Monday, July 02, 2007

Ed. Budget Recap

Where Have We Been?

The dust has pretty much settled regarding the budget. Governor Strickland did indeed veto the Special Ed Scholarships provision, a number of other education provisions and 38 line items in all. Reaction over the weekend from Jill, BSB and DailyKos, and a heads up pre-veto post from Len.

I’m still sifting through One item that didn’t get much attention regards the conflicts between traditional schools and charters. With some frequency schools have disputes about where a particular student is enrolled. One question is what to do about the money while that dispute is being resolved. Legislators tried to impose a new rule whereby the charter school, would get the money pending resolution of the dispute. The Governor vetoed that change, so the local school district does not have to forward the money to the charter until it is established that a student is actually enrolled there.

This budget process generally saw a school privatization movement that is increasingly aggressive and increasingly adept at generating grassroots interest. Traditional school advocates, on the other hand, continue to rely to heavily on “stakeholder” groups. Legislative committees heard from families speaking in favor of EdChoice, parochial schools fairly demanding to be paid by the state to educate special ed students and parents arguing against the governor’s proposed new restrictions on charter schools.

Now frankly, most of what happened in the General Assembly was wired. Enough of the majority is dedicated to the incremental erosion of the public school system that testimony was only intermittently relevant. Nonetheless, if the stakeholder groups want to continue having a stake to hold, they need to take their case to the people better than they have been doing.

As for the Governor, this has to be seen as a strong political victory for the Strickland Administration. The tactic from the start appeared to be to offer a budget modest in both spending and ambition to give the Governor some political breathing space. This was my impression and was consistent with the background I got.

The tactic worked. At the ODP Dinner, Strickland declared that he proposed a budget that kept spending to the lowest level in years and offered a huge tax cut and the General Assembly was so taken aback they had no choice but to pass it unanimously.

The only drama was whether the Governor would break the peace by using his line-item veto. In retrospect, we needn’t have worried. After all, the GA didn’t exactly pass the budget exactly as proposed. They took out restrictions on vouchers and charters and weren’t open to negotiating real reform to improve accountability. They added a new voucher proposal that was so bad it died in Committee in the last General Assembly. (Don’t listen to Husted singing laments for disabled kids – if he thought it was a good idea it would have past last year when they had a Governor who would sign it.)

Finally, bloggers did well. I was particularly pleased to see so many folks pick up on the special ed voucher provision after breaking it here. It was a case of overlapping interests for me – my organization was lobbying against it and I personally thought it was a bad idea. Anyway, thanks to Jill, Dave, the Plunderkids, BSB and anyone else I might have missed for playing ball on it.

Where We Going?

The budget was a two-year spending plan only. The Governor wisely did not tackle the thorny problem of education funding reform all at once. The DeRolph Court held that the funding formula is unconstitutional in part because it relies excessively on local property taxes. A funding fix will necessarily require some sort of tax swap – more state revenue and cuts in local property taxes. The budget took the first steps, but a full reform package would have been foolishly complex for the first budget of the new administration.

Nonetheless, the indications are that the Governor’s office remains committed to reforming the system. Word is that he is planning to meet with the ed groups. Meanwhile, with Schuring running for Congress, he will no doubt trot out his reform proposal again and get some interest from Republicans who want to give him credibility for his run.

The other side will no doubt keep working as well. This was at least the second time they tried special ed vouchers and, as I said, they generated some real grassroots issue. They will try again if only to embarrass Strickland into another easy-to-frame veto. Or they might try to package some targeted vouchers into an overall reform package, making it harder to oppose, and possibly even a good idea.

Whatever happens, this will not be summer vacation for education policy.