Kasich educaton budget: Fiscally sound and student-focused, but many details still lacking
Governor Kasich unveiled his much-anticipated biennial budget proposal Tuesday. True to his word, the budget doesn’t raise taxes and will change, in some cases significantly, how Ohio government – including the state’s 610 local school districts – does business.
The governor didn’t mince words about the fiscal reality facing K-12 education in Ohio:
- Money isn’t the answer. Kasich acknowledges that, despite steady increases in school funding and significant growth in the number of adults working in Ohio’s public schools, academic performance has been flat. More money isn’t the solution to improving public education. Doing things differently at the state, district, and building levels is.
- Stimulus money is gone, and won’t return. School budgets across the country were propped up the last two years by one-time federal stimulus funds. That money bought time for districts, but led to little operational changes for schools in preparation for the “new normal.” Despite two years of warning about the impending funding cliff, few districts are well prepared to deal with their post-stimulus budgets.
Still and all, Kasich allotted more funds to K-12 education than most observers had anticipated, defying expectations that he would slash funding to schools. Instead, state funding will increase by 2 percent in FY 2012 and another 1.5 percent in FY 2013, keeping pace with inflation. Overall revenue for schools will fall, as one-time federal funding dries up this year – but this is a reflection of federal funding realities, not draconian cuts on the governor’s part. (Claims that Kasich is reducing funding to schools by hundreds of millions are disingenuous.)
But much is still unknown about the governor’s education spending plan. Kasich has outlined how much money Ohio’s schools will receive, but hasn’t yet revealed how that money will be doled out. He has vowed to scrap the “evidence-based” funding model but hasn’t said what formula he’ll use to distribute dollars across Ohio’s 610 school districts and 300+ charter schools. Further, while the governor wants schools to do more with less and have greater flexibility and fewer burdensome rules and mandates, he has not yet outlined the specific policy changes he’ll make to achieve this.
Admittedly, the only blueprint available so far is a two-page summary of K-12 education policy changes and the short line-item budget for the Ohio Department of Education, thus details are lacking. We’re hopeful that once detailed legislative language emerges in the next couple of weeks that many of the uncertainties and criticisms will subside.
Thematically, this budget is a breath of fresh air when it comes to articulating high expectations for all children, even those attending schools “in tough environments.” Kasich argues that highly successful schools are those where educators take responsibility for student learning rather than placing blame on “poverty, parents, or poor support.” This is the first step toward improving school performance: acknowledging that all students can learn and that schools and teachers are critical to improving achievement. But promising rhetoric and good intentions can only go so far. The budget documents released thus far lack important operational details, especially in budget sections related to teacher effectiveness, charters and choice, and transparency and accountability.
Teachers are the single most important component of a state’s education system, and Kasich’s budget proposal offers important reforms for improving the effectiveness of Ohio’s teaching force. He calls for Teach For America to take root in Ohio so that the state will become a “preferred destination for creative, talented educators.” Opening pathways to talented and effective educators who want to work in low-income schools is a no brainer. And the messaging is right when it comes to rethinking personnel policies. Specifically, rewarding “superior educators” for achieving dramatic gains in student growth, acknowledging that teacher quality is a preferred metric to seniority-based decision making, and streamlining the dismissal process for poor performers. These policy changes would push Ohio’s teaching force in the right direction, putting effectiveness ahead of antiquated (and arbitrary) metrics like seniority, credentials or advanced degrees when it comes to pay, retention, hiring, etc.
But there is room for improvement—and much need for greater specificity. While it’s smart for the governor to support a Teach For America site in Ohio, it is short-sighted to limit Ohio only to TFA. There are myriad other high-quality alternative licensure programs, not just for teachers but for principals (The New Teacher Project and New Leaders for New Schools, to name just two) and Ohio should open itself to all such programs with a proven track record. Finding ways to draw in talented mid-career professionals (especially in high-need areas like math, science, engineering, etc.) should be a priority as well.
