Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Amstutz Delivers

I have to admit something. When Ohio House Finance Chairman Ron Amstutz announced earlier this year that he would be heading up a committee that would hear testimony about how to develop a new school funding formula, I was extremely skeptical. I know Amstutz a little bit. He gave my farewell speech from his side of the aisle when I left the House (much to his enjoyment, I imagine).

I've always known him to be a good, trustworthy guy. But I figured his leadership team wouldn't let him hold the hearings, especially close to an election, allowing people all over the state to remind everyone about the $1.8 billion in education cuts Amstutz passed through the General Assembly last year.

But I was wrong. Amstutz has held hearings. They have been more scripted than ones I held during the House Bill 1 debate in 2009. But that's a matter of style, not necessarily substance. I like letting people talk and speak their mind, even if it means I have to stick around for hours and hours. Amstutz, being, shall we say, wiser, prefers succinct expedience.

From one former journalist to another, I have to say that Amstutz has delivered a substantive series of hearings. Yes, they have been overwhelmingly dominated by one side of the argument. There has been no real counterpoint to the Eric Hanusheks, Rick Hesses, and other conservative education reformers, which would have really given the hearings much needed balance. During the House bill 1 debates, the conservatives would not testify before my committee, except for Terry Ryan from Fordham Institute, even though I invited them to do so. Paul Hill, from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, met with me in my office and spent about an hour eviscerated my work on the EBM. But ultimately, Mr. Hill, like the others, chose instead to testify publicly only in the Senate.

Yes, there have been several extremely misleading pieces of testimony during Amstutz's hearings, especially from former Ohio Department of Education official Paolo DeMaria about how Charter School funding works. But you know what? It's been done in public and Amstutz has not been afraid to stick his neck out there.

As the only one in this state who can really relate to Amstutz's current responsibility of overhauling a school funding system, I applaud his willingness to face the scrutiny like an adult. I really respect him for it, though I strongly disagree with much of what's been put forward at these hearings.

I think Amstutz really wants to get this right. I think he is a grownup in the room, especially about being sensitive to the number of property tax levies state budget cuts have caused. However, I also know his leadership team and their feelings toward public education. I hope Chairman Amstutz's methodical, thoughtful approach wins out next year as the new funding system is shaped.

Again, I find myself extremely skeptical.

However, Ron Amstutz has surprised me before.

Perhaps he will again.