Oh Eric! FYI, private colleges are often cheaper than publics

 Todd Jones is president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio (see here), which represents 49 private Ohio institutions of higher learning. Before coming to Ohio, Jones was associate deputy secretary for budget and strategic accountability in the U.S. Department of Education under President Bush, where he managed the department's budget. He has also served as the executive director of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. Jones is unique in that he not only knows higher education but also has deep knowledge of the nitty-gritty of national K-12 education policy and is an expert on education law and finance. His insights are particularly important now that Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut is revamping the state's higher-education system, in no small measure to make it more accountable. Jones spoke recently with Gadfly Editor Mike Lafferty for this Q&A concerning the state's higher-education plans and what it might mean for -12 education.

Q. You had a distinguished career in Washington, D.C. How did you come to land in Ohio?

A. My wife has Ohio connections. My wife and I decided it was time to leave Washington, D.C. It is more difficult there to raise a family. Also, it was time to leave before I became tied to a skill set that was only good there.

Q. What do you think of Chancellor Eric Fingerhut's higher-education plan?

A. The approach he took misses the role of independent colleges in Ohio. We are one-third of the students. Our demographics mirror the public [schools] and also the state's racial diversity. In fact, our graduation rates are slightly higher. We have 31 percent of African-American students in Ohio and 40 percent of the baccalaureates awarded to African-Americans are awarded by our colleges and universities. The chancellor's plan is a public [university] plan with a discussion of how privates can play a role. That said, it has set the right goals. We need more young people graduating from college and we need more talented people investing themselves in Ohio.

Q. Did Fingerhut ask for your input?

A. Fingerhut did consult. We had a strong hand in the private universities section, but that is a small part of the overall plan. If the goal is to have 230,000 more students in colleges and universities [more than 600,000 students were enrolled in Ohio's public and private colleges and universities in 2008], privates are going to play an important role. Ohio Dominican University, Franklin, Mount Vernon Nazarene, and others are seeking to expand enrollments and they are targeting low-income and first-generation-American students. If we're going to expand [to meet the chancellor's goal], college must attract more nontraditional students and maybe students who have some college experience but didn't get a degree-maybe more two-year students might decide to get four-year degrees.

Ohio is roughly at the national median for people in their 20s and 30s [for degree holders]. If you are 40 or over, you are less likely to have a college degree than in other states. We are still an agriculture and heavy industry state. For example, historically, many people avoided college to get a job in manufacturing. Now, if you want to be a Ford technician, you need some education. It's different at more traditional four-year institutions. But the bottom line is that these post-high school programs represent substantial higher education and that's where the expansion can happen. The state also must look at what this plan will cost and private universities can help there. A public university is more expensive than a private college. For every student, it will save taxpayers money if they go to an independent college.

Q. Why 230,000 more Ohio college students?

A. Jobs have changed. Consider nurses. Nursing skills have increased. Things that in the past required a doctor, a nurse now does. There's no reason to pay a doctor if you can have a nurse do it. It's not so much that all of these people need college degrees [but they need college-level skills]. Police and prison workers are two examples where college level skills were once not necessary....There are plenty of cases that have failed in court because a police officer couldn't write and describe accurately what happened at a crime scene or in a criminal investigation. True adult professional writing is one of the things you learn in college.... Now, let me move it to the soft side. Fifteen years ago web designing wasn't a job. One of the things college provides is it allows you to adapt and be successful in a job. This ability to adjust is an advantage to Ohio. It's increasing resiliency in the workforce. We are more likely to create the jobs of the future right here.

Q. Are students better qualified, are minorities better qualified than previous generations?

A. Yes. It is true across the board, and that's with an increase in the last two decades in the number of ninth graders [eventually] enrolling in college....Some have potential but need assistance-more than sticking a book in front of them and asking them to contemplate what it means. They need to be nurtured in the right environment to bring them to complete a college degree and to develop the ability to think abstractly and rationally to solve problems. This is easier for some students than others....We're embarked on a grand social experiment that has its roots in modern times in the G.I. Bill-the idea that more people can go to college and gain value from it.

