The dismal economic news for Ohio keeps piling up. State revenues continue to plummet and economic forecasters are predicting a shortfall, at best, of more than $7 billion for the next two-year budget. Buckeye State government is going to have to figure out how to do more with less. This is particularly true for education, where per pupil cuts of at least 10 percent are likely. Last week, Gov. Strickland even trotted out the cataclysmic possibility of a 25-percent across-the-board cut in spending for all departments, including education (see here). That much out of the education budget amounts to more than a $4 billion reduction in spending for our children.

Kudos to the governor for trying to focus our attention, but whether we're talking about nearly $2 billion or-God forbid-more than $4 billion in cuts, it is now time to take a serious look at what we spend money on and how we spend it. It is time to revolutionize our thinking on spending-from the state superintendent's office to the school boiler room. Tough economic times make possible political decisions and actions that aren't feasible during ordinary times. These are extraordinary times. Done thoughtfully, and equitably, we can develop a plan that can actually strengthen and improve the state's school system over the long haul. Here are four ideas for taking advantage of tough times to strengthen Ohio's K-12 system and help it run more effectively: 

  1. Fund the child, not school districts. To ensure that monies (no matter the amount) are allocated fairly, efficiently, and accountably and are targeted at the differing needs of children, the current funding system should be replaced by a weighted funding plan wherein per-pupil amounts "weighted" according to the specific needs of individual youngsters follow them to the public schools they choose to attend. By devolving most financial decision-making to principals, districts would become school-support entities that sell such important services as financial management, transportation, special education services, etc. Those services valued by school leaders would be purchased, and those not would wither. This would increase transparency in public reporting, help state policymakers gauge the true price of products and services, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent prudently and productively.
  2. Encourage consolidations and innovative partnerships. Ohio has built an overcapacity of educational providers and support agencies. Does the state really need 58 county education service centers (ESC) spending about $330 million annually? The merger of the Franklin County ESC and the Delaware County ESC into the ESC of Central Ohio should be seen as a model for streamlining. It can also serve as a model for consolidating other education-support agencies. Further, Ohio should encourage the consolidation of its charter-school sector. Ohio can't afford more than 330 charter schools and 50-plus charter-school authorizers. Half of these schools serve fewer than 150 students, and many won't survive the economic downturn. Their closure should be eased and facilitated by the state. As with county ESCs, there should be consolidation through the creation of regional charter-school sponsors.
  3. Make Ohio a leader in distance learning. About 22,000 Ohio students attend e-schools, based online rather than in school buildings. This is one of the fastest growing segments of the new schools sector in Ohio with more than 30 such schools being operated by school districts and other independent operators. As Ohio faces a serious shortage of math and science teachers, especially rural districts, the state should encourage distance learning programs for high-school students that need access to quality instruction in higher level math and science. If this sector is strengthened, it can lead to powerful educational innovations, exciting partnerships between classroom-based and online learning, and could create space for universities and colleges to offer online instruction for currently underserved students. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 50 percent of all courses in grades 9-12 will be taken online by 2019. Ohio should seek maximum benefits on this front now, and it can look to the efforts of the Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997 and operated by the Florida Department of Education, as a successful public-private hybrid that works with (rather than competes with) school districts to expand quality education at lower costs.
  4. Create a performance-based compensation and sustainable retirement system. Ohio is one of the few states in America that mandates "last hired, first fired" in state law. Now is the time for teacher performance to drive compensation and advancement. Teacher layoffs should be based on performance and not time in service, and successful teachers should be rewarded for student performance. The average retirement age for teachers is 58 years-well below the regular retirement age in the Social Security system (65.5, rising to 67 in coming years), and it should be raised.

Ohio is facing historic economic challenges. Lawmakers should seize the opportunity to not only help the state's education system make it through this crisis, but make it through in a way that results in a stronger and more effective system. Spending less on doing things as usual is a plan for long-term failure. We have so much more to do and so much less with which to do it, that we now need new thinking and bold action.

A version of this op-ed originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer (see here).

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