And while other suggested reforms around teacher personnel policies look promising, crucial details are again missing. Kasich calls for rewarding superior teachers and dismissing poor performers. But the prerequisite for the implementation of either of those is a robust, rigorous, and fair teacher evaluation system that differentiates levels of effectiveness. Ohio currently does not have such a system statewide – or at the district level (though local systems are being developed in many districts via Race to the Top dollars). Abolishing “last in, first out” layoffs is critical to save effective teachers and especially those teaching in low-income schools, but it must be replaced with a defensible teacher performance system. The governor’s legislative language here will be critical because what is currently being debated (in Senate Bill 5) is no real improvement over seniority-based layoffs. That bill still relies on arbitrary factors like educator licensure level and being a “highly qualified” teacher as evidence of teacher effectiveness.
Charters and Choice
Gov. Kasich is keen to expand school choice, as demonstrated by his intent to double the number of EdChoice scholarships available to students in failing public schools and by trying to provide charters more equitable funding.
It is fair for the governor to eliminate special line-item funding for STEM schools, which, like charters, will still receive foundation funding. Caps on charter schools will be lifted, and charters will be granted better access to public school facilities. Currently, charter schools – regardless of performance – generally face significant obstacles in securing facilities as school districts don’t like to share these with their competitors. Kasich also wants Ohio to encourage significant technological innovations for schools.
Without details here either, however, it’s difficult to laud Kasich’s plan for school choice expansion. Absent from his budget summary is any mention of e-schools. Currently Ohio has an ironclad moratorium on new charter e-schools, but that cap must be lifted to invite new and innovative providers into the state. It is odd to call for more choice and competition while maintaining e-school monopolies. Moreover, while emphasizing technology is a step in the right direction, Kasich should call for specific legislation to allow for hybrid schooling. Schools should be able to combine online learning with “seat time” requirements and not have to bifurcate those options for students. Currently Ohio allows for one or the other, but lacks clear guidelines for schools that wish to strategically implement hybrid learning.
Perhaps most important, expanding choice qua choice won’t guarantee that Ohio students – especially those in low-income communities – actually have access to better options. It’s no secret that the reputation of Ohio’s sizable charter sector has been tarnished by the state’s many low-quality charters. . Kasich should ensure that current caps be replaced by “smart” caps that will only allow charter operators and authorizers with proven track records to grow more schools in Ohio; the same policy should apply for charter e-schools and other virtual programs. Further, the “death penalty” for charter schools should be preserved if not strengthened, and similar penalties should apply for all failing public schools (charter and district alike).
Transparency and Accountability
Standards and accountability are the lynch pin of a strong and successful education system. A transparent, top-to-bottom accountability system helps state and local education leaders determine what programs and policies are working, and which aren’t; and allows taxpayers and parents to fairly judge their local schools and educational options, as well as principals and teachers ultimately responsible for student performance.
Kasich’s budget puts the accountability focus squarely on student achievement. He intends to maintain Ohio’s decent academic accountability system and put in place new mechanisms aimed at improving student success. He calls for “parent triggers” like those in California that allow parents to vote to reconstitute their failing schools. Further, the governor wants to provide rankings of schools based on both academic performance and cost effectiveness so that the public can see the educational “return on investment” for their tax dollars.
These moves are smart in concept and could be game-changers for education in Ohio. But, key details are still missing and some of the governor’s accountability notions appear slightly off the mark. For example, Kasich would “test teachers in failing schools” but it’s unclear what they’d be tested on or how this would improve instructional effectiveness in Ohio’s neediest schools. Further, why wait until teachers and schools have failed children for years to gauge their competency in the classroom? A better teacher testing system might resemble the one Massachusetts put in place nearly 20 years ago – a rigorous exam for teachers before they enter the classroom – coupled with, as noted above, a robust evaluation system that measures teacher effectiveness in terms of student achievement throughout their careers.
Kasich’s budget overview is silent on at least two other important accountability issues: whether he’d institute much-needed value-added analysis in the EdChoice program and whether he will prepare Ohio’s accountability system for the upcoming transition to the Common Core standards and aligned assessments in mathematics and reading.
In sum, there’s much to like about this budget from what we’ve seen so far. It’s both fiscally responsible and far more generous to K-12 education than what many expected. It rightly focuses on the need to create performance-based metrics for teachers and schools alike, and opens Ohio’s doors to innovations when it comes to school choice, technology, and alternative teacher certification programs.
Key details are still missing and we wait in great anticipation for the actual budget language in coming days. We hope that the full version of the budget will dive much deeper into issues related to school performance and how it is measured, how schools are held accountable for their performance, how teacher effectiveness will be measured and details for how the state will distribute funds to districts.
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