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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ohio Senate President Faber Lays Groundwork for Flat Education Funding Next Year

Last week, Sen. Keith Faber, R-Celina, the Ohio Senate President, said that he wanted to deregulate education, especially for high-performing schools. Here's what he said, according to the Gongwer report on his talk:

"Next year we're going to be looking at ways to set those high-performing school districts free of unnecessary bureaucratic regulation from Columbus, and it is going to be a challenge. But it is a challenge that I am confident we'll be successful on," Sen. Faber said.
While deregulation might be appropriate for the top third of Ohio's school districts, "we still have to remember the other two-thirds," he said. "And we have ideas there as well," he added.
Faber's play may have some merit from a policy perspective. Politically, it's a tell for next year: Get ready for flat funding or cuts. But in exchange for not raising a stink about the state's failure to live up to its constitutional obligations, we'll get rid of some unfunded mandates. How's that for a political trade off?

Let me deal first with the policy. During the House Bill 1 deliberations from 2009, then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction (and current U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education) Deb Delisle put forward a similar idea to Faber's.

As a refresher, the Evidence Based Model of school funding was based on several lines of research that indicated that the model's elements would positively impact student growth and achievement. While I eliminated any requirement that school districts follow the elements until they were fully funded (kind of the opposite of an unfunded mandate), Delisle came up with the idea that when the model was fully funded, districts and schools that demonstrated excellence would be given more latitude to comply with the model's elements. But if they were struggling, then the model would be more closely adhered to because the research upon which it was based suggested that these elements could actually help districts and schools find a way to improve student success across demographics.

What Faber's talking about is similar, but very different in one incredibly important way: the state currently doesn't have a formula that has any evidence behind it suggesting it could improve student achievement. The base funding amount is based on a calculation made in 2007 for a formula that no longer exists in law. So the deregulation he's talking about isn't about allowing successful schools a more diverse array of options to meet the state's regulatory scheme. It's about eliminating the scheme all together.

This is dangerous. And while Faber is fond of calling the current scheme "Soviet style" because the state sets policy (as the Ohio Constitution calls for because it's a good idea to have some uniformity of education across communities and regions, but that's another story), the fact is Ohio is a strong local control state. Each district negotiates its contracts with teachers and other educators. Each district determines its curriculum. Each district makes its own calls about field trips, grade and building-wide themes, projects, etc. So, in fact, in Ohio, local districts have a pretty wide array of options -- especially if they have money. And that's the problem here. Districts that have money have options. Ones that don't, well ... don't.

And thanks to Faber and friends, fewer districts have options because the state has cut money to school districts by $515 million over the last couple budgets. In addition, money lost to charters and vouchers have gone way up. So districts have significantly fewer options simply because Faber's colleagues won't fund education the way it needs to be funded.

Which is a nice segway into the real reason for Faber's newly found concern with deregulating education -- politics. For the last several years, the main complaints of the state's superintendents has focused on unfunded mandates and the fact that districts aren't on the same regulatory footing as charter schools. This argument is especially prevalent in wealthy, suburban schools that don't receive that much state aid anyway.

What Faber is counting on is the elimination of some unfunded mandates will buy silence from the Ohio education community when the General Assembly flat funds or cuts school funding (despite a budget surplus), barely does anything with charter schools, lets vouchers expand, or does anything else that could significantly hurt children in our state's public school districts.

What that silence will do, though, is hurt schools that depend more heavily on state aid -- namely poor districts. It won't matter that districts don't have to meet some regulation if they don't have enough money to buy books, go on field trips, or do much beyond keep on the lights and pay teachers $30,000 a year.

In addition, my guess is the top third performing districts, as Faber mentions in Gongwer, will be determined by Performance Index Score, which is how the state determines whether charter schools should open in districts to compete with these lower performing districts. The problem with that is Performance Index Score is nearly perfectly correlated with wealth. So without controlling for demographic variables that we know impact these proficiency scores, we'll essentially be letting wealthy school districts off the accountability hook and hammering districts who were unlucky enough to be serving our most at-need youth -- districts, it could be argued, that actually should be free to experiment more, not less.

What else we'll find is that some high-performing school districts may be underperforming their demographics, while low performers outperform them. Shouldn't we reward districts that are exceeding expectations, even if those expectations aren't as high as, say, Beachwood or Orange? And why should districts that have every demographic advantage be rewarded if they are failing to live up to the necessary standards? Maybe an urban district's 85 performance index score is more impressive than a suburban district's 103? Yet I doubt that Faber's idea will incorporate this level of nuance into the discussion.

We also know that children have many different kinds of intelligence and skill, yet we only test analytical right now -- the area in which poor kids struggle the most. Maybe some districts have kids that struggle on analytics, but they're off the charts on creativity and innovation. Shouldn't they be freed up to continue that work?

There is some merit to using the regulatory structure to encourage innovation and ideas in learning. And if Faber's talking about doing something like Delisle -- letting districts that perform well more options to meet regulatory requirements, then it's less problematic. However, simply eliminating that structure for the state's wealthiest school districts so you can justify the continued state failure to live up to its constitutional obligation to all of our children. Well, that is extremely cynical.

We're better than that, even if our political leaders sometimes stray. I hope our state's education leaders don't take this devil's bargain. Our kids need them to stay strong.