Among the striking similarities between the education plans put forward by the two major party candidates for Ohio governor this year are calls for more early childhood spending, fewer state-mandated tests and increased support for needy students.
But there are differences between Democrat Rich Cordray and Republican Mike DeWine that leave voters with a clear choice over who should oversee $10 billion a year in state spending on education and influence policies impacting the education of children across the state.
One typical partisan fault line between Cordray and DeWine is over school choice.
Cordray rails against charter schools. DeWine supports them. However, in the wake of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online school closing this year, both candidates have proposals to increase charter school oversight.
Third-party candidates Constance Gadell-Newton of the Green Party and Travis Irvine of the Libertarian Party of Ohio both call for increased oversight as well, though Irvine also calls for a property tax credit for parents who send their children to private schools or home school.
Cordray proposes banning for-profits from operating charters. Meanwhile, DeWine wants online schools like ECOT to demonstrate student achievement before getting any money.
Ron Adler, head of the charter school trade group Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, isn’t a fan of either idea.
Adler said charter schools are all non-profit public schools with appointed school boards. Sometimes those boards hire for-profit management companies to run the day-to-day operations of a school, he said, the same way they pay private companies for textbooks, or food services or parking lot paving. Those for-profit school operators often perform better than public districts, he said.
“It’s basically looking for a problem that currently doesn’t exist,” he said of Cordray’s plan.
As for DeWine’s idea to withhold money from electronic schools until they prove themselves, Adler said, “It sounds pretty discriminatory. How can you create a funding structure for one set of public schools and ignore…every other public school in the state?”
ECOT’s closing has hovered over several statewide races this year, as Democrats accuse the Republicans who run state government of lax oversight leading up to the school’s shutdown. The scandal erupted when it was discovered that the school received full funding for students the school couldn’t prove logged on. The closing came after the school was ordered to repay $80 million.
Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy for the charter school think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said he sees merit in DeWine’s proposal to track whether students at electronic schools are logging on and learning, but he said any tracking system needs to be fair.
“If we funded all schools based solely on competency and how much students learn, based on state test scores, there’s a lot of schools that would only get a fraction of what they get now,” he said.
Stephen Dyer, education policy fellow at the left-leaning think tank Innovation Ohio, said removing profit motives from charter schools “is probably an idea whose time has come.”
Dyer said ECOT shows for-profit companies focus on profit margins and market share at the expense of children. “The only way you can make money (in education) is by cutting corners,” he said.
Education experts applauded overlaps in the major party candidates’ plans, which signal a possible consensus on issues such as reducing reliance on standardized tests and increasing access to subsidized, high-quality child care and preschool.
“If they’re in agreement on that, I’d like to think that whoever wins the race would be able to put something in the budget, and that the legislature will get on the same page as well,” said education policy analyst Howard Fleeter.
The third-party candidates both advocate decreasing state testing and reforming how schools are funded, but each has education plans not found in the other candidate platforms.
Gadell-Newton, for example, wants to give schools the option of turning down money for school resource officers and instead provide alternative programming aimed at breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.
Irvine’s education platform references financial incentives and rewards to schools and teachers based upon student growth.
Both Cordray and DeWine call for helping lower-income districts overcome achievement gaps. Cordray’s plan talks about neighborhood schools — schools that serve the surrounding community with health and support services – and increasing educator pay. DeWine focuses on state-funded support services, bringing more technology into classrooms and expanding vocational training.
Asked how they plan to pay for these initiatives, Cordray campaign spokesman Mike Gwin said steering money away from failing charter schools and reducing unfunded state mandates would free up money.
“Rich will also work with the legislature in his first budget to address the unconstitutional funding of public education in Ohio, and to ensure an equitable distribution of tax money so that every school, teacher, and student has the resources they need to succeed,” he said.
Josh Eck, a spokesman for DeWine, said specific commitments can’t be made until the revenue projections for next year are known, but he added: “Mike DeWine’s commitment is that properly funding education in Ohio will be one of his top priorities as Governor. Mike DeWine believes that every kid deserves a chance at success, and education is one of the best ways we can give them that shot.”
School funding is an issue that has stymied state leaders for decades. The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled 20 years ago that Ohio’s system for funding education was unconstitutional because of an over-reliance on property taxes.
The Ohio Education Policy Institute, a research group that advocates for school districts, released a report this summer that said the situation hasn’t improved much.
