The first major component of Governor Strickland’s education reform plan, an all-day kindergarten mandate facing Ohio school districts in the 2010-11 school year, is making apparent why the “evidence-based” funding model cannot live up to the lofty expectations the governor and others have set for it.

Putting aside questions about the benefits of across-the-board all-day kindergarten, consider the fiscal realities. Implementing all-day, every day kindergarten is estimated to cost $205 million statewide. (For a breakdown of what it would cost Columbus and Dayton area districts, see here and here.)

Colleen Grady at State of Ohio Education blog parses out the $205 million cost estimate to see if that, as Sen. Gary Cates (R-West Chester) argues, is “probably a conservative figure.” Grady shows how the price for all-day kindergarten actually will end up being much higher due to egregious problems with how the education department calculated the figure (e.g., using a student-teacher ratio much higher than what is now mandated by law, failing to include the price of textbooks and other instructional supplies, and not including the cost of additional non-teaching staff needed to serve the additional students). As if an extra $205 million would not be burdensome enough on taxpayers, it comes at a time when the state is already scrambling to plug an $851 million hole in the budget before December 31 to prevent catastrophic cuts to education that could run as high as 15 percent of total funding.

Lawmakers have proposed that the state delay the all-day kindergarten mandate, giving districts one more year to plan for accommodating additional students and giving the state’s economic situation time to improve. Gov. Strickland opposes the across-the-board delay, suggesting instead that ODE determine on a “district-by-district basis” whether to grant waivers to districts unable to implement all-day kindergarten.

Catherine Candisky at the Columbus Dispatch points out the sheer number of districts that would be affected:

  • According to a statewide survey asking districts about their plans to implement all-day kindergarten, about 150 districts (out of 554 that responded) plan to request a waiver.
  • 342 school districts already offer all-day kindergarten. This leaves 212 surveyed districts affected by the mandate, and only a handful of those (62) indicated the ability to implement all-day kindergarten.

Thus, only 11 percent of districts not already offering all-day kindergarten plan to go forward with the mandate, while 27 percent of surveyed districts – who in turn educate 30 percent of Ohio’s public school students – indicated the need for a waiver. This surely contradicts the governor’s assertion that “a relatively small number of districts are seeking waivers.”

That so few districts are able to comply with the first component of Ohio’s new funding model should raise serious doubt as to whether the governor’s full slate of education reforms is feasible. We’ve been skeptical of the “evidence-based” model since the beginning. Especially in a deep national recession, funding educational inputs with that are not proven to increase student achievement, and doing so with no consideration for district/school performance, is irresponsible to the state’s long term fiscal health (to say nothing of its detrimental impact on students).

But we’re no longer the most outspoken opponents to the new funding system. District and school leaders are coming out en masse against the all-day kindergarten stipulation, not necessarily because they don’t support all-day kindergarten in theory, but because the mandate threatens to tank them financially. Even the State Board of Education and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators have voiced support for delaying the kindergarten mandate.

With even the most ardent supporters of the evidence-based funding model advocating for work-around solutions to stall its implementation, it’s time for Ohio to take a step backward and reconsider the incredible costs it imposes, and whether it’s truly the best funding system for the Buckeye State’s schools and students.

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