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The Path to Rediscovery

• Neil Ruddock

There’s an old flame burning in your eyes
That tears can’t drown and makeup can’t disguise
Now that old flame might not be stronger
But it’s been burning longer
Than any spark I might have started in your eyes

The refrain to Alabama’s classic hit encapsulates the current state of education reform in many states. The pre-No Child Left Behind coalition that historically made meaningful reform so difficult has re-discovered their old flames: for some, local control; for others, resistance to accountability. Concerns percolate nationwide around testing, technology infrastructure, curricular decisions, and data privacy as state agencies grapple with (or maneuver around) implementation of reform laws.

The country’s brightest policymakers are working through how to navigate these waters, and transitions to new assessments intensify the urgency of the task. But I hope that fellow reformers do not allow the urgency of the moment to swallow the importance of an obvious yet no-less-vital issue: money.

State coffers are recovering from the Great Recession. Trust in the federal government is approaching historical lows, but voters still provide the benefit of the doubt to state governments (for now, at least). But the reservoir of goodwill towards state governments is not guaranteed to last as younger voters grow their share of the electorate and become less trusting of other institutions.

In the meantime, while the mountain of rules and education spending has increased, the needle on student achievement has not moved nearly fast enough.

These worries remain a concern to student-focused legislators, yet they aren’t showing up in state budget bills. States simply are not putting their fingernails into education finance reform in any meaningful way.

Ohio has taken a leading role with its Straight A Fund, providing $250 million in competitive grants over the current biennium to reward schools, districts, and local partners for boosting student achievement and driving more dollars to the classroom. But Ohio should not be alone, and right now they are. Too many states are settling for modest line items that offer the financial equivalent of a golf-clap-thank-you to teachers in STEM subjects or high-need areas, while leaving unchallenged the river of money used to reward professionals for simply growing a year older or earning evidence-lacking credentials. States claim the talking point without moving the needle. (And let’s be clear, creating bonuses for ”high performing” teachers based on new teacher evaluation systems still counts as a talking point, until the results of these systems begin proving otherwise.)

The next several months provide a window of opportunity for fiscal conservatives to take advantage of states’ healthier balance sheets and demand meaningful changes. As new money is allocated to education, legislators—and taxpayers—should be assured that it won’t be squandered. This is the opportunity to shift from fee-for-service systems that hope for the best to funding models that reward results (like Florida’s School Recognition Program) and create incentives for performance (like Arizona’s Student Success Funding plan or the AP Incentive Program.)

Systematic finance reform will not get easier if we wait until the next downturn, and it won’t happen in a single step. But we need to channel the energy for local innovation created by the Common Core debate, and begin a more honest conversation about what happens when the K-12 system cashes taxpayers’ checks.

I take pride in my native Ohio. But I hope they’re not the leaders in K-12 finance innovation for long.

About the author

Neil Ruddock

Neil serves as a Regional Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Neil serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Central region and his portfolio of states includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Contact Neil at