COLUMBUS, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland has started a series of televised town hall-style meetings with teachers, students and parents on how to change Ohio's education system. In the fall, he will hold more meetings on how to fix problems with school funding.
If there are two topics the state has studied and discussed, and then studied again, it's how to educate Ohio's children and how to equitably distribute the money to pay for it. For more than 150 years, the state has been trying to achieve the "thorough and efficient" education system that is required by the Ohio Constitution.
So is Strickland just repeating the methods of previous governors who have studied school reform nearly every decade since the early 1900s?
Many of the topics and ideas under consideration aren't new, but the fact that Strickland is the one doing the talking and studying is a break with the past. His intimate association with the issue raises the personal and political stakes for success and failure.
Former Gov. Bob Taft had his Blue Ribbon Task Force. George Voinovich had his Governor's Education Management council. Richard Celeste had the Education 2000 Commission. All failed to fundamentally alter Ohio's school-funding system, which the Ohio Supreme Court has repeatedly deemed unconstitutional, most recently in 2002, because it relies too heavily on local property taxes.
"In other instances the governor appointed some allegedly prestigious committee, and gave them a charge, then received a report," said William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which brought the successful constitutional challenge against the funding system. "The difference here is that Gov. Strickland himself is involved directly in the process and attempting to understand what the problems are."
Strickland's intimate involvement with trying to solve school funding will be advantageous, given the power of a bully pulpit strengthened by a governor who won't need much briefing.
"I think and I hope that my direct involvement in it will result in the people understanding that this is something that I am quite serious about," Strickland said in an interview. "I'm trying to approach this in a way that is not top down but is more like something that percolates up from communities in Ohio."
His involvement also increases the pressure because he will be directly associated with whether the meetings lead to a solution. Strickland, a Democrat, has said that his legacy will be defined by whether he can solve the education problem, no matter what else he accomplishes.
House Speaker Jon Husted, a Republican, said he has no problem with Strickland holding the meetings. But he doesn't feel they are much different from what previous governors have done, and questions whether they will result in new ideas. He noted that the House and Senate filed bills in February 2007 as placeholders for the governor's education plans.
"Every governor has done this and he's doing the same thing, apparently," Husted said. "He's been more vocal in the past and set higher expectations for himself."
Strickland has been meeting with stakeholders in the education debate and traveling to schools around the state since he took office in 2007. The early meetings enabled him to outline six core principles including a greater financial commitment to schools, an individualized approach for students and a smaller emphasis on standardized testing in this year's State of the State address that will serve as the foundations for his meetings around the state.
The meetings, while a shift in tactics from Strickland's predecessors, will be measured by whether a solution follows like the commissions of those who came before him.
"If this is the only step, this process will end up like the more than a dozen studies that have been conducted since 1975," Phillis said.