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Ohio teachers facing new challenges this school year

CINCINNATI (AP) — The most-used punctuation among Ohio educators preparing for the new school year is probably the question mark.

A number of changes for schools will begin playing out as classes resume this month, and their full impact isn’t known.

A recent overhaul of the way the state funds schools has some officials uncertain of exact dollar amounts. Some schools have also complained about what they see as continued inequities. In addition, an end to a state property tax rollback is expected to make passing school levies even tougher.

Proponents say the changes will better prepare students and make schools operate more efficiently and educators more accountable. Republican Gov. John Kasich and the GOP-controlled legislature have also taken steps to add funding and expand vouchers for private and charter schools, which backers say gives parents more choices about their children’s education.

There are new early elementary reading mandates, curriculum standards, teacher evaluations and changes in the way schools will be rated.

“The upcoming school year will bring many changes for both teachers and their students,” said Michele Prater, spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association representing school teachers and other employees. “Changes in policies … present many unknowns for teachers, leaving them feeling apprehensive about how these reforms will affect their students, their careers and their profession.”

Kasich pushed for the new Third Grade Reading Guarantee to require students to be proficient before leaving third grade, saying there’s a strong correlation between early reading skills and future learning ability. However, some critics said the mandate was rushed through, and the legislature had to revisit it with a bill temporarily expanding teacher eligibility to head off an anticipated shortage of educators.

Schools in Ohio and many other states are implementing Common Core curriculum standards aimed at focusing classes on preparing students for college and their careers. Ohio is also linking teacher evaluations to student test results and beginning to phase in a new school performance rating system. Instead of grades such as “excellent” and “continuous improvement,” A-F letter grades will be used on school report cards in coming years, with components such as graduation rates, closing performance gaps and achievement.

“We can figure out where we’re strong and where we’re weak, and then get about fixing it,” Kasich said this year during his State of the State address.

Kasich’s long-anticipated overhaul of Ohio’s troubled school-funding formula underwent changes after going to legislators, and school administrators say they probably won’t know their exact dollar amounts until weeks after classes begin.

“We’re still uncertain about the school funding,” said Tom Perkins, superintendent of Northern Local Schools east of the Columbus area. He’s also president of the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools, a group critical of the new funding plan. It says dozens of schools in low-income districts get no additional money, while some wealthy districts gain dollars.

Perkins said his district’s costs continue to rise, resulting in staff cuts even as it has excelled academically. He said the schools are prepared for the new mandates and rating changes but waiting to see how they unfold in detail.

“We’ve performed pretty well,” Perkins said. “But I still have questions about the matrix (that will be used).”

State funding for K-12 education has increased in the new budget by some 4 percent, with most schools getting more money. State education officials have emphasized that no district will get less money for this school year.

Ohio has also added new potential sources for funds for special needs and competitive grants for innovation through the Straight A Fund.

However, schools and union officials say the funding increase doesn’t offset earlier state cuts, the end of federal stimulus help, and reduced property tax revenues at a time when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get voters to go for school levies.

“On the funding question itself, schools in general were pleased they didn’t lose money,” said Damon Asbury, legislative director for the Ohio School Boards Association. “There are some equity issues, particularly with the low-wealth districts.”

Those districts and some suburban and urban districts that have already seen voters reject repeated levy requests now lose 12.5 percent in state subsidies for future levies.

“We think this will make it more difficult to pass levies,” Asbury said. “People are already looking at this as a tough time …. on average, it takes two or three ballot attempts.”

Changes even extend to the schools’ athletic fields. Legislators approved a measure to facilitate home-schooled students’ participation on public school teams, though some school officials have voiced questions about eligibility rules and liability issues.