Top schools get a pass on toughest mandates

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

More than half of the 49 school districts in central Ohio earned high-enough grades on recent report cards to avoid many of the requirements in Gov. Ted Strickland's education overhaul. Statewide, 270 of the 610 school districts that receive report cards from the state scored high enough to be exempt from new policies aimed at improving Ohio public schools.

Although all schools eventually must offer all-day kindergarten, provide gifted-student services and report annually on how they spend funding from the state, districts receiving an A on state report cards will not have to meet other requirements named in the state budget passed in July.

For example, districts rated excellent or excellent with distinction -- the equivalent of an A or better -- will not have to limit class sizes to 15 students or fewer per teacher in kindergarten through third grade. They also won't have to employ family and community liaisons, nor must they offer summer remediation. However, those rated one notch lower -- "effective," the equivalent of a B -- must meet state mandates, even though the difference between those districts might stem from a few students' test scores.

Adding potential confusion: Districts sometimes fluctuate between report-card grades, meaning a district could be exempt one year but, at least in theory, have to meet the requirements the next year -- or vice versa.

While district officials have sought flexibility, some are concerned about the rule that they still issue annual spending reports. The forms, yet to be created by the Ohio Department of Education, are expected to show how much state aid a district received to meet criteria in the evidence-based model and how it was spent. "The perception we're fearing is that people will say, 'You're being funded based on a kindergarten ratio of 19 to 1 but your classes are 24 to 1,' " said Jennifer Vanover, treasurer of Licking Heights schools, which earned an A. "As long as it can be communicated that the model the governor's putting out there is to determine funding, but not implying it has to be spent that way, that would be a help. It's very confusing to the general public that with this new evidence-based model, they are going to perceive that's how we have to spend our money. That's not the implication. It's simply a means of funding us."

Amanda Wurst, spokeswoman for Strickland, said high-performing districts earned flexibility in how they spend aid, and the reports offer accountability. "Those districts are already meeting the goals of the evidence-based model, so there is no need to change what they are doing," she said. Under the budget, "the higher the rating, the greater the flexibility the rules shall provide. Districts rated excellent shall not be subject to the expenditure standards but shall comply with the reporting standards."

The first requirement of the evidence-based model will be all-day kindergarten -- something all districts must offer regardless of their rating -- at the start of the 2010-11 school year. Smaller class sizes are to be phased in by the 2014-15 school year.

The Education Department is developing a time frame for the other components and guidelines for seeking waivers. Superintendent Deborah S. Delisle has said her goal is to give higher-performing districts more flexibility.