Editorial: Outside the box–True school-funding reform would be less about inputs and more about results

4/25/09

Columbus Dispatch Editorial

With his education plan and its recent revision by Ohio House Democrats, Gov. Ted Strickland claims credit for being the first governor in 18 years to try to comply with the DeRolph ruling in which the Ohio Supreme Court ordered a revamping of the state’s school-funding system. Despite the glaring lack of a plan to pay for it, he believes he has proposed a thorough and efficient education system that would pass court muster.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Strickland-Ohio House plan is the only approach to overhauling Ohio’s schools.

Truly changing the way money flows — change enough to improve students’ performance — requires something very different from spending a bit more on all the traditional expenses, which essentially is Strickland’s approach. It requires reconfiguring the system so that money is allocated to students and their schools, not school districts and their administrators.

“Follow the student” funding has been championed for years by education reformers such as the Dayton-based Fordham Institute and University of Washington professor Paul Hill, whose Forum column in the April 19 Dispatch criticized Strickland’s plan for attempting to prescribe the ideal education for everyone.

Instead, reformers argue, states should allocate dollars based on actual students — a given amount for each child, with extra allocated to meet special challenges, including poverty, disability and lack of English-language skills. In fund-the-student models, those dollars follow students to whatever schools they attend, including private and charter schools.

School principals would have budgets based on their students and, ideally, would be given latitude to spend the money in the ways that will help their students most. In some cases, that might be extra teachers or reading tutors; in others, it might be a new computer curriculum or an after-school program with homework helpers.

Instead, states primarily allocate huge sums of money to school districts, where large central-office bureaucracies soak up too much of it in administrative expenses before parceling out the rest to set-in-concrete programs that have been in place through decades of little or no academic progress.

The Strickland plan follows the old pattern by prescribing personnel configurations in detail, specifying how many administrators, instructional specialists, librarians and nurses should be hired.

House members tried to make it more flexible. For example, their revised plan takes into account the education level of a child’s parents in determining what funding weight to give that child. The intent is admirable, but it shows the complexity of trying to make a formula work for Ohio’s diverse schools and students.

The revised plan also keeps some of the most innovative elements of Stricklan’s plan, including lengthening the school year by 20 days (after a phase-in of many years), requiring new teachers to serve longer apprenticeships and making it easier to fire teachers who aren’t effective.

Those changes are bold because they’re bound to be opposed by teachers unions and others with a vested interest in the education status quo.

But even with fixes, the education system that inspired the DeRolph case remains far from ideal. As Ohioans continue to grapple with the education problem, they should consider alternatives that depart from the current model.