-baked or underwhelming cost-reduction claims. For example, some described how a million-dollar project would decrease their copying and utility expenses. (Nice to do, but hardly the overhaul in cost structure that many districts need.) Others claimed future cost reductions that would have occurred regardless of the grant. One district, for instance, claimed its expected teacher retirements as a cost saving.
The cost-reduction mandate also stifled innovative project ideas. It effectively prohibited anyone from proposing the construction of a new school or starting a brand-new program from scratch. In cases like these, it proved difficult (if not impossible) for applicants to demonstrate future cost reductions, as there were no present costs to speak of.
Reducing avoidable costs is a great thing to do. But mandating cost reductions as part of the Straight A grant criteria proved impossible to implement with fidelity and only stifled the possibilities of forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
Simplify the program goal to advancing innovation and student achievement.
The legislature should also remove other mumbo-jumbo in the grant requirements that arose out of Straight A’s appropriation language (e.g., ambiguous goals that grantees must show “sustainability” and “utilize a greater share of resources in the classroom”). Instead, each application should be judged based solely on its “innovative” merits—and how that innovation relates to student achievement.
By boiling down the goal of Straight A to innovation and achievement, the grant application could be greatly simplified. (The 2015 grant application had twenty-five questions designed around the goals set forth in legislation.) A simplified application could, in turn, strengthen the proposals—more focused on the innovative nature of the project and on achievement gains—and down the road, we may see projects that are more authentically innovative and academically impactful.
Create a separate competitive grant program within Straight A for charter schools (and potential charters).
In the coming year, the state should set aside a portion of the Straight A grant appropriation for a competitive program just for charter schools (and whomever they want to partner with). There are two reasons to do this:
First, a competitive grant program for charters would put them on a more level playing field for grant funding. Out of the 423 entities that won a grant, only twenty-six were charters. (Seventeen of these won on a single charter-consortium grant.) Charters got the short end of the stick competing against their big-brother districts—alone or in consortia of multiple districts, ESCs, vocational centers, and institutions of higher education. This was truly a David-versus-Goliath scenario, and in this case, Goliath usually won.
Second, a fund geared toward charters could provide seed funding for those seeking to open (or replicate) a new charter. Starting a school from scratch is a challenging undertaking that takes much planning and thought; but unfortunately, charter school entrepreneurs have precious few supports to help them create successful new schools. (For instance, Ohio failed to receive federal funding to nurture charter startups in the last round of grants for which they were eligible; as a result, virtually no federal funds are available to kick-start charters in Ohio).
Ohio policymakers must help entrepreneurs during the startup phase, and a competitive grant fund would reward the charter proposals that are the most compelling, innovative, and likely to succeed. The state needs to help high-performing charters replicate and expand their reach—too many Buckeye students continue to languish in low-quality schools. Let’s use the Straight A Fund to hasten the growth of high-performing charters in Ohio.
Hats off to Governor Kasich and the state legislature for encouraging and emboldening Ohio’s innovators. The winds of innovation have begun to blow. But as the state legislature considers reauthorization of Straight A (which I hope they do), they should also make some changes that could strengthen the implementation of the program, which might just stoke the flames even more. As economist Joseph Schumpeter argued long ago, “Innovation by the entrepreneur leads to gales of ‘creative destruction’ as innovations cause old inventories, ideas, technologies, skills, and equipment to become obsolete.” May that happen in Ohio’s public school system.
 In an interesting twist, applicants were not allowed to show how the grant could increase revenue. It does not appear that this restriction was set forth in the legislation that enacted the Straight A Fund (it may be in another part of Ohio law or code that governs grant programs like this).
 This statistic double counts organizations that were awarded funding under more than one grant.