At last week’s "virtual town hall" meeting to unveil his school funding and reform plan, Governor Kasich asked me to share what I thought was most exciting about his plan. I almost jumped out of my chair with excitement, and responded:“The Straight A Innovation Fund is incredibly exciting…You're going to be freeing people up, and I think there's a lot of untapped energy out in the field that's waiting to, in effect, take charge and take control of the opportunities.”

The Straight A Innovation Fund is incredibly exciting…You're going to be freeing people up, and I think there's a lot of untapped energy

It was hard to believe that an Ohio governor was actually proposing to create an innovation fund and that it would distribute real money: $100 million in FY2014 and $200 million in FY2015. The idea of an innovation fund for reform in Ohio is something the Fordham Institute, Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF),[1] and other reformers have been urging since at least 2008. For example, in the OGF report Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generation of Ohioans to Come[2], issued in early 2009 and the result of months of input from philanthropy around the state, the first recommendation called for creating “Ohio Innovation Zones and an Incentive Fund.” Specifically, the report called for “an Incentive Fund to seed transformative educational innovation, support and scale up of successful educational enterprises, and build a strong culture to support these activities in local communities and throughout the state’s system of public education.”

 Further, Beyond Tinkering argued that the purpose of the innovation fund should not be simply incenting new programs, but pushing reforms that ultimately lead to greater efficiencies: “Once these innovations are launched, local communities, schools, districts and the state should find ways to reallocate and repurpose current resources for their continuation.” And, presciently to Governor Kasich’s Straight A Innovation Fund, when it came to governance Beyond Tinkering urged the state to “create an advisory committee made up of both public- and private-sector members to help determine the awarding of the grants (similar to the Third Frontier Advisory Committee).”

Beyond Tinkering went on to say that dollars from an innovation fund could be used to “attract and build on promising school models” such as Early College High Schools, STEM Academies, and high-performing charters. Or, it argued, the innovation dollars could be used to support district-wide innovations, online courses, or creative district-to-district or district-to-charter collaborations.

Fast forward to 2013 and there are even more innovative efforts and ideas that the Straight A Innovation Fund could help seed and expand. For example, Reynoldsburg City Schools just east of Columbus is running a portfolio of high-performing schools (some traditional, some charter, some digital learning, and all high-performing) with a bare-bones central office. Cincinnati Public Schools has embraced two of the nation’s premier school reform models in the SEED Academy boarding school and the blended learning model Carpe Diem .

Springfield City Schools is another example. It is looking to launch its “Global Impact STEM Academy,” which is part of larger and more significant district reform package. Springfield Superintendent David Estrop recently told Business Wire, “We understand that one-size does not fit all with education…Offering an expanded online option to our students and other students throughout Ohio is a natural progression for our school district. We strive to offer as many options as possible for students so their education can be customized to better meet their needs and aspirations while also keeping them on track to graduate.”

We strive to offer as many options as possible for students so their education can be customized to better meet their needs and aspirations....

But, it isn’t just urban and inner-ring suburban districts that have been bitten by the innovation bug and that can potentially benefit from Straight A Innovation Dollars. Oakwood City Schools, a high-income suburban district outside of Dayton, recently used $500,000 in Race to the Top funds to create and implement a comprehensive performance assessment system for the district superintendent, all administrators, and all teachers. One final example is Northwest Local Schools in Hamilton County near Cincinnati, which recently launched seven blended learning courses for its high school students. The classes handle 50 students each, about twice the size of many high school classes, but they each have one teacher and one instructional assistant. The district’s assistant director of curriculum told the local newspaper, “We’re always looking at how to do things more efficiently…This is a new way of delivering instruction, but we’re still very much in the learning process.”

Governor Kasich’s Straight A Innovation Fund is long overdue for Ohio and its schools. If it makes its way through the General Assembly relatively unscathed it will find a receptive group of educators who are champing at the bit to do more and better things.

[1] Now called Philanthropy Ohio.

[2] The report’s subtitle was “Action Recommendations for the Strickland Administration, 128th Ohio General Assembly and State Board of Education.”

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