Ohio’s poorest districts had a 29.4 percent increase in state and local revenues in the years since the decision, while the wealthiest districts saw a 25.6 percent increase, according to the report. This leaves the state’s wealthiest districts, on average, with still more money per student than the state’s poorest.
“If we could put the funding issue in the rear-view mirror and we could focus on the policy, that would be a big deal,” said Fleeter, the report’s author.
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Fleeter released another report this month that shows a strong correlation between poverty and student performance on state test scores.
“The reason to fix the formula is so that every kid gets an opportunity to learn,” he said. “We will know we’ve don’t that when we’ve successfully closed the achievement gap.”
Greg Lawson, policy director at the conservative Buckeye Institute, said the most fundamental difference between Cordray and DeWine is how they view school funding. Lawson favors more local control, saying pumping massive amounts of state tax dollars into poor school districts has yet to move the needle.
“The way the school funding formula works, you’re going to have a pretty big tax increase in order to fund every school district equally through the state,” he said. “That’s just a fact. There’s no way to do it equally any other way.”
But Innovation Ohio’s Dyer favors a statewide funding system that doesn’t rely as much on local property taxes. The current system, he said, breeds inequity because higher-wealth districts can collect more levy money than poorer districts.
“Voters will have a very clear decision for this,” Dyer said. “Do they like having to go to the ballot all the time for levies, or do they not?”
In the current fiscal year, the poorest districts received about 30 percent of their non-federal funding from local taxes, while rich districts received about 82 percent, according to the Ohio Education Policy Institute. The state average is about 56 percent.
Early childhood education
Both Cordray and DeWine have called for increasing access to high-quality early childhood education.
Each candidate proposes increasing the eligibility threshold for state subsidized child care from 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($2,720 a month for a family of four) to 150 percent ($3,138 per month for a family of four).
DeWine’s campaign estimates that change alone will add 20,000 children to the program.
In Montgomery County, the new threshold could make about 2,400 more children five and under eligible for the program. About 1,000 of those would likely participate, according to an analysis by University of Dayton researcher Richard Stock.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services couldn’t provide an estimate of what the eligibility changes would cost the subsidized child care program, which is funded through a combination of state and local money.
Corday and DeWine also agree on having the state pay for visitation programs for new mothers and on creating a state office to focus on children’s care.
“I think it’s really promising and encouraging that both of these candidates are making a commitment to kids’ health and education issues,” said Robyn Lightcap, executive director of Learn to Earn Dayton. “I think it’s a really important step in the right direction.”
Ken Baker, executive director of the Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators, echoing a frequent battle cry from educators, said the state should reduce its reliance on standardized testing to gauge district performance.
“It’s become the be-all, end-all of education,” he said. “Our position is that there is too much time that is spent on testing in the classroom, and in preparation for testing.”
All four governor candidates say they want to reduce required testing, though the impact any Ohio governor has on standardized testing requirements is limited.
Of the 23 statewide tests administered to Ohio students, 17 are federally mandated.
Cordray has called for reducing testing to the federally mandated minimums. DeWine wants to refine the state report card system to focus on student progress instead of meeting benchmarks.
Dayton Public School officials will be watching closely to see what the next governor does with the state’s takeover law, which was pushed by Republican Gov. John Kasich and passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2015.
Under the law’s mandates, DPS will be subject to a state takeover next fall if it receives another overall grade of F on next September’s district report cards.
Cordray strongly opposes the takeover law.
“Instead of taking over local school districts, leaders in the Statehouse should be providing communities with the support and resources to ensure that every child in Ohio has the opportunity to get a quality education,” he said in a statement to this news organization.
“As governor, I’ll work to improve public education in Ohio by ending the over-testing of students, working to attract great teachers, and by holding for-profit charter school scams like ECOT accountable for the tax dollars they’ve siphoned away from public schools.”
In a recent interview, DeWine said he is “very open to discussion about the best way” to handle failing districts, though he did not say he would push to reverse the takeover mandate.
Three school districts in Ohio have been placed under state control since the law was passed.
“I’ve been in Lorain, I’ve been in Youngstown,” DeWine said of the two districts that have been under state control the longest. “I know there’s a real divergence of opinion, and I know that school board, they feel like they have been pushed aside. What we want to do is give those schools the help they need, but at the same time keep the community involved in the schools.”
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