Education debate in Ohio is picking up steam

What a difference a year makes. This time last year Ohio was in the midst of a heated battle to approve the state's FY2010-2011 budget. House Bill 1 passed in mid-July but its trek through the legislative process was marked more by sniping and political horse-trading than thoughtful policy debate.

As Ohio was considering the most extensive changes to its public education system since the 1990s, there was scant public discussion among state leaders about what all these changes would actually mean for public policy - whether they were affordable and what their impact would actually be on schools, children, and taxpayers. The political debate continues, but Ohio seems to be moving toward a more thoughtful discussion about the future of its schools.

Consider just a few examples.

Funding & spending: Governor Strickland's evidence-based model of school funding relies on a ten-year phase in of billions of dollars in new state spending in education, at a time when the country is slowly emerging from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. As the budget passed last summer, the governor and his allies refused to acknowledge that such a funding increase was unlikely, or that the mandates of the funding model would be deferred indefinitely. Objections to the model itself and its costs, from experts like the Center for Reinventing Public Education's Paul Hill to newspaper editorial boards, were largely dismissed by policy leaders last year.

Today, everyone from local teachers and district superintendents to the governor and his team is acknowledging that the state's budget is racing toward a fiscal cliff in 2011. Reality has now set in and it's ugly no matter if one is a Democrat or a Republican. The governor has commissioned the KnowledgeWorks Foundation to explore cost-savings in K-12 education, and everyone expects the next biennial budget will come at the expense of school funding. The question is how bad the cuts will be, and whether they be done smartly.

Standards & Accountability: A year ago energy was being expended on minor notions like changing 'test' to 'assessment' when referring to statewide exams in state law. Though HB1 called for new academic content standards and appropriately aligned assessments, the primary debate was about '21st century' skills. At the time it looked as though Ohio would be taking its own path toward developing new academic content standards.

Just this week, however, Ohio became the seventh state to adopt the Common Core math and English-language arts standards (see separate article). These are a major improvement over the state's current standards and likely superior to anything the state could produce on its own. The state has also adopted new social studies and science standards, the latter coming after six months of robust debate about what should be included in them.

On the accountability front, the Ohio Department of Education has responded to concerns about its value-added system by making adjustments ahead of this year's local report cards and is already busy working on version 2.0 of its innovative value-added system. Meanwhile, the legislature has approved changes to how the state rates public school districts (see separate article) - one of the few education-related actions taken by the General Assembly this year. These are improvements all and ones certain to make positive differences in the education of the state's children in coming years.

School choice: Charter schools were a political pawn from day one during the 2009 budget battle, with the governor seeking to ban all for-profit charter operators from the state, regardless of how well their schools performed. House Democrats proposed a funding scheme that would have snuffed out most of the state's charters irrespective of their quality or performance. Charters are still a politically charged topic, but the conversation around them seems more rational. The question is no longer whether Ohio should have charter schools, but how these schools should be held accountable to ensure they serve children and taxpayers well.

In Cleveland, the school district has embraced charter schools as part of its academic transformation plan. Rep. Stephen Dyer (D-Green), who shepherded the education budget through the House last year, has relaxed his language around charters, acknowledging in recent hearings that for-profit operators per se aren't bad. No doubt, there is still a ton of political intrigue swirling around the state's charter school program, but arguments for a day when charters are no longer part of Ohio's educational ecosystem seem futile and out-of-touch with both national politics and the desires of 90,000+ students currently enrolled in these schools.

Teacher personnel policies: House Bill 1 did little to impact teacher personnel policies, aside from a smart move to extend tenure decisions to the seventh year of a teacher's career. But if Ohio wins federal Race to the Top funding, participating districts will have to base a 'significant' portion of teacher evaluations on their student performance. District, community, and opinion leaders in Cleveland have joined the growing call for an end to the state's archaic last-hired, first-fired law for teachers.

In Cincinnati, leaders sought the advice of experts at the reform-minded The New Teacher Project about the district's personnel policies before embarking on its current contract negotiations. There is serious talk about things like performance pay and rewarding teachers for working in the toughest schools or in high-demand subjects.

Education reform in Ohio has happened in fits and starts over the last 20 years. And as the education debate circa June 2010 shows, reform issues were not resolved by HB 1. Rather, HB1 was the starting point for a new debate about the future of education in Ohio. This debate is ongoing and efforts to encourage Ohioans, from the schoolhouse to the Statehouse, to stay informed and engaged in this conversation are for the common good. Many tough decisions about the future of education and schooling in Ohio are still before us, but the foundation for the debate has been set by events during the last two years.

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