You???d be crazy to see SB5???s defeat as rejection of Ohio school reform

Ohio’s electorate soundly
rejected Issue 2
(the referendum on Senate Bill 5) on Tuesday. As almost
everyone knows, that statute made significant changes to collective bargaining
for public employees in the Buckeye State. The most controversial bits included
changes to binding arbitration (to give management the right to impose its last
best offer), a ban on strikes by public employees, and elimination of seniority
as the sole factor for determining who should be laid off when cutbacks are

Though teachers and their unions were most definitely
included—both in Senate Bill 5 and in the frantic, well-funded ($30 million) effort
to persuade voters to repudiate it—education-policy watchers outside Ohio may
not appreciate the extent to which this was really a referendum on policemen,
firemen, and other “first responders” in the public sector. They and their
unions were covered by the measure, too, and played the lead role—and by far
the most visible role—in the campaign to undo it. There is, in fact, every
reason to believe that if the first responders hadn’t been involved, Senate Bill
5 would have survived Election Day.

On the same ballot, Ohio voters
repudiated Republican plans to restructure collective bargaining in the
Buckeye State and the big plans of Beltway Democrats to reshape the
nation’s healthcare system.


At their raucous victory party on Tuesday night, union
leaders said the vote should send a clear message to Governor Kasich and GOP
legislative leaders. “Their biggest mistake was to think they (Republicans)
could come up with a solution and impose it on a bunch of people,” said
Bill Leibensperger
, vice president of the Ohio Education Association. He
continued, “There has always been room to talk. That’s what collective
bargaining is about. You bring adults around a table to talk about serious

He was half right. Ohio’s voters indeed rejected what they
were persuaded was a Republican over-reach to reshape state and local
government and how they deal with their employees. The same day, however, and by
an even greater (2 to 1) margin, Ohioans spurned key pieces of President
Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Supporters of that
ballot item boasted that, “Today, Ohio voters sent a clear message to President
Obama… We reject the mandates of ‘Obamacare.’”

In sum, on the same ballot, Ohio voters repudiated GOP plans
to restructure collective bargaining in the Buckeye State and the big plans of Beltway Democrats to reshape the nation’s
healthcare system. So what lesson should politicians and policymakers draw?

tea leaves photo

There's much to read in SB5's tea leaves.
Photo by John Tann

Ohioans—like Americans generally—are largely centrist in
their politics. (That’s why it’s been a key swing state in so many national
elections. Remember “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation”?) The political extremes
on both sides are loud and polarizing, of course, yet most state voters are
moderates open to compromise. They don’t like one-party solutions and are
skeptical of big fixes, wherever they originate. Lasting change and real reform
in a state like Ohio requires
some level of bipartisan support and collaboration

What does this mean for education reform? Do we now face a
period of political paralysis in Ohio (and beyond) where nothing can be changed
even when change is needed? Will elected officials be so shell-shocked by this particular
electoral pounding that they will simply nibble on the margins of reform—and
attempt to make nice to the unions that trounced them?

That would be a terrible mistake. Surveys have consistently
shown that Ohioans support bona fide school-reform efforts, and many of the
other education changes that were tucked into the 300 pages of Senate Bill 5 had
and still have the support of voters. These include:

  • Creating a salary structure free of automatic
    step increases;
  • Requiring performance-based pay for teachers and
    nonteaching school employees;
  • Limiting public employer contributions toward
    health care benefit costs;
  • Requiring annual evaluations of teachers to
    include student performance data; and
  • Requiring that any layoffs be based in part on
    these evaluations.

The Fordham Institute polled Ohioans on education issues in
2005, 2007,
and 2009
and in every one of these surveys Buckeye residents said they prefer to pay
teachers according to their “performance and how effectively they teach” rather
than compensate them for “years of service and degrees earned.” In 2009, the
margin was a striking 69 to 15 percent. Further, an overwhelming 87 percent
favored “giving local public schools more freedom to fire teachers that aren’t
performing,” while only 11 percent opposed such a measure.

In case you don’t like Fordham data, Quinnipiac reported two
weeks ago that Ohioans supported (49 to 40 percent) the provision in Senate
Bill 5 that pay increases for public-sector employees (including teachers)
should be based on merit rather than seniority. And again, as Ohio goes, so
goes the nation. Recent national polls show Americans overall support merit pay
and tying tenure to performance. An Education
Next survey
earlier this year
found that “those who say tenure should be based on academic progress increased
from 49 percent to 55 percent between 2010 and 2011.”

Nor does the economic imperative to do more with less go
away with this week’s vote. Budgets are tight. Revenues are down. Taxpayers are
stressed, not least because so many of them lack jobs. (Ohio’s unemployment
rate is 9.1 percent and it has lost 400,000 jobs over the past five years.) It
was this basic reality that mobilized Republicans to pursue the changes wrought
by Senate Bill 5 in the first place: They would save a lot of money that the
state and its school systems don’t have.

University of Arkansas economist Robert Costrell captured
the profound challenges still confronting Ohio when
he wrote of this week’s vote

The core fiscal issues that
motivated SB5 remain unsolved for school districts. SB5 was a very broad
bill, which contributed to its defeat, but specific provisions are quite
important for keeping school district costs under control. There were
two particularly important provisions regarding health insurance. First,
the law capped district contributions at 85 percent, so that teachers would
have to pay 15 percent. By comparison, the collective bargaining agreement
for Cleveland sets the employee share of premiums at about five percent. Second,
and perhaps even more important, the law gave districts the ability to set plan
design, subject to best practices established by a state board. Currently
collective bargaining agreements establish which plans will be offered, what
the deductibles and co-insurance rates are, etc. In Cleveland, for
example, there are no deductibles at all for in-network coverage, nor is
there any co-insurance. This is quite astounding—well below industry
standards, even for generous plans, like those we find in public
universities. These provisions are written into the union contract. They
will be very difficult to remove, under current bargaining law, which leaves
school districts at a great disadvantage at the bargaining table. So
districts like Cleveland will continue to face huge budget difficulties, now
and in the future. The defeat of SB5 will mean layoffs and other education
cuts, unless these provisions are re-enacted separately.

Senate Bill 5 is now dead, but the underlying problems
facing Ohio schools and budgets remain. To make any progress, bold changes are
needed in education and other parts of the public sector. But as Philip Howard
perceptively noted
in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal,
across the entirety of the public sector the unions are still powerful obstacles
to needed change.

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