Connecting the school funding tunnels

During construction of the continental railroads in the 1860s, workers dug from both ends to tunnel through the Rocky Mountains. When they met in the middle, the tunnel was finished and the trains could roll. This is how America became a great continental power. This image of the tunnel bored from two directions is an apt metaphor for what needs to happen with Governor Kasich’s biennial budget proposal (House Bill 59) and the very different plan emerging from the Ohio House this week.

Governor Kasich’s “Achievement Everywhere” plan has three main things going for it. First, it actually tries to target children and the schools they actually attend as the loci of public funding, as opposed to just spreading money across school districts. Traditionally, school funding has been about simply spreading the money around so far more districts feel like winners than losers. The House version does this by reducing the number of districts receiving no new money from nearly 400 to 175. But in doing so the House version loses some of the worthy Kasich reforms. 

Specifically, Kasich’s plan proposed reducing one-size fits all spending restrictions by removing a number of minimum operating standards.  This would free up educators but the House puts those standards back in place. They mandate practices like assignment of personnel and the use of specific instructional materials (especially odd considering the speed at which blended learning is spreading across the state). The House version also requires fixed staffing ratios for both speech pathologists and school psychologists when there is little evidence that such ratios result in kids actually getting the services they need (it does bump up spending however).

Governor Kasich’s plan offers incentives for innovation through the Straight A grant program. The idea here is simple: innovation costs money. Rather than trying to mandate it across schools and districts, encourage it through flexible competitive grants dollars, Kasich’s plan offered substantial dollars ($100 million in FY14 and $200 million in FY15) along with wide latitude in the reforms these dollars could support and in what types of organization do the work. The House would shrink the Straight A fund by half ($50 million in FY14 and $100 million in FY15) while restricting how and for what these dollars can be used and for what purposes. Again, this limits options for innovation and partnerships.

Third, Kasich’s Achievement Everywhere plan proposed some modest reforms to encourage efficiency and better use of tax dollars. Specifically, it would spur consolidation of services and cost savings by creating competitive funding and governance structures for the state’s 55 county-level education service centers. Unfortunately, the House version of the budget would bump up funding for all ESCs, thus protecting the weak ones from competition while reducing the ability of strong performers to expand their markets and services. Worse, low performers will be subsidized and have no incentive to improve or customize their services where there is the greatest demand. This drives up costs for schools, reduces quality, and discourages innovation.

Meanwhile, however, tunneling from the other direction the House developed some promising policy ideas of its own, including:

  • Requiring school districts to report their student counts monthly (as charters do) and basing funding on these more-frequent counts,
  • Providing creative busing alternatives for charters and private schools,
  • Increasing the dollar amount for Cleveland students using vouchers to attend a private school, and
  • Removing the gimmicky “parent trigger” mechanism.

Both sides, agreed to removing provisions requiring minimum salary steps for teachers. Thus, the House and Governor have already converged on one important reform; now they need to converge on more.

The House plan also bumps up overall funding for schools by $400 million in FY14 and $500 million in FY15. Properly used, those added resources will help educators to improve their schools and start working toward higher academic standards.  But the House version by itself does not move Ohio forward. What’s needed is a joining of the best of the House plan with the best of the Governor’s plan. If the Senate can help bring the best of the two parts together then Ohio education should, just like transcontinental travel in the 19th century, take off to a whole new level.

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