COLUMBUS Ohio Governor-elect Ted Strickland told the state s largest teacher union yesterday that he would rebuild public school financing, without explaining what that new edifice would look like.
All of us are committed to one great goal, and that is to have a system of education in the great state of Ohio that rivals any system in the country that is constitutionally funded, Mr. Strickland told the more than 1,000 cheering teacher union representatives.
There is so much work to be done, but the opportunity is great, said the governor-elect, who staked the success of his administration on giving all students equal access to a high quality education.
In an interview after his speech to the Ohio Education Association, Mr. Strickland said his plan would grow out of a consensus from teachers, parents, businessmen, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Mr. Strickland did not rule out increasing state taxes nor place a timetable on reforms the Ohio Supreme Court requested nine years ago.
Accuracy is more important than speed, said Mr. Strickland, a Democratic congressman from southeast Ohio who captured the governorship in November.
Taking the lead
Mr. Strickland has no intention of forming a blue ribbon commission to examine the complex infrastructure of public school financing, which relies primarily on local property taxes, in addition to state and federal taxes.
The ultimate restructuring will come out of gubernatorial leadership, he said.
If the eventual school-funding proposal he submits to the Ohio legislature fails to gain traction with majority Republicans, Mr. Strickland said he intends to push for a ballot issue so the entire state could vote on a plan to level the inequalities among local school districts.
Republican legislators yesterday emphasized their willingness to find common ground with Mr. Strickland but said there is little room for debate without any concrete elements of a plan put together.
There s nothing for us to react to, other than general statements, said House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering).
During the campaign, [Mr. Strickland] was very critical of our building blocks approach to school funding, Mr. Husted explained.
That s fine. We understand people can have different approaches to a solution.
Mr. Husted said the building-block proposal was based on student needs, such as poverty indicators.
State Rep. Mark Wagoner (R., Toledo) looks forward to working with Mr. Strickland but cautioned, Raising taxes would be a wrong step for Ohio.
State Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo) countered that any discussion of rearranging state taxes for public education is premature, unless all parties can first agree on shared goals for reform.
The core issue
Further shaping public debate is current Gov. Bob Taft s call to establish an Ohio Core, which would require any Ohio high school graduates seeking to attend a state university to first complete a rigorous math, English, science, and foreign language curriculum.
Mr. Strickland favors the idea of the curriculum but opposes any unfunded mandates on public schools or programs that could relegate the arts and humanities to second-tier disciplines.
With Republicans set to hold a majority in both the state House and Senate when they convene next year, Mr. Ujvagi said that Mr. Strickland s decision to consider his administration a failure if school funding remains unchanged during his term in office is quite a challenge.
Mr. Strickland began reaching across the aisle yesterday amid the relative safety of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium near downtown Columbus, where the OEA had its fall assembly.
Nametags imitating a rock concert billed the event as Tedapalooza II, a reference to Mr. Strickland s appearance at an OEA conference in May.
The political action committee of the OEA gave Mr. Strickland a $10,000 campaign contribution, according to campaign finance records. School employees donated in excess of $80,000 to Mr. Strickland.
The Black Eyed Peas hit Let s Get It Started ushered Mr. Strickland to the podium as OEA delegates waved Day-Glo orange and electric blue signs in support of the governor-elect.
Mr. Strickland opened his speech by thanking any Republicans in attendance, an act that drew applause from the crowd.
Dean Conley, a high school teacher in Canfield, Ohio, said the gesture demonstrated Mr. Strickland s ability to straddle partisan lines. A registered Republican, Mr. Conley voted for Mr. Strickland.
Jerry Oberhaus, a junior high science teacher from Liberty Center, Ohio, said Mr. Strickland s foothold with the OEA comes from a common world view that places education as an integral part of the state s future.
He sees education as the foundation of our economy, rather than a competing force, Mr. Oberhaus said.
After his speech, Mr. Strickland called education the primary constitutional responsibility of state government. He attributes that frame of reference to the 1997 Ohio Supreme Court DeRolph ruling.
That 4-3 decision stated that the current methods of funding public education in Ohio did not provide for a thorough and efficient systems of common schools, in which students in city, suburban, and rural districts receive comparable educational opportunities.
The evidence reveals that the wide disparities are caused by the funding system s overreliance on the tax base of individual school districts, former Justice Francis Sweeney wrote in the court s majority opinion. What this means is that the poor districts simply cannot raise as much money even with the identical tax effort.
Andre Taylor, an elementary school art teacher from Twinsburg, Ohio, said he wants the state to equalize school funding, but he flinched at the suggestion that this could raise the state sales or state income tax.
You have to look at the whole picture, he said. No one ever said we re going to raise taxes to pay for the highways. They just seem to do it.
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