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Flexibility needed for school districts

This past summer, despite historic drops in state revenue, my colleagues and I in the General Assembly rightly worked to prioritize, and for the most part, protect funding for all school districts in Gov. Ted Strickland’s education proposal.

While some districts received a small cut, they fared much better than most other areas of the budget, and the large disparities in funding between high-wealth and low-wealth schools in the Strickland Administration’s original spending plan were stabilized.

However, I said after the budget bill passed in July that by no means was school funding in Ohio solved and the debate over education policy, and particularly the governor’s evidence-based model, would continue.

Along those lines, there were two mandates on local school districts included in the budget that I believe should be revisited.

First, the administration’s education proposal requires that all Ohio school districts offer all-day kindergarten by the fall of 2010. During budget deliberations, State Superintendent Deborah Delisle testified before the Senate Finance & Financial Institutions Committee that if a school district needed relief from this mandate, they could obtain a waiver almost automatically from the Ohio Department of Education.

Now, there is concern that schools will have a much more difficult time getting approved for a waiver even if they do not have the space or other resources to accommodate these additional students.

Also, the governor’s evidence-based model calls for all kindergarten to third grade classes in the state to operate with a 19-to-1 student-teacher ratio by the 2011-2012 school year.

However, the reality for many local districts is that class sizes are growing because of shrinking school budgets.

State Senator Gary Cates (R-Butler County), who is chair of the Senate Education Committee, recently introduced legislation that seeks to slow implementation of these policy changes to give local schools more time to gather information about the new rules and decide how best to proceed.

Senate Bill 173 would delay the effective date of all-day kindergarten until the 2011-2012 academic year and push back implementation of the student-teacher ratio mandate until at least the 2012-2013 school year.

The bill, which has had three hearings in the education committee, should be considered seriously.

My colleagues and I on the education committee have also heard testimony on several other proposals over the past few weeks.

State Sen. Jon Husted (R-Kettering) gave sponsor testimony on Oct. 20 urging support for Senate Bill 180, legislation that would make several changes to Ohio education law to help our state better compete for federal Race to the Top dollars.

These reforms include allowing student performance to be linked to teacher evaluations, removing certain restrictions on the growth of community schools and making Teach for America participants eligible for a teaching license in Ohio.

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top program was announced by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan earlier this year.

In addition, Sen. Cates sponsored Senate Bill 167, which would reform Ohio’s rating system for school districts to prevent a school from dropping more than one classification simply for not meeting federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards for certain subgroups of students. Under current law, high-performing school districts have seen their state rating drop from “Excellent” to “Continuous Improvement” solely based on AYP performance. The bill has had three hearings.

The education committee is also considering legislation that would require the State Board of Education to examine dropout prevention and recovery programs in school districts across the state; a bill to allow public high schools to employ a law enforcement officer; a proposal to address concerns with electronic bullying in schools; and a plan to require Ohio schools to adopt a policy focused on the prevention of teen dating violence.

I look forward to hearing future testimony on these and other bills in the education committee, and I will continue to do everything I can to improve Ohio’s education system, while working to ensure that state laws do not put an undue burden on our local school districts.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.