July 25, 2016

Mostly cloudy

Strickland relights the fire under Ohio education reform

By JOHN GLADDEN | Staff Columnist

Agree or disagree with the public education reforms Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland unveiled in his State of the State Address last week, you’ve got to give him one thing:

He is the first Buckeye governor in recent memory to behave as if the state public school system is a state responsibility.

Ever since the Ohio Supreme Court declared the state’s public education system unconstitutional in 1994 because its over-reliance on local property taxes made some districts rich and some poor, a parade of governors and legislators effectively ignored the issue, hoping it would go away. They have been partly successful. The challenges have not gone away, but the pressure did, after the court, Pilate-like, washed its hands of the matter in 2003.

Strickland has rekindled the fire under the General Assembly. And that’s a welcome thing. There is nothing more fundamental to the health of our communities and our economy than our schools. They belong at the top of Ohio’s agenda and budget, not at the bottom. Public education is administered by local school boards, and supported by local taxpayers, but it is the state’s constitutional baby.

At last, a governor has stood up and said we need to stop hanging new air fresheners from the rear-view mirror of this bus and get on with overhauling the engine.

“It is absolutely clear to me that simply tinkering with centuries-old education practices will not prepare Ohio’s children for success in college, in the workplace, or in life,” Strickland said in his address.

Among the proposals that would change the landscape of public education in Ohio:

 increase the number of days in the school year;

 establish all-day kindergarten;

 replace the Ohio graduation test with the ACT college entrance test;

 require more training and accountability for educators;

 promote more community engagement in schools;

 require service learning projects for seniors;

 foster greater student creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, leadership and adaptability;

 increase the state’s share of the costs, decreasing the burden on local taxpayers.

Would anyone care to stand up and say any one of those is a bad thing?

Naturally, there were some who immediately called Strickland’s ideas unaffordable and unworkable. Among the loudest critics were some of the veteran legislators who have been sitting on their hands on the issue for the better part of two decades.

Strickland is nothing if not deliberate. Having interviewed him twice during his campaign for governor — and getting virtually nothing out of him regarding public education — I’m convinced Strickland did not ride into office with this education agenda. I believe him when he says it’s taken years to devise and will take years to implement, if Ohio is to put any of it into practice.

You don’t have to love everything Strickland has rolled out. There are parts of the plan that should delight every interest group, and others that should be a burr under its saddle. That’s where the legislative work of debate and consensus-building begins.

Sometimes, when you’ve got no money is the very best time to make fundamental changes, to rebuild and retool and refocus. When Ohio was comparatively flush with cash, it spent the money on everything but K-12 education reform. Now is the best time to get back to basics.

Nothing will happen overnight, nor should it. What we need to do is blow on this fire and keep it going. In the meantime, we can make the most critical investment of all: our attention.

In his speech, Strickland quoted from a lecture American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson gave during the economic panic of 1837, in the midst of bank failures and a reeling economy.

“If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of Revolution …” Emerson asked, rhetorically. “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Gladden may be contacted at gladden@ohio.net or 330-721-4052.