Q. What's your opinion of K-12 education in Ohio?

A. Culturally, Ohio is in transition away from being an agricultural and industrial state. In the past, school was about learning to read and write. K-12 education was not necessarily the highest priority, it was a competing priority-compared to the Mid-Atlantic states, the Northeast, areas around Chicago, and, broadly speaking, California. In Ohio, leaders realized that education was important but were not willing to take all the steps needed for it to be successful for all.

Ironically, compare Ohio now with states like North Carolina and Georgia where education is being reformed fundamentally. In Ohio, however, we have created serious impediments that make it more difficult to move forward. This is especially true in our inability to cope with the decline of urban systems. Education is much more complex than it was 40 years ago. How does an urban district like Cleveland close schools that are performing so poorly that they don't deserve to remain open? How does a large urban district cope with a shrinking student base as families move away? How does it close schools and redistribute the education dollars? The reaction is always, "No, don't close the school. The community will die." And then how do you pay for it all? In rural areas, districts will not pay for more than the minimum. In some districts, taxpayers will pay for a new football field but won't pay for books.

Q. Compare Ohio with some other areas.

A. School districts in Ohio compare themselves to each other when they should compare themselves to the best in the nation, like Falls Church, Va., Brookline, Mass., or Glendale in Los Angeles. Too many districts in Ohio define themselves by how many students go to college rather than how many are in AP classes and succeed with 4s and 5s or by the number of students who receive academic scholarships....Not that we don't have some very fine schools in this state, but, in too many instances, to even contemplate doing something different is a nonstarter.

Falls Church was once a backwater but there was a community commitment to organize the district around academics. It was built for academic excellence. There was a commitment of the people in the community to do education differently. You had some of this once in Ohio, in Shaker Heights, for example. But why didn't it happen more? There are many areas in Ohio that had the same advantages. There is an assumption here that we have it all, so why think about what others have or do.

Q. Is K-12 education at least headed in the right direction?

A. It's too early to tell if the reforms introduced over the last decade will be successful. There are some obvious bright spots. Charters have done great things across the country and have had some notable successes and some notable failures. Some public districts are really improving. Columbus is a bright spot. The superintendent is remarkable and she has one of the most difficult jobs on earth and deserves a lot of credit for leading change. The district has done an amazing job absorbing so many non-English speakers into the system. On money, the final DeRolf compromise didn't satisfy anyone but the benefits have been cumulative in reallocating more money to the poorest districts and leaving the better-off districts on their own. It was not the best answer but it was a pretty strong political compromise....It's not that we can't come up with better ideas but in an environment with organized labor and in a state with declining financial resources it won't be easy. We have union contracts that are straightjackets to flexibility, a pension system that is beneficial to teachers but costly to taxpayers. In Ohio, it's one size fits all and I don't understand it. All of my colleges are different. You can be an entrepreneurial professor at Franklin University [in Columbus] and run companies. At Denison University [in Granville] you have more the idea of the classics professor. Both systems work. But in K-12 education in Ohio, it's "Here's how it's going to be."

Q. How are we doing on making schools accountable?

A. Our state standards are a full tier below the best, highest standards in our country. But what I hear is that our standards are too difficult. One of the most important parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law was not that it pointed to rural districts and urban districts that were not succeeding. We knew that. NCLB talks about the success or failure of minority and disabled children and uses these to help gauge a district's overall success. If a few African-American or disabled students are not succeeding while the vast majority of white students and non-disabled are, is that school successful? I bet the parents of the African-American students and the disabled students care. I don't see debasing standards or lowering accountability as a good thing, but we're moving in that direction.

Q. What are Ohio's stumbling blocks and strengths?

A. Schools are not going to solve drug addiction problems or problems at home with parents. Money is a stumbling block. Some urban schools do a remarkable job of educating large numbers of students who do not speak English. These children would have been warehoused two decades ago and now they go on to get high-school diplomas. They get jobs stocking shelves or sweeping floors. These are basic jobs but they still offer the way to make a living and be a part of society.

We are moving in the direction we should be moving-we have a systematic focus on improvement. I credit [former State Superintendent of Public Instruction] Susan Zelman for that. Over the last decade, the state has moved in a positive direction. But I don't know if it's going to stick.

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