Ohio's Biennial Budget Sets the Conditions for Education Success

Gov. John Kasich is slated to sign Ohio’s biennial budget today (it’s
a 5,000 page document), legislation that not only appropriates funding
for the Buckeye State until 2013 but that also includes hundreds of
pages of education-policy changes—most of which will move Ohio forward
in significant ways.

The ultimate success of the budget’s education reforms will depend
greatly on the quality of implementation by the State Board of
Education, the new state superintendent, and his team at the Ohio
Department of Education. This may sound obvious, but it’s worth
hammering home: The budget puts an enormous amount of responsibility and
faith into the Department of Education (to sponsor new charter schools,
a move we opposed during the debate), the State Board (to approve model
frameworks for teacher evaluation), and already thinly-stretched
staffers who are still deciphering what the budget provisions actually
mean.

Now that the legislative debate has ended, where does Ohio stand on the
big education-policy issues of charter schools, teacher policy, and
school accountability and improvement? And why will implementation be so
crucial? Let’s dig in.


The budget puts an enormous
amount of responsibility and faith into the Department of
Education...the State Board...and already thinly-stretched staffers who
are still deciphering what the budget provisions actually mean.

 
   
 

Charters & Choice

Fordham is a long-time supporter of school choice and believes in the
expansion of quality options for families. However, we made it clear in
recent months that we opposed proposals in the House that would have
severely undermined accountability and the quality of authorizers and
charter schools. Thankfully, the most egregious House language offered
by some for-profit school-management companies was stripped out in the
final budget deal, so Ohioans need not worry about charter schools or
groups of individuals running schools without oversight. Plus, lawmakers
strengthened accountability for charter-school authorizers, stipulating
that those ranked in the bottom 20 percent of all sponsors cannot open
new schools.

Other positive provisions include: shortening by one year the timeline
for automatic closure (“death penalty”) of failing charter schools;
putting in language to establish and fund a public boarding school;
giving charter schools better access to unused district facilities; and
dramatically expanding the number of EdChoice Scholarships available and
the students eligible for them. The budget also launched a new
special-needs scholarship program.

On the troubling side, the budget reinstates the Ohio Department of
Education as an authorizer of charter schools, a duty it fully botched a
decade ago, with many risks remaining today. These risks include an
understaffed and ill-prepared charter-school office, conflicts of
interest (the department now will sponsor schools, oversee the state’s
other charter-school sponsors, provide technical assistance of myriad
sorts, and fund charters), and enormous pressure to sponsor charter
schools quickly and without a proper vetting of applicants. However, a
rigorous screening process, combined with strong leadership from the
State Board and the interim and new state superintendent, can help
mitigate these risks.

Teachers

While not as strong as language approved in the House, the final
budget deal is still two steps forward for the Buckeye State when it
comes to improving teacher effectiveness. Most critically, Ohio
districts will now have to dramatically improve their teacher-evaluation
systems, and must no longer make layoff decisions based on seniority
alone.

Moreover, the legislature wants to see action quickly—maybe even too
quickly. By December 31, 2011, the State Board must develop a model
evaluation framework to guide the development of local evaluation
systems. Those systems must be in place by July 2013, and must base 50
percent of a teacher’s rating on the academic growth of his or her
students. The systems also must rate teachers according to four tiers
(accomplished, proficient, developing, and ineffective). School
districts—rather than the state—will then decide how to tie policies on
dismissal, tenure, retention, and pay to the evaluations. The primary
state mandate governing all of this is that districts can no longer make
seniority the predominant determiner of layoff decisions, except in
cases of a tie (when teachers have the same rating).

Merit pay, one of the more controversial provisions debated during
the budget process, will now only be mandated in districts, STEM
schools, and charter schools participating in Race to the Top. Others
will be encouraged, but not required, to create a performance-based
salary schedule, and hopefully an abundance of teacher-effectiveness
data accumulating over time will prompt local officials to reward highly
effective teachers accordingly. Other provisions worth lauding include:
Teach For America applicants won’t face any new barriers to entry, and
alternative licensure will extend across all grades (K-12, instead of
only grades 4-12). Teachers at the state’s persistently
lowest-performing schools will be required to be tested on their
subject-matter knowledge, but will not incur the costs of exams or be
required to take the test more than once every three years provided they
pass it. Finally, the Board of Regents’ Chancellor will report
aggregate student growth data and trace these data to teacher graduates
from various teacher-prep programs.

Accountability and School Improvement

Fordham has long advocated holding all schools accountable for
performance (not just charter schools) and the budget does that well.
District schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide
for three or more consecutive years will undergo major restructuring
(“turnaround”). The controversial “parent trigger”—whereby parents and
families can precipitate school reconstitution—will be piloted within
Columbus City Schools. Schools wishing to operate outside of traditional
regulations and rules (imposed by the state, teachers unions, etc.) can
now apply for status as innovation schools or zones in an effort to
spur rapid change and achievement improvements that might not otherwise
be possible in traditional and more regulated settings.
Finally, individual school performance as well as classroom expenditures
(an attempt to measure return on investment) will be published by the
state and schools will be ranked and recognized accordingly. This
transparency—especially in spending as it relates to achievement—is a
leap forward in terms of changing the dialogue in public education.
Instead of measuring inputs and dollars in a vacuum (i.e., regardless of
achievement), Ohio will begin asking, “What bang are we getting for our
buck?”

Conclusion

Considering the fiscal climate in which this budget was written, it
is an impressive piece of work that sets the conditions for moving
Ohio’s education system forward. There is still plenty that could be
derailed through poor implementation by the Ohio Department of
Education, the State Board, and individual school districts. But there
is no doubt that the budget language moves Ohio towards a
performance-based system of education that rewards success, highlights
problems, and punishes abject failure. Let the hard work begin.

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