Best Innovation in Gov. Kasich’s Education Plan: Straight A Fund

Within the blitz of publicity and debate around Governor John Kasich’s education improvement plan over the past week is a gem of an idea that is worth calling out for its tremendous potential to move Ohio’s public schools boldly into the future.

The Straight A Innovation Fund proposal calls for $300 million in state funds over two years to support innovative projects that improve efficiency and performance in local schools and districts. These one-time grants, to be offered in Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015, are designed to modernize operations and achieve cost savings that can be invested in the classroom.

The governor plans to have strong accountability and metrics for success, and would assign the administration and oversight of the grant program to a third-party entity, much like the state’s Third Frontier economic development program. The innovation fund is part of a larger package of school funding and education improvement proposals, all of which must be approved by the Ohio General Assembly.

States historically have not participated – or participated well – in promoting innovation or research and development. That has largely been supported by the federal government or private entities, like philanthropic foundations. For instance, in Ohio, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and KnowledgeWorks directed more than $50 million to support high school reform initiatives over the past decade, which leveraged some state funding support. Currently, through the federal Race to the Top grant dollars, the state is working with Ohio schools and districts to implement reforms within the $400 million grant.
And on a regional level, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Social Innovation Fund is a partnership of more than a dozen local grantmakers supporting innovative and effective community solutions for children from cradle to career. That fund, with the support of a two-year, $2 million grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, will result in $7 million in aligned investments in the region over two years.

Philanthropic foundations for the past several years have been calling on the state to create such an innovation fund. For instance, in 2009, in its “Beyond Tinkering” report, the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (renamed this year as Philanthropy Ohio) outlined the need for a state innovation fund “to seed transformative educational innovation, support and scale up of successful educational enterprises, and build a strong culture to support these activities in local communities and throughout the state’s system of public education.”

The need for the public education system to reinvent itself has never been greater. Higher standards and expectations will be confronting school districts in the next few years as Ohio implements the Common Core standards, and those expectations are coming at a time when education resources are still limited. Finding new ways to do more with less remains the norm, a call we attempted to answer through the Ohio Smart Schools initiative in 2011.
The state did, however, actually try its hand at innovation funding in the past. In 1993, the Ohio General Assembly and the State Board of Education established the Ohio Venture Capital grant program, which awarded $25,000 grants to schools that pursued permanent transformative change at the school building level. Within two years of its creation in 1993, the grant program issued nearly 350 grants and was viewed as a successful model to seed small-scale innovation even as the program lacked rigorous documentation of success.

This time, however, the state can draw from successful examples nationwide of innovation reform initiatives, both publicly and privately funded, to shape the details of the Straight A fund. Those innovative models will help Ohio become more innovative through this latest – and most promising – education proposal.

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