You'd be crazy to see SB5's defeat as rejection of Ohio school reform

Ohio’s electorate soundly rejected Issue 2 (the referendum on Senate Bill
5) last Tuesday. As almost everyone knows, that statute made significant
changes to collective bargaining for public employees in the Buckeye State. The
most controversial bits included changes to binding arbitration (to give
management the right to impose its last best offer), a ban on strikes by public
employees, and elimination of seniority as the sole factor for determining who
should be laid off when cutbacks are necessary.

Though teachers and their unions
were most definitely included—both in Senate Bill 5 and in the frantic,
well-funded ($30 million) effort to persuade voters to repudiate
it—education-policy watchers outside Ohio may not appreciate the extent to
which this was really a referendum on policemen, firemen, and other “first
responders” in the public sector. They and their unions were covered by the
measure, too, and played the lead role—and by far the most visible role—in the
campaign to undo it. There is, in fact, every reason to believe that if the
first responders hadn’t been involved, Senate Bill 5 would have survived
Election Day.

At their raucous victory party
last week, union leaders said the vote should send a clear message to Governor
Kasich and GOP legislative leaders. “Their biggest mistake was to think they
(Republicans) could come up with a solution and impose it on a bunch of
people,” said Bill Leibensperger, vice president of the Ohio
Education Association. He continued, “There has always been room to talk.
That’s what collective bargaining is about. You bring adults around a table to
talk about serious issues.”

He was half right. Ohio’s voters
indeed rejected what they were persuaded was a Republican over-reach to reshape
state and local government and how they deal with their employees. The same
day, however, and by an even greater (2 to 1) margin, Ohioans spurned key
pieces of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Supporters of that ballot item boasted that,
“Today, Ohio voters sent a clear message to President Obama… We reject the
mandates of ‘Obamacare.’”

In sum, on the same ballot, Ohio
voters repudiated GOP plans to restructure collective bargaining in the Buckeye
State and the big plans of
Beltway Democrats to reshape the nation’s healthcare system. So what lesson
should politicians and policymakers draw?

Ohioans—like Americans
generally—are largely centrist in their politics. (That’s why it’s been a key
swing state in so many national elections. Remember “As Ohio goes, so goes the
nation”?) The political extremes on both sides are loud and polarizing, of
course, yet most state voters are moderates open to compromise. They don’t like
one-party solutions and are skeptical of big fixes, wherever they originate.
Lasting change and real reform in a state like Ohio requires some level of bipartisan
support and collaboration

What does this mean for education
reform? Do we now face a period of political paralysis in Ohio (and beyond)
where nothing can be changed even when change is needed? Will elected officials
be so shell-shocked by this particular electoral pounding that they will simply
nibble on the margins of reform—and attempt to make nice to the unions that
trounced them?

That would be a terrible mistake.
Surveys have consistently shown that Ohioans support bona fide school-reform
efforts, and many of the other education changes that were tucked into the 300
pages of Senate Bill 5 had and still have the support of voters. These include:

  • Creating a
    salary structure free of automatic step increases;
  • Requiring
    performance-based pay for teachers and nonteaching school employees;
  • Limiting
    public employer contributions toward health care benefit costs;
  • Requiring
    annual evaluations of teachers to include student performance data; and
  • Requiring
    that any layoffs be based in part on these evaluations.

The Fordham Institute polled Ohioans
on education issues in 2005, 2007, and 2009 and in every one of these
surveys Buckeye residents said they prefer to pay teachers according to their
“performance and how effectively they teach” rather than compensate them for
“years of service and degrees earned.” In 2009, the margin was a striking 69 to
15 percent. Further, an overwhelming 87 percent favored “giving local public
schools more freedom to fire teachers that aren’t performing,” while only 11
percent opposed such a measure.

In case you don’t like Fordham
data, Quinnipiac reported two weeks ago that Ohioans supported (49 to 40
percent) the provision in Senate Bill 5 that pay increases for public-sector
employees (including teachers) should be based on merit rather than seniority.
And again, as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. Recent national polls show
Americans overall support merit pay and tying tenure to performance. An Education Next survey earlier this year found that
“those who say tenure should be based on academic progress increased from 49
percent to 55 percent between 2010 and 2011.”

Nor does the economic imperative
to do more with less go away with last week’s vote. Budgets are tight. Revenues
are down. Taxpayers are stressed, not least because so many of them lack jobs.
(Ohio’s unemployment rate is 9.1 percent and it has lost 400,000 jobs over the
past five years.) It was this basic reality that mobilized Republicans to
pursue the changes wrought by Senate Bill 5 in the first place: They would save
a lot of money that the state and its school systems don’t have.

University of Arkansas economist
Robert Costrell captured the profound challenges still confronting Ohio when he wrote of last week’s vote:

The core fiscal issues that motivated SB5 remain unsolved for
school districts. SB5 was a very broad bill, which contributed to its
defeat, but specific provisions are quite important for keeping school district
costs under control. There were two particularly important provisions
regarding health insurance. First, the law capped district contributions
at 85 percent, so that teachers would have to pay 15 percent. By
comparison, the collective bargaining agreement for Cleveland sets the employee
share of premiums at about five percent. Second, and perhaps even more
important, the law gave districts the ability to set plan design, subject to
best practices established by a state board. Currently collective
bargaining agreements establish which plans will be offered, what the
deductibles and co-insurance rates are, etc. In Cleveland, for
example, there are no deductibles at all for in-network coverage, nor is
there any co-insurance. This is quite astounding—well below industry
standards, even for generous plans, like those we find in public universities. These
provisions are written into the union contract. They will be very
difficult to remove, under current bargaining law, which leaves school
districts at a great disadvantage at the bargaining table. So districts
like Cleveland will continue to face huge budget difficulties, now and in the
future. The defeat of SB5 will mean layoffs and other education
cuts, unless these provisions are re-enacted separately.

Senate Bill 5 is now dead, but
the underlying problems facing Ohio schools and budgets remain. To make any
progress, bold changes are needed in education and other parts of the public
sector. But as Philip Howard perceptively noted in last week’s Wall Street Journal, across the
entirety of the public sector the unions are still powerful obstacles to needed

This piece
originally published (in a slightly different form)
on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog and in the Education Gadfly. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

More By Author