Observations from a state budget debate newbie

When I came on with Fordham it was in the summer of 2009, just after a notoriously difficult budget battle during which Fordham unsuccessfully fought against then Gov. Strickland's inputs-heavy ?evidence-based? model of school funding, though successfully fought against the Governor's and lawmakers' attempts to decimate charter schools (among lots of other battles).

This year was my first experience with the state budget process. As this year's debate comes to a conclusion (Gov. Kasich will likely sign HB 153 into law tomorrow) I feel like I've learned a lot about a lot, so here's an attempt to distill that down into some relevant (and not-that-relevant) observations.

  • You can't predict everything. Fordham was especially blindsided this year with the charter school language inserted by the Ohio House (most of which thankfully was removed in the final version). Arguing against ludicrous charter language that would severely undermine accountability and quality wasn't on our initial radar; in short, you can never know what political tactics are being used behind closed doors and the extent to which lobbyists will influence what gets to the table.
  • Ohio is somewhat unusual in the amount of substantive policy put into the biennial budget. Ohio's budget ? for the last several biennia at least ? is not just about appropriating funds for various programs and agencies but contains a semi-load of actual policy. That makes it extraordinarily difficult for lawmakers to understand the nuances of proposed changes (the final version is some 5,000 pages!), to be thoughtful, deliberate, and estimate the impact of said changes.?
  • Spend political capital wisely. As each version of the budget (Kasich's initial proposals, then the House's, then the Senate's, etc.) morphed into something new it became apparent that the 20-some things flagged at the outset were no longer as important as the five main ones worth struggling for.
  • Keeping up with the Joneses? At various points during this process I've wondered about?several education provisions ? which may seem like good ideas on paper ? but which?seem to have been merely lifted from the recent annals of history in other states (e.g., the ?parent trigger? idea, specific language on teacher evaluations) in order to shove as much through this policy window as possible. To what extent were these provisions sought out because they're good ideas in their own right and make sense for Ohio, and to what extent was the motivation merely to keep up appearance and prevent Ohio from looking like a laggard compared to other states?
  • Too wonky for the average Ohioan. With hundreds of pages on education alone, and several iterations (not to mention analyses/estimates we conducted along the way to figure out which teachers/schools/charters/authorizers would be affected by various provisions) it's hard to keep it all straight. Translating those provisions ? and their implications ? into something meaningful that the average Ohioan should care about is difficult and points to a possible need in Ohio for an entity to do that sort of messaging and mobilizing work (an education advocacy organization like those in the PIE Network?).
  • Is incremental change worth celebrating? Even here at Fordham I think some of us would disagree about whether the new teacher effectiveness provisions are worth celebrating. They're better than what Ohio had before (essentially a totally seniority-based system not requiring meaningful evaluations at all) but not nearly as robust as the version passed by the Ohio House. Same goes with the charter language ? we're certainly happy that the worst of it was stripped out, but Fordham's hope for a new statewide authorizer was dashed, and the Ohio Department of Education ? with a terrible track record of sponsoring charter schools ? will now be a sponsor again. All isn't totally lost ? but it's sort of like feeling more disappointed when your team makes it to the Super Bowl and then loses than if they had just lost in the early round of playoffs.
  • These comparison docs are pretty awesome.

Oh, and this provision didn't make it through.

- Jamie Davies O'Leary

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