Local Schools - State and Federal Rules
A common refrain among politicians, state and national, is that public schools should be managed at the local level. Ohio has over 600 local school districts but their boards and administrators will have to wait on Columbus and Washington to decide what the future holds for their schools.
We spoke to two representatives of local districts about their concerns for the coming year.
The new president of the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) is Denise Baba, a board member at Streetsboro City Schools in Portage County. Akron School Superintendent David James is a member of the Ohio 8 Coalition that includes leaders of Ohio’s 8 large city school districts. He will take over as Executive Director of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators (BASA) this summer.
Both James and Baba feel positive that whether it’s Washington or Columbus, education and government officials want to do what’s best for children. They would just like a little more say in the matter.
The federal government is a relatively small source of funding for Ohio schools but it can be important for districts with a lot of low income students who rely on special programs or free lunches.
New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also promises to shake things up with her focus on school choice. In September Donald Trump promised to send $20b in federal money to the states to use for school vouchers.
While DeVos’s attention on promoting private schools has frightened many public school advocates, David James says he’s been telling his colleagues that it’s harder to make big changes in Washington than they think.
“I say, ‘just be patient, calm down’ because what people say they are going to do and what you can actually get done are two different things.”
For months, Ohio has been working to develop a new education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But in March DeVos announced more flexible guidelines for states.
“Too often the Department of Education has gone outside its established authority.” said DeVos in a speech, “and created roadblocks, wittingly or unwittingly for parents and educators alike. This isn't right, nor is it acceptable. Under this administration, we will break this habit."
That’s music to the ears of Denise Baba, who wants flexibility.
“The spirit of the law was to return that control to the states and to the local school districts,” she says, “and I hoped the new administration would maintain the spirit with which that law was approved.”
DeVos went so far as to waive off the need for states to confer with stakeholders like parents, teachers, and local districts.
The day DeVos gave her speech, the Superintendent of Ohio Public Instruction, Paolo DeMaria, announced to the state school board that he would delay submitting Ohio’s ESSA plan until September. He told the board that the feds were only a “minor partner.”
“Let’s do it for our own plan; let’s do it for own reasoning. ESSA at the end of the day is a narrow slice of the things that are important to someone else who is only a minor partner in the scheme of things,” DeMaria said.
One reason DeMaria cited for the delay was that Ohio stakeholders were upset that the state’s ESSA draft plan did not reduce the large amount of testing.
Baba agreed, “Testing is a concern for school board members. The amount of testing, it takes time away from our instruction during the day.”
Those exams are either mandated by the federal government or by the state government and the new flexibility that ESSA promised to states had many Ohioans assuming some of the 7 major tests required in the Buckeye state would be dropped.
“I think it needs to be reduced more,” says David James. “I think Ohio’s plan has been to just keep everything the same as it is in current legislation and not to roll back anything. And I actually think that maybe there are some things that could be rolled back like the level of testing, how we’re testing, and what we’re testing.”
Ohio uses some standardized “value-added” tests solely to measure teacher performance. Baba says the movement to continually assess students with high stakes tests needs to be revisited.
“Testing for teachers - I’m not sure that’s the best use of our time.”
At his State of the State address this month in Sandusky Governor John Kasich let it be known he hears that.
“And I'm with all of you. There's too much testing of these kids all the time. We’ll keep working on it. Okay?”
After the audience applauded he added, “that doesn't mean no testing. We've got to find out what they're learning.”
David James says he wants testing that correlates with college and career readiness and “removes that stigma of failure in the current high stakes testing system.”
BUSINESS AND PEDAGOGY
Governor Kasich appears bent on making schools more “businesslike.” His budget proposal would require local school districts to include 3 board members from the business community.
“Now, maybe we can't find three business people,” he said in Sandusky. “I don't know. I want to put non-voting business people on the school board. Why? Because I want the non-voting business people to start telling the school board about what the curriculum ought to look like, about how we can have flexibility, about how we can have more kids out into the workforce.”
That proposal, as well as Kasich’s idea of requiring teachers to do short “externships” at businesses over the summer, has not been well received by educators or legislators.
David James of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators (BASA) and Denise Baba of the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) both came to education from business backgrounds and have said they work with area businesses.
James recently announced his Akron school district will establish career academies at all their high schools so students can get a jump on job training.
A local school district may have a particular vision of what a quality education is but the state will decide who earns a diploma. The state board of education voted to form a task force to examine revised graduation requirements which the state legislature passed in 2014 and goes into effect with the graduating class of 2018.
One member of the task force is David James.
“Whenever new rules are pushed down to local schools, there is a period of adjustment.
"It’s never easy,” James said in a March speech. “Now, students must take a series of seven end-of-course exams covering algebra I, geometry, US government, ninth- and 10th-grade English, physical science and US history, administered at the end of each course. Students earn between one and five points per exam and must earn a total of 18 points to graduate.”
Some 200 school superintendents traveled to the statehouse in Columbus in November to express their displeasure with
a the new, stricter graduation requirement that would cause an estimated 30% failure rate among today’s juniors.
Denise Baba says she understands the need to have students prepared for college or careers “but to implement a plan where potentially 30-40% of the students may not make the cut, that needs to be rethought.”
The state task force presented some alternatives that the junior class could pursue to meet their requirements. They could qualify by meeting certain conditions beyond test scores, such as community service, a 2.5 grade point average, or a good attendance rate.
The state board has not fully approved of the plan yet but even if they do the Ohio General Assembly gets the last say as they must agree to change the requirements in state law.
Baba, James, and other school officials around the state are watching closely the budget process in Columbus because it affects them directly.
The state funding formula for public schools starts with a maximum $6,000 payment that follows each student. But how much of that outlay actually gets to each district is determined by the governor and state legislators. A complicated formula gives each district a certain percentage of that funding. Those with little capacity to raise local tax levies will receive more per pupil than the districts with a strong tax base.
Ohio’s next two-year budget is being debated by the General Assembly and its final version won’t likely be known till the end of June. Under the governor’s proposal more than half the districts would get less than they do now.
The chairman of the House Education Committee, Andrew Brenner, proposed a bill to stop all local school
s levies in favor of making the state the single source of funding but that is unlikely to go anywhere.
There are a variety of education bills also making their way through the General Assembly.
There’s a bill that would require the teaching of cursive writing.
And the recently proposed HB 87 would return money that charter schools misuse to their local districts. Currently when a charter is forced to return money to the state the cash gets rolled into the general fund.
Local officials like Baba point out that some of that money may have come from local school levies.
“Tax dollars that have been locally approved by voters to support their local districts and they are siphoned off to go to a charter school.”
The bigger issue is what ability districts have to innovate and develop their curricula while still meeting standards set by state officials. Governor Kasich made this cryptic statement in his State of the State address:
“We have to get ourselves and our kids ready to take on the jobs of the future. And that requires change in our education systems, and we cannot let education get in the way of learning. We cannot let education get in the way of learning.”
The president of the Ohio School Boards Association says they are always concerned about mandates from Columbus or Washington DC.
“It’s a balancing act,” says Denise Baba. "But some of it, I think, needs more input from the folks who are in the trenches who are doing the educating and who are the instructional leaders in our districts.”