Like schoolchildren anticipating the start of summer vacation, members of the Ohio General Assembly want to clear their agendas this week so they can return to their districts, many to campaign for re-election. In their rush to go home, they should not damage public schools.
The second year of the current state budget begins July 1. That means a new round of cuts for local districts such as Toledo Public Schools. Gov. John Kasich's budget update, approved by lawmakers in May, did not restore any previous cuts in aid to education, despite a projected state surplus of nearly $350 million.
This week, the Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill that addresses two important education issues. One provision seeks to guarantee that third-graders read at an appropriate level before they are promoted. House and Senate members disagree on the proficiency third-graders must show. The Senate bill includes $13 million to help districts defray the cost of tutors and other expenses.
The Senate and House versions have problems. The House bill, which reflects Mr. Kasich's proposal, sets the reading bar so high that if it had been in effect during the 2010-2011 school year, one out of eight third-graders — 17,000 students — would have been held back. That would have led to overcrowded third-grade classrooms and made it harder to meet the mandate in later years.
The House plan also provides no money to pay for the guarantee, further stressing local schools. Columbus should impose no new mandates on local districts until lawmakers begin to restore badly needed funding they have slashed.
The Senate plan sets standards that are too low. It requires that students only test in the "basic" range to be promoted, then provides loopholes so that schools won't have to meet the weaker standard either.
The Senate may amend the bill to allow the State Board of Education to set the promotion standard. That outcome at least would provide more time for thoughtful discussion before such a drastic change is made.
The other provision before the Senate would assign schools and districts letter grades on their annual state report cards. They now get designations such as "excellent" or "academic emergency." The bill proposes switching to grades of A to F, and making the system more rigorous so that few schools would receive an A.
District report cards should be easy for parents and taxpayers to understand. But as Toledo Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko correctly noted in a recent op-ed column in The Blade: "Using a single grade to evaluate a school or district leads to gross misrepresentation."
A grade of D or F likely would lead parents to believe that their schools had gotten worse, when they might be improving. That conclusion would endanger levy requests, at a time when more schools are going to the ballot to fill budget gaps created by state funding cuts.
The grading provision may be carved out of the education bill and dealt with after lawmakers return from recess. That could enable them to identify an approach that is neither as opaque as the current grading system nor as simplistic and misleading as letter grades.
When lawmakers adjourn this week, they aren't likely to return to Columbus until after the November election. In their rush for the exits, they should avoid doing harm to schools.