Wednesday, March 19, 2014

RtT Report: Ohio's 3rd Grade Unfunded Mandate a Significant Challenge

Ever since Ohio won its $400 million Race to the Top (RttT) grant in 2010 -- about a year before the current regime took office -- the federal government has generated annual progress reports. This year's just came out today.

Nothing in Ohio's progress report was particularly noteworthy as excellent, unlike other states' (only Ohio's inability to get district buy-in on equitable distribution of teachers caught EdWeek's eye). However, I noticed something interesting on page 4 of the report. Here's how it reads under the overall "Challenges" section:
Legislative changes throughout Year 3, including changes to the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and modifications to State requirements for the student growth component of educator evaluation ratings, posed significant communication and implementation challenges for the State.
 As you, dear reader, know, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee in Ohio has been one of the hallmarks of Gov. John Kasich's plan for education reform. And it sounds good, right? I mean, who doesn't think that all kids should be reading by the end of Third Grade?

Well, instead of investing about $1 billion in the initiative during the preliminary phase, as Florida did when it instituted the guarantee in 2002 (during a recession, I might add), which put reading coaches in every K-3 classroom in the state, Ohio put $13 million into it during the first year. That amount, even House Education Chairman Gerald Stebelton agreed, was "inadequate."

In Gov. John Kasich's new school funding formula, there is about $100 million a year earmarked for early reading. However, because the state now includes several line items in the formula that used to be on top of the formula amount, that $100 million is, in effect, much less.

There is little doubt, though -- even assuming the full amount set aside is spent on early reading -- that the investment in ensuring student success is much less in Ohio than it was in Florida, which still has kids repeating Third Grade, by the way. However, that number has been cut in about half since the initiative began.

By the way, there remain serious questions about whether retaining kids will actually hurt them in the long run, leading to higher dropout rates and other serious consequences.

Irrespective of that, though, what the RttT report demonstrates pretty clearly is that the current leadership's decision to implement one of the most potentially onerous unfunded mandates ever thrust upon school districts (estimates place the number at nearly 20,000 Third Graders being retained ) poses significant challenges to districts that are already struggling with significantly fewer resources than they had two biennia ago, as well as significantly more money going out the door to less successful charter schools and, increasingly, private schools.

So there is more required of schools, and far fewer resources with which to accomplish those very laudable requirements. If even federal program reviewers recognize the enormous challenges these unfunded state mandates pose to Ohio's educational system, I hope that Ohio's leaders recognize the potential issue they have created as well. That way they can actually fund the initiative so it has a reasonable chance of success, or do a phased-in implementation to allow the program to grow slowly into success.

Otherwise, I fear all lawmakers have done is set up schools and, more importantly, children for failure.