Cold Comfort

Though most Ohioans are still thawing out from weeks of frosty weather, Columbus has been bustling with activity as many elected officials considered (or proposed themselves) a number of education initiatives--all claiming to improve Ohio’s education system.   

Most notable was the release of the new policy report Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio by Achieve, Inc. (see here and above). Prepared by the international consulting group McKinsey & Company and authored by former British education adviser Sir Michael Barber, the report lays out a comprehensive, integrated and outcomes-based approach for transforming Ohio’s K-12 program into a leading education system by 2015. None too soon, we say. The state’s current system masks wide achievement gaps among student subgroups and is struggling to prepare Ohio’s youngster for the demands of college and workplace. “Despite the progress Ohio has made in student achievement, the pace of improvement needs to escalate drastically,” Barber told State Board of Education members.

Whether state policymakers will embrace the McKinsey team’s bold vision remains to be seen, but comments so far are promising. C.J. Prentiss, former state senator and Strickland’s education aide, noted, “I will report back to the governor ‘Good News’…This is a road map for what we need to do” (see here). State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Zelman insisted that state education officials have little choice but to push for change. Yet State Board member John Bender questioned the feasibility of implementing the report’s recommendations. “I still don’t see the political will,” he said (see here). Let’s hope he looks harder. Turning this vision into reality will require broad implementation of the recommendations (as opposed to “cherry-picking” the most politically expedient), and solid bipartisan support.

Such bipartisanship has been markedly absent from recent dealings on Capitol Square. Governor Strickland and Speaker John Husted are engaging in a tug-of-war over education funding (and the extent to which it needs repair--see here). Sharply critical of Ohio’s education funding system during his gubernatorial campaign, Governor Strickland has been reticent about putting forth solutions to fix it. To draw him out, Speaker Husted and Senate President Bill Harris designated House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 for Strickland’s unannounced education funding reform proposal (see here). The governor quickly condemned the move as “political gamesmanship” and partisan politics. Meanwhile, we’ve signaled our preference--a weighted student funding system (see here)--one that’s been echoed in the recent Achieve report.

The ill-conceived constitutional amendment to “fix” Ohio’s funding system (by pouring gobs more money into it--see here) met with a chilly reception from House and Senate Republicans. Citing a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Service Committee, Speaker Husted condemned the amendment, which, if passed, could cost the state about $1.84 billion in fiscal year 2007 alone. None of this new funding would be tied to student outcomes or measurable results. Considering that Ohioans are split on raising taxes (see here), this amendment may just end up in the deep freeze (for good, we hope). 

Undaunted, it seems, by moves to transfer control of its chancellorship to the governor (see here), the Ohio Board of Regents (OBR) recently aired a new proposal requesting sweeping new powers to oversee tuition hikes and cut duplicative degree programs at the state’s colleges and universities (see here). Reactions were mixed, and Governor Strickland noted that his and Speaker Husted’s earlier actions have “awakened the Board of Regents to the point where they are trying to play catch-up.” It may be too late, though, as Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2 would both transfer most of OBR’s power to the appointed chancellor--and relegate OBR to advisory board status.

State Board member Tom Sawyer was appointed to the Ohio Senate to fill the seat of Kimberly Zurz, who was named director of the Department of Commerce by Governor Strickland (see here). In November, Sawyer ousted Deborah Owens Fink, in part, by winning the “Darwinian vote” (see here). Sawyer’s evolution will give the governor a chance to fill a State Board seat with a hand-picked appointee. Perhaps his choice will help divine Governor Strickland’s thoughts on education reform.

With Governor Strickland set to address the state and submit his biennial budget, Ohioans can look forward to plenty of March Madness (the Buckeyes notwithstanding) in the coming weeks.

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