A national education leader who has the ears of Gov. John Kasich and other Ohio GOP leaders says the state's education system has improved, and she hopes this year to help push additional reforms through the General Assembly.
Michelle Rhee, a former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools and founder of StudentsFirst, says spending more money on education has not improved student performance. Instead, she says, states should focus on outcomes and give teachers and local administrators more flexibility. Districts should reward teachers whose students succeed, and give parents and others more information on how money is spent.
"We think our role is to provide nuts-and-bolts policy help in crafting legislation around some of the things we are most interested in," Rhee said in an interview with The Dispatch yesterday.
She said she hopes to counter the message that lawmakers hear from teachers unions and other organized interests, using input from parents and others who "know the system is not working."
Rhee's group hired Kasich confidant Robert Klaffky in early 2011 to lobby on the state budget and Senate Bill 5, the anti-union bill later struck down by voters. Rhee worked with Kasich on crafting education changes in his previous budget, and she joined him in May 2011 for a panel discussion and a showing of the movie Waiting for Superman, which examines the failures of America's education system.
In 2012, her group worked with Kasich and lawmakers on the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, which includes allowing Cleveland schools to lay off employees based on factors other than seniority and allows for longer school days.
StudentsFirst last year helped a handful of Ohio House GOP campaigns. In December, legislative leaders invited the group to testify on its recommendations for a quality school-funding system.
Rhee said her group has spoken to key people engaged in the school-funding debate, but she does not know what Kasich plans to unveil. However, the talk circulating about Kasich's plans appears to follow principles backed by Rhee.
Kasich is expected to soon propose changes in how schools are funded. Rhee said she would like the plan to take into account that it's more expensive to educate students with certain challenges; include fewer Statehouse-generated mandates; and require more transparency on school-district finances so that spending data is uniformly reported, easy to digest and easy to compare among similar districts.
StudentsFirst has clashed with teachers unions and progressive groups over its proposals.
State Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, said she is encouraged that Rhee wants to bring accountability and transparency to charter schools, which will help deal "with some of the bad actors." But other ideas of Rhee's, such as expanding class sizes through technology and potentially having local property-tax money go to charter schools, are problematic, Phillips said.
Rhee said Ohio, like other states, spends money on things that do not produce results, such as paying teachers to get a master's degree. "The research is very clear that, except for master's degrees in math and science, master's degrees don't actually result in better outcomes for kids," she said.
Rhee added: "Highly effective teachers in this country are not paid nearly enough."
Kasich already has said that he will "empower," but not require, districts to pay teachers based on how well they do their jobs.
Rhee said Ohio has made a number of strong moves in education, adding that a new funding formula and required transparency, including for charter schools, would go even further. She said the state has a lot of work to do on improving the teaching profession, designing performance-based pay and evaluating principals.
The state, she says, needs a balance in terms of controlling what goes on inside schools. She advocates more local flexibility, with the state laying out clear benchmarks and points when it will step in to address failure.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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