Education doesn't have to cost more to be better, national expert says

One of the nation's foremost school-finance authorities said yesterday that Ohio can have a much better school system without paying vastly higher sums for education by getting smarter about how it spends education dollars.

Unfortunately, the state is wasting money now and the education financing changes proposed by Gov. Strickland are unlikely to help, Professor Paul T. Hill told members of the Ohio Senate Education Committee. Hill is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell (see here).

"The school finance provisions of the governor's plan promote stasis, not continuous improvement. It makes big bets on increased staffing, heavier administration, and other mandates on uses of funds. Unfortunately those bets are essentially shots in the dark: no other school system has improved detectably by using money in these ways," Hill said in prepared testimony.

Given the projected multi-billion dollar budget state deficit forecast for the next biennium, Hill may have more Ohioans listening to his ideas. Certainly there was interest among senators as to what Hill had to say.

"On school spending, the $8 billion state deficit clearly precludes major increases in school support in the foreseeable future," Hill told the Senate panel. For his prepared testimony, see here.

"How can we do better with little or no more? That's possible. But you can't do better with no more money unless you do something different," he said in his direct testimony.

Hill said continuous improvement for school systems is achievable through state policies that:

  • Allow funding to follow the child so that those closest to the children - school leaders - make decisions about staffing, use of technology, and other key programmatic decisions.
  • Issue fewer state mandates, as there are no policies that work well across all schools. Take required class sizes, for example. Some schools may want smaller class sizes, while others may want their best teachers teaching slightly larger classes. Such decisions should be made at the school level.
  • Track spending to results so alternative methods of delivering instruction can be compared on cost and effectiveness.
  • Encourage innovation to push annual measurable improvement in school and student performance.
  • Require accountability so that all schools and districts are held accountable for student performance and continuous improvement. Those schools that don't deliver should be closed and replaced by new models.
  • Treat all public schools equally so that high performing schools - district and charter alike - are encouraged to expand while low performers are pressured to improve or close.

Hill has studied school systems from coast to coast and internationally. Most recently, he was lead author on a five-year, $6 million, Gates-funded, nationwide study that examined school finance policies, including in Ohio (see here). This report, issued in December 2008, is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever conducted. It found that public-school finance systems around the United States are outmoded and failing to support the effective education of America's children. In February, he authored a report (see here) on Gov. Ted Strickland's proposed education plans and what they'd mean for the Buckeye State.

Hill's advice to fund students, not programs and adult staffing patterns, starkly contrasts with the education plan expected to be passed this week by the Ohio House of Representatives. The House plan would lay down more mandates while increasing costs over the next decade. It would also require local school districts to pony up more to meet those new mandates.

Federal economic stimulus dollars are to make up for some of the extra expense in the short term. Longer term, Rep. Stephen Dyer (D-Green) who ushered the education proposals through the House, estimates the legislation will require an additional $2.7 billion in new spending over the next ten years. At a Tuesday news conference hours before Hill testified, Dyer said that the projected increase is roughly in keeping with what the state has added to education spending over the last decade. He did not, however, say where that new money would come from, given Ohio's continuing sour economy.

Professor Hill said the House plan, which is mostly a tweaking of Strickland's original proposal, is not in step with the need for real change. "Instead of opening up experimentation and encouraging schools and districts to pursue more effective methods...it maintains, and even bulks up, an existing set of job descriptions, administrative structures, and rules on who can teach and how time is used," he said.

He also said that the so-called "evidence-based model" touted by the governor was based on research gathered to support an assumed point of view. So, it's not surprising, Hill said, that Lawrence O. Picus and Allan Odden, the education researchers behind the governor's and House leadership's plan, came up with research findings to support a plan full of mandates and new spending. Hill concluded, "These guys are good. They should be listened to but they shouldn't be considered without looking at even better alternatives," Hill told the committee members.

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