Strickland goes to school

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland's hot-off-the-presses education-reform plan is nothing if not audacious. Gutsy, even, in its way, and wider-ranging than most people expected, it tackles a multitude of topics--sometimes in incompatible and contradictory ways--and picks up on dozens of ideas, some of them sound. It is also sure to be expensive. (You can also find out more by reading Strickland's State of the State address.) 

Strickland's better ideas include moving away from the current statewide high-school graduation test toward the ACT and some combination of end-of-course exams; a near-to-breathtaking plan to delay teacher-tenure decisions from 3 to 9 years; lengthening the school year; making funding more transparent; and encouraging innovations such as STEM programs and "early college" academies.

He certainly deserves credit for raising education high on Ohio's policy agenda and showing some guts in making at least a handful of proposals that appall his teacher union pals. Still, his plan raises several serious concerns that legislators and others should ponder long and hard--and that have implications far beyond the Buckeye State.

First, the so-called "Evidence Based Model" that is central to Strickland's school funding plan--and has been spreading like kudzu across the land--is based on questionable evidence and dubious theory, derived from the work of two school finance "experts" who have grown prosperous by helping litigators talk judges into ordering more money for public education. They claim to present with scientific certainty exactly what needs to be done to raise every child in a state to academic proficiency and how much this will cost.

Unfortunately, other experts--with equal or stronger credentials--say that such models rest on sand. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, for example, writes that they're "not just inaccurate" but "generally unscientific." In fact, "They do not provide reliable and unbiased estimates of the necessary costs. In a variety of cases, they cannot be replicated by others. And they obfuscate the fact that they are unlikely to provide a path to the desired outcome results." Furthermore, he warns, "Pity the poor states that actually implement [such plans]. They are sure to be disappointed by the results, and most taxpayers (those who do not work for the schools) will be noticeably poorer."

Second, the governor's proposals to "improve" charter school quality will likely make most charter schools worse--or force them to close (which might be his intent). No doubt, Ohio's charter policies need work. The state suffers from far too many low performers and not nearly enough strong ones. While purporting to cure this patient, however, Strickland would actually deprive it of vital limbs and organs. His budget would worsen the funding inequities between charter and district schools. He would add to the already-heavy regulatory burden on all charters, good, bad and indifferent. And in barring "for profit" school operators, he again fails to distinguish between shady managers of squalid schools and outstanding providers of quality education. For example, Dayton's top-performing elementary school in 2008--the Pathway School of Discovery--is a charter operated by National Heritage Academies. Does it make sense to toss its 570 children out of a school rated "effective" by the Ohio Department of Education (the only elementary school in Dayton so designated) solely because it is operated by a profit-seeking firm?

That Governor Strickland is serious about investing in Ohio's ebbing supply of human capital, while also expecting more from schools, teachers and children, is a fine thing. But his good ideas are matched if not outnumbered by flabby notions, shaky evidence and sometimes downright harmful nostrums. The former deserve bipartisan support. The latter demand close scrutiny and serious reconsideration.

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