What next? Ohio’s education policy agenda in 2013

The 129th General Assembly wrapped up its business last week. Included in the flurry of lame-duck legislation sent to the governor’s desk was House Bill 555. Its major provisions include:

  • Moving Ohio from our current school-rating system (and its nebulous terms like Continuous Improvement) to an A-to-F rating system based on broader performance measures that more accurately gauge how schools and districts are actually performing;
  • Establishing closure criteria for drop-out recovery schools;
  • Establishing a new charter-sponsor evaluation process; and
  • Adding a second application period for the Educational Choice Scholarship Program.

Unlike previous non-budget years, 2012 was a busy one for education policymaking. Two other major education bills were signed into law: Senate Bill 316 – the governor’s mid-biennium budget for education – and House Bill 525 – legislation formalizing the Cleveland Mayor Jackson’s Education Reform Plan.

 SB 316 included many small tweaks to state education law; but it also included three big policy changes. Specifically, it:

  • Established a third-grade “reading guarantee” and accompanying diagnostic and intervention requirements;
  • Increased accountability for charter-school sponsors, drop-out recovery schools, and teacher-preparation programs; and
  • Made explicit that “blended-learning” school models are permitted in Ohio.

HB 525, which applies only to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District:

  • Gives the district superintendent greater authority to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools;
  • Codifies a new teacher evaluation system, eliminates seniority as a sole/primary factor in personnel decisions, and gives principals more authority in hiring and evaluation of teachers;
  • Establishes a “Transformation Alliance” to screen potential charter sponsors in the city and make school performance information more readily available and understandable to parents and the larger community; and
  • Authorizes the district to share local levy dollars with high-performing charter schools.

Taken together with 2011 policy changes, these bills make Ohio a national leader in education reform. The questions now on the table are: What next? Do we stop – have all necessary and meaningful policy changes been made? Do we march forward – what work is left to be tackled?

The answer is to keep moving forward. As my colleague Terry Ryan testified recently to the Senate Education Committee, now is not the time to lose the reform momentum. There is no doubt Ohio has made tremendous strides in improving education policy in recent months. Yet, we cannot rest on those laurels; there is still work to be done. There are (at least) four major education issues on which the governor and General Assembly should focus in 2013:

School funding: Like his predecessor, Governor Kasich has delayed his school-funding “fix” until his second budget bill. Details about his proposal are scant, but based on past actions and public comments Kasich’s funding model is not likely to add much – if any – new money. It is also likely to encourage innovation and cooperation among schools and districts, and focus on accountability for performance at the building and district level.

As lawmakers consider the governor’s funding plan, they should encourage and support a move toward a weighted-student funding model that better targets resources to the needs of students and rewards performance. As we and other reformers have argued over the years, such a system would:

  • Flow full state funding to the school building a child attends, and encourage local districts to do the same with local dollars;
  • Vary per-pupil amounts based on children’s individual needs and circumstances (and help improve the data that this funding would be based on); and
  • Deliver resources to the building as real, flexible dollars and give school leaders authority on spending, staffing, and program decisions.

The FY2014-15 budget should continue encouraging and incenting collaboration and cooperation among local schools and between schools and other public entities. Lawmakers should also not roll back the state’s requirements for reporting funding and spending information and other data so that the public can see how their schools are handling the dollars allocated to them. Policies should be enacted to require truer reporting on Academic Return on Investment (see Nate Levenson’s recent report for Fordham).

Common Core: Ohio has adopted the Common Core standards and joined the PARCC testing consortium. State- and district-level training for teachers is underway. But the fidelity and timing of implementation varies widely from district-to-district and school-to-school across the state. Teachers haven’t seen the tests they’ll be administering in the 2014-15 school year, and questions linger about the cost and feasibility of computer-based testing (as required by the PARCC consortium). Colleges of education are still ramping up (too slowly) Common Core training for future educators.

In 2013, first and foremost, state lawmakers should not roll back Ohio’s commitment to the Common Core. Instead they must be open to hearing local educators’ concerns about implementation and the possibility of providing more state support – be it professional development, curriculum guidance, or money – to meet their development needs. State leaders – along with the business community and other allies – must be the public voice of support for the Common Core in order to minimize public backlash when the tougher tests – and lower scores – come out (see more in our annual report card analysis).

Voucher accountability: Approximately twenty-two thousand Ohio students attend a private school using a state-funded voucher. If these students comprised a district, it would be the fourth- or fifth-largest one in the state. Yet, the schools these students attend are virtually unaccountable for academic performance when compared to their district peers. This includes private schools in which more than 75 percent of students are publicly funded.

Lawmakers have greatly increased private-school choice in Ohio over the past two years, and should seek to increase it more in 2013. But, in tandem with growing these programs they most also come up with real and meaningful accountability for the private schools that receive significant state funds to educate kids. Ohio could consider a sliding scale of accountability (i.e., the more students a private school enrolls via vouchers, the more closely its accountability matches that of a public school). Ohio can look to states like Indiana, Florida, and Louisiana for examples of rational private-school accountability.

Implementation: Practice doesn’t change with the signing of a bill. From state rule-making and program development to local implementation of state policies, the real work begins after the changes are law. And this work takes time. The State Board of Education, Ohio Department of Education, and local educators are still in the midst of implementing not just 2012 policy changes but those from years prior, including the state’s many Race to the Top commitments.

Lawmakers must strike a balance: Be patient as local schools adapt to recent policy changes, yet don’t relax accountability or lessen expectations for performance. Lawmakers also must be open to learning from implementation and revisiting policies that need tweaking. And, finally, Ohio need to hirer crackerjack leaders for both the Ohio Department of Education and for higher education. Better integrating and coordinating these jobs would also be a worthy and important step forward.

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