Conference Committee can pick good ideas from both sides

The Senate passed its version of the fiscal years 2010-2011 biennial budget last week. In K-12 education, it largely maintained the status quo. A legislative conference committee must now marry the House and Senate versions to produce a budget that also plugs at least a $2 billion revenue shortfall by June 30.

In our view, the Senate version of the budget is generally superior to both the Governor's version and the House version because: 1) it is cognizant of the fiscal challenges facing the state; 2) it provides more adequate funding for charter schools, early college academies, and STEM schools; 3) it slows the state's headlong plunge into development of new standards driven by nebulous and hard to define 21st century skills; 4) it does not overwhelm an underfunded and understaffed Ohio Department of Education with new and costly responsibilities; and 5) it doesn't provide districts and schools with a heavy burden of new unfunded mandates.

That said, in some areas the Governor/House's version is superior and can be married with the Senate version to improve education policy in Ohio in a cost effective fashion. Following are several areas that are ripe for compromise and improvement, based on the Fordham Institute's analyses of the education portion of both versions of Sub. H.B. 1 (see here):

Charter Schools
The Governor/House's budget would mortally wound the state's charter-school sector by drastically reducing funding and adding burdensome regulations. The Senate wisely rejected these changes. However, Ohio's charter school program still needs thoughtful reform and the Senate eliminated some good proposals by Gov. Strickland and the House to do that. In addition to restoring funding to charter schools, conferees would be well-advised to follow these leads by the Governor and House:

  • Put all charter sponsors under authority of the State Board of Education (even with the political shenanigans around the election of the new board president-see here, we stick to this recommendation as we have since 2006);
  • Give the state authority, under well-defined circumstances, to intervene when sponsors authorize persistently weak schools and fail to provide support to turn around the schools or shut them down;
  • Tighten language so that no operator currently running an Ohio charter school can open a new school unless at least one of its other Ohio schools is rated at least Continuous Improvement;
  • Allow the state auditor to report on how all state dollars are spent within a "school unit," regardless of whether a private operator spends the funds;
  • Ratchet up the "academic death penalty" to cull more poor performers from the charter sector; and
  • Require sponsors to report to ODE annually and to alert ODE to any changes made in charter contracts.

Standards and Assessments
Gov. Strickland and the House would set back standards-based reform in Ohio by giving far more attention to nebulous 21st century skills than to core skills and knowledge. Their plan set lofty goals for which there are no practical or valid measures of progress or performance. The House and Governor also put forth an unworkable timeline for creating and implementing new academic content standards and tests. The Senate's approach is more measured, requiring the State Board of Education and Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to draft a plan to undertake these revisions and to get legislative approval before beginning the work.

This approach leaves open the possibility that Ohio will maximize its efforts to collaborate with other states in creating and implementing common academic standards, such as the effort currently being led by the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers of which Ohio is a partner (see here). In tough fiscal times, Ohio is smart to try and leverage the expertise of others in developing world-class standards.

In short, the conference committee should embrace the governor's goal of improving the state's standards and accountability systems while retaining the Senate's proposed process and timeline for doing so. We also suggest requiring that experts in individual subjects and in psychometrics be involved in the standards-writing process.

Accountability
While its funding proposal was full of burdensome and unnecessary mandates, the House-passed budget did include several prudent and cost effective improvements in fiscal accountability. Conferees would be well-advised to retain the House's recommendations to increase fiscal accountability and transparency through building-level spending plans, performance audits, and annual fiscal report cards.

The Senate made an important move to apply the current charter school "academic death penalty" to district schools. Conferees would be well advised to retain this provision and ratchet up the closure standards for charter and district schools alike.

School Funding
The Senate scrapped the Governor's "evidence-based" funding model in favor of retaining the current per-pupil approach and created a task force to make recommendations for moving Ohio toward a funding system that funds children and is evidence-based. While the current funding system is preferable to what the Governor and House proposed, it is still in need of improvement. Innumerable expert analysts (including the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Achieve, Inc., McKinsey & Company, the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, and the State Board of Education itself) have urged Ohio to move toward Weighted Student Funding. We concur.

Conferees should therefore retain the Senate's recommendation to examine the issue and make concrete recommendations over the next 18 months for moving forward with a new school-funding model. This study should explicitly include in its charge a careful examination of diverse school-funding approaches including: 1) student-based funding; 2) performance-based funding; and 3) input-based funding. The final budget measure should require the study group to consult with diverse national experts, hold public hearings on the issue, and closely examine the experience of other states and communities. America now has massive experience with school finance and its reform; Ohio would err to go about this important task all by itself.

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