Monday, December 11, 2000

Panel to weigh in on Ohio's schools

Proposals to improve education due Thursday

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A state commission Thursdayis expected to propose sweeping changes in how Ohio teaches children, but specifically how, when and what changes are to come is unknown.

        The Ohio Governor's Commission for Student Success — made up of 33 educators, parents, public officials and business and community leaders — was asked by Gov. Bob Taft in April to recommend academic expectations and assessments to help every Ohio student succeed.

        The governor proposed the task because he thought there has not been sufficient clarity and progress in improving the state's education system.

        If the commission's recommendations are anything like those that created the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, the changes proposed will be fast and will affect every child in the state's public schools.

        One difference, though, is the commission is not tackling the issue of equalizing school funding, which the Kentucky task force did when creating its reform act.

        Still, some points discussed by the Ohio commission in the last two weeks suggest radical changes may lie ahead, including new statewide academic standards and corresponding grade-by-grade curriculum.

        Some of the proposals released last week were scaled-back testing requirements for graduation and in tensive remedial help for kids who are struggling with proficiency tests.

        Those proposals could change by Thursday, when the final recommendations are released.

        Any broad changes in the system will depend on which recommendations the governor accepts and which of those the legislature will support. Community support also will play into the decision.

Community support key
               Already, community pressure caused the commission to back off from a proposal to create in-between grades — such as 4.5 and 8.5 — for students who repeatedly fail portions of the proficiency tests.

        How the proposals will be funded raises questions as well.

        The commission will not recommend how Ohio funds the proposals, said Kevin Kellems, spokesman for the governor.

        Mr. Taft will first tackle how to implement the recommendations and then factor in costs to the state budget, Mr. Kellems said. The budget has to be signed and sent to the legislature by mid-to late-January.

        “It's hard to put the cart before the horse. The recommendations aren't final,” Mr. Kellems said. “At this point, hard numbers are hard to come by.”

        When changes may take effect is also unknown. Some of the recommendations may be rolled into legislative proposals that could be introduced by early next session, Mr. Kellems said.

Funding concerns
               Some people are already skeptical about the costs and implementation of any changes.

        Ralph Shell, superintendent of the Little Miami Local School District in Warren County, said his district may face a financial crisis by the end of 2002 and said state mandates will only mean more costs.

        “I don't have trouble with them raising expectations, but that should come with funding,” he said.

        Residents there just voted down an income tax proposal to help pay for school operating expenses. If voters won't support more money for the schools by 2002, programs will be in jeopardy, Mr. Shell has said.

        Others think the state is jumping ahead of itself by soliciting recommendations school districts won't be able to pay for.

        Several of the commission's proposals already mean extra costs for districts, such as requiring school officials to develop curriculum aligned to the new state standards.

        “You can set expectations 'til the cows come home, but that doesn't change what's in the buildings,” said William Phillis, executive director of The Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy.

        If the commission is going to recommend standards, the state will have to consider how to help schools meet those standards, Mr. Phillis said. Ohio must determine what technology, professional development and school facilities also will be needed to help students meet the standards, he added.

Budget pressures
               Also complicating funding is the economic slowdown's effect on the state budget. Medicaid costs have jumped 18 percent this fiscal year, and lawmakers are expected to pass a bill requiring the governor to make $125 million in spending cuts in other areas of the budget this fiscal year.

        “All budget items are tighter than the last budget,” Mr. Kellems said. “That impacts every program. But one area (Gov. Taft) has consistently supported is education. Education will be at the top of the list.”

        Gov. Taft also must comply with an order by the Supreme Court to make Ohio's system of funding education more equitable by June.

        Mr. Kellems said that's on the table, too, but the governor's commission is not charged with that task.


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