Educating children while living within our means

Educators across Ohio are consumed by two issues – cuts and levies. School districts face brutal budget decisions as they confront falling revenues. The state’s newspapers are awash with headlines that read: “District cuts 164, mostly teachers,”Cleveland issues layoff notices to more than 500 teachers,” and “Supporters make final push for school levies.” 

The bad news is that things are apt to get even worse. The state’s current $50.5 billion biennial budget was made whole in 2009 by $5 billion in one-time federal stimulus dollars and $2.4 billion in budget cuts. Funding for K-12 education accounts for 41 percent of state spending. Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives recently warned that “state education funding may be reduced in next state budget by 22.7 to 30.1 percent.”

Other lawmakers and analysts suggest the pain won’t be that great. They point optimistically to new federal legislation, the Keep Our Educators Working Act, which seeks $23 billion in additional federal dollars to “provide money to every State for the specific purpose of hiring or retaining school employees.”

While there is genuine uncertainty as to how much Ohio will need to cut school spending in coming months, there is no doubt that further spending reductions are in the offing – if not this year then certainly next. It is also clear that the “easy” cuts and cost-saving strategies have already been implemented by schools and districts. Across the state districts have been shrinking their administrative costs, consolidating services like busing, partnering with other districts where possible, and cutting back on non-essential programs.  

What’s left to cut now is the hard stuff. As teacher salaries and benefits are the single largest expense in schools that is the place where cuts will be incurred. Yet, how these cuts are made in the coming months and years will have a profound impact on the future of our state’s children. The evidence is overwhelming that quality teachers are the prime driver of student success. 

Done poorly, teacher cuts can do irreparable harm to our children.

If teacher quality is job one, what can Ohio’s districts do in times of fiscal duress to protect teacher quality and teacher performance? Steven F. Wilson, senior fellow at Education Sector in Washington, DC, believes that districts need to, “dispense with their poorest performing teachers, improve the instructional performance of those who remain, attract the most capable new talent, and retain star teachers.” Further, Wilson argues, “for skilled leaders, fiscal austerity does not inhibit reform, it begets urgency.”

For superintendents to implement reforms to the way we train, reward, and retain teachers, they will need the help of state lawmakers.

First, superintendents need more flexibility in allocating increasingly scarce dollars and resources (see Roza review below). This can happen by waiving costly state mandates (maximum class sizes, all-day kindergarten requirements, etc.) and freeing up spending decisions. As much as possible, state dollars should arrive to districts as a lump sum to be spent by local school officials as they think best meets the needs of their children.

This doesn’t mean anything goes. The state must still hold districts and schools accountable for academic results and general rules of public accounting. But, local administrators should determine how to allocate staff, which staff to cut, and what incentives are necessary for rewarding the best teachers while encouraging them to take on larger classes. The state should report what works and what doesn’t.

Second, Ohio needs to commit itself to using student achievement data for a significant portion of teacher evaluations. This is encouraged by the federal Race to the Top competition, and other states and school districts are embracing the reform. Ohio can build on its successful implementation of value-added assessments to come up with a new definition of “highly effective” teachers. This would make it easier for school administrators to determine their top performing teachers, the teachers with talent who need help, and those who can be dismissed.

Third, the state law requiring that when teachers are let go for financial reasons, the dismissals must be based on seniority alone and not on student performance or other factors should be repealed, or at least suspended for the FY 2012-13 biennium. Because of current statute, and local collective bargaining agreements that reinforce it, the newer and less-expensive teachers must depart, and with them goes their energy and the district’s future labor force.

Consider how perverse this is. Dayton’s 2007 Teacher of the Year was given that award with one hand and his layoff notice with the other because after a local levy failed, the district had no choice but to protect seniority above all else.  

Ohio’s schools face an economic crisis that will not pass soon. Key to successfully navigating this time is ensuring the state’s children have access to the very best teachers available. This means redesigning how funds get to districts and schools, while working to ensure that scarce resources are used to support and develop our very best teachers. This is the only way to ensure a brighter future for our children while living within our means economically.  

More By Author