3 things to like (and 3 not to like) about Ohio’s education deregulation bill

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Scrapping regulations that burden schools, have little to do with student learning, and restrict local flexibility and autonomy is a worthy undertaking. Over the past few years, Ohio legislators have taken small but commendable steps in providing regulatory relief for public schools. For example, Senate Bill 3, enacted in December 2016, provides flexibility for high-performing school districts around various staffing regulations. Last month, the Senate passed legislation intended to further pare down regulations. With unanimous support, Senate Bill 216—known as the Ohio Public School Deregulation Act—now heads to the House for consideration. But what’s in this bill? What positive steps does it take? And what provisions should House members take a closer look at?

Let’s start with three solid provisions.

Provides flexibility around teacher licensing. Most Ohio educators are licensed to teach in specific grade spans (PK–3, 4–9, and 7–12) and in certain content areas. Although research has not shown a close link between standard licensing requirements and classroom effectiveness, licensing is viewed by many as a way to ensure minimum criteria around who teaches which courses. But at the same time, licensing also restricts the ability of school leaders to deploy staff in ways that meet organizational (and student) needs. Consider a school with a vacancy in tenth grade math. Its school leaders may want to fill that opening internally. But they could not easily assign that course to a ninth grade teacher licensed in grades four through nine, even though he or she is willing and able to teach tenth graders. The vacancy could also be filled externally. Yet as a barrier to entry, licensure regulations shrink the applicant pool, as only those specifically certified to teach math in grades seven through twelve could be hired. In some parts of Ohio—and in harder-to-staff subjects like math and other STEM fields—finding candidates meeting licensure requirements can prove difficult.

SB 216 would allow superintendents to more effortlessly deploy teachers in grades and content areas in which they aren’t licensed. Three conditions, however, must be met before they can do so: 1) the teacher’s license must be within two grade levels of the course being taught;[1] 2) the teacher must have at least three years of instructional experience; and 3) the teacher must pass an exam in the out-of-field area. Interestingly, the introduced version of SB 216 did not include any conditions—it would’ve given school leaders more latitude to match personnel to organizational needs—but the Senate added them as the bill moved through committee. All told, the Senate-passed version of SB 216 does a fair job balancing local autonomy with some basic quality-control provisions.

Increases the time before non-teaching staff can receive tenure. Like most states, Ohio has seen a boom in non-teaching staff. In many districts, state law grants these school employees job protections after their third year of employment—i.e., they receive tenure. SB 216, however, increases non-teaching staff’s probationary period from three to seven years before they receive tenured status. This is a smart change, and it’s one recommended in our 2015 deregulation paper. First, it aligns non-teaching employees’ probationary period with that of teachers, who generally become eligible after seven years. Second, by delaying tenure, school management will have a longer time to assess the capabilities, performance, and organizational fit of their non-teaching staff before awarding job protections that make it costly and difficult to remove them, should that become necessary. To be sure, a bolder overhaul of tenure, including potentially phasing it out entirely as a few states have done, should be considered. Nevertheless, this change would give school leaders more tools to effectively manage a large part of their workforce.

Preserves the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA). Perhaps the most-discussed provision in the introduced version of SB 216 was its proposed elimination of the KRA, a statewide test given to all incoming kindergarteners. The idea seems to stem from concerns about the burdens of the assessment. In Senate testimony last December, various educators noted the significant time needed to administer the KRA, as it requires one-on-one testing with each student. But in testimony, early-learning advocacy groups stressed the role of KRA data in revealing the need for high-quality preschool, particularly in disadvantaged communities. After much debate, the Senate decided to maintain the KRA, though it also directed the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to recommend ways to streamline it. Both are good steps. As preschool initiatives continue to forge ahead, it’s critical to gauge progress statewide in kindergarten readiness. At the same time, minimizing testing burdens remains an important goal, and ODE should work on solutions to improve the efficiency of the KRA.

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Now let’s turn to three provisions in SB 216 deserving of scrutiny in the lower chamber.

Masks data on student subgroups by increasing the minimum “n-size” to thirty. To ensure that schools do not overlook historically disadvantaged students, state law requires the disaggregation of data by various subgroups. Current Ohio law allows such data to be publicly reported when there are at least ten students in a subgroup—anything less is masked to ensure privacy. For school accountability purposes—as in the Gap Closing component that focuses on subgroups—ODE has used a higher threshold of thirty students, but it will soon lower that number to fifteen under its ESSA plan. As discussed by my Gadfly colleague Madison Yoder, SB 216 would change all of this by increasing Ohio’s n-size to thirty students for both reporting and accountability purposes. That’s wrong on both counts. It would conceal from public view disaggregated data on children who are most apt to get lost in our school systems. The higher n-size would also weaken accountability for their academic results. Because this policy directly relates to pupil outcomes—and not educational “inputs”—lawmakers should reverse SB 216’s proposal to raise the n-size to thirty.

Requires reading improvement plans from additional districts and schools. It’s odd to see new administrative burdens included in a deregulation bill, but SB 216 does just that. It requires districts, charters, and STEM schools to submit reading improvement plans to ODE when less than 80 percent of their students reach proficiency on the state third-grade English language arts exam. Ohio law already requires districts and charters with low K–3 Literacy ratings and less than 60 percent proficiency in third-grade ELA to submit an improvement plan; hence, this would likely place more districts into a “needs improvement” status. It’s far from proven that creating these plans alone leads to learning gains, but it would create more paperwork. How is that deregulation?

Maintains state requirements on teacher evaluations. SB 216 makes major changes to Ohio’s teacher-evaluation framework by eliminating the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) and replacing it with a rubric designed by the Educator Standards Board. As discussed in a separate piece, my view is that matters of personnel evaluation should be delegated to local management. No single framework can work in the context of all local schools, and trading one set of requirements for another doesn’t seem to meet the goal of enhancing flexibility and autonomy.

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Much more work remains for those of us who want to free educational leaders to organize their schools in ways that best meet student needs, along with parent and community demands. But by passing SB 216, the Senate has approved several solid ideas that would provide greater managerial flexibility, while maintaining—with the exception of the n-size change—accountability for outcomes.

[1] For example, a teacher licensed in grades four through nine could teach in grades two or three, but could not teach in kindergarten or first grade.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.