Four big education stories you might have missed over the holiday

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I don’t know about you, but for the most part, I shut down my social media and news apps over the winter holiday this year. As it turns out, tending to your neighbor’s chickens, building gingerbread houses, and riding sleds are all good strategies for recovering from the dumpster fire that was 2017. Meanwhile, some major education policy news in Ohio unfolded. Take a look at what you might have missed.

1) New Ohio right-to-work proposals were unveiled. Just before Christmas, Republican representatives John Becker and Craig Riedel introduced six Joint House Resolutions meant to scale back the power of public and private sector unions. Most notably, the proposals (HJR 7-12) would prohibit the automatic deduction of union dues from employee pay, forbid union fees from being spent for political purposes without permission from employees, and ban requirements imposed on contractors to pay workers the prevailing wage. Restrictions on dues would have enormous implications for teachers unions in Ohio. Agency fees are also a topic at the core of the U.S. Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME (though the proposed resolutions go beyond union dues).

Right-to-work legislation in Ohio is certainly nothing new: Rep. Becker has proposed (less-reaching) iterations of it in the past, and few can forget the statewide referendum that repealed the historic overhaul of collective bargaining rights, Senate Bill 5, in 2012. The current goal is to get these proposals to the 2020 ballot and let voters decide for themselves (again)—a move that Akron Beacon Journal’s Doug Livingston says is unlikely given the somewhat onerous steps required (House leadership would need to move it to a floor vote, even after previous iterations died in the finance committee; then it would need a supermajority passage in the House; then follow the same process through the Senate). And lest we forget, Governor Kasich—who’d have to sign the resolutions—simply may not want to, given the overwhelming defeat of SB 5 and his own centrist political aspirations. Regardless of how far these particular proposals may get, expect right-to-work conversations to continue—whether through the Janus case or local initiatives.

2) ECOT’s final reckoning drew near(er). The nation’s largest e-school, now infamous to almost all Ohioans and many national observers as well, showed up in our 2017 ranking of top stories and is on the docket for education issues likely to continue to seize the spotlight in the new year. The Ohio Supreme Court has just announced February 13 as the date for hearing oral arguments in the case between ECOT and the Ohio Department of Education. If the court rules against ECOT, enabling the state to continue collecting $60 million in repayment, it could represent the final blow for the school.

Those of us who’ve watched this saga know that an ECOT closure would bring with it some major fallout. For starters, thousands of students would need to transfer to a brick-and-mortar school or to other statewide virtual charters. (Though only a small portion of ECOT students could do the latter; Ohio’s enrollment caps for e-schools limit the number of students who can enroll each year). If ECOT’s students are anywhere near as disadvantaged as the school claims they are—in ways that go beyond even demographic factors like socioeconomic status, disability, or race—receiving schools may have a tough job ahead to serve them well. Students who are severely credit deficient and off track to graduate in four years will take a toll on the Big 8 districts and others who enroll them. It also may send shock waves to Ohio’s other e-schools, many of which face similar repayments to the department and almost all of which are wondering how this case will ultimately shake out. Even so, it behooves the state to get it right on how it tracks student learning in virtual environments—not only to safeguard taxpayer money, but to protect students from shoddy instruction and falling behind. Either way, expect greater clarity when it comes to the logistics of attendance tracking and an ongoing debate about seat time, competency-based learning, school payments, and more.

3) Reducing the reliance on student test scores in teacher evaluations. In mid December, Sen. Lehner introduced SB 240, a bill that would move the state away from using student growth scores for up to half of a teacher’s rating and instead toward recommendations proposed by the Ohio Educator Standards Board last year. No longer would districts be required to use student data derived from the state-approved assessments as a portion of a teacher’s rating; instead, districts would be able to use other “high-quality student data” and to embed this into a revised Ohio Teacher Evaluation System rubric. Given that OTES failed to differentiate teachers—and that the student growth inclusion was a reason for serious backlash—SB 240 could be a sensible step in the right direction. Meanwhile, pay attention to which districts, if any, opt to continue using growth data in the current manner. Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon has come out opposing the bill and vows to continue using student test scores to rate teachers regardless; his teachers union begs to disagree.

4) Newly signed computer science bill quietly modifies Ohio’s coursework requirements for graduation. In late December, Kasich signed HB 170, which requires academic content standards and a model curriculum for computer science for the first time. The legislation was passed in a largely bipartisan fashion and even earned support from Google during the hearing process. Interestingly, it enables high schoolers to take a computer science course in lieu of Algebra 2—a staple of Ohio’s core curriculum requirements for all students except those opting into a career-technical pathway. The new law does require districts to inform parents that “some institutions of higher education may require Algebra 2 for the purpose of college admission” and sign a document acknowledging this.

A quick glance at admission requirements for Ohio’s public universities (and several phone calls we conducted with college admissions counselors) indicates that nearly all of them would accept the “equivalent” of Algebra 2 in the form of computer science. That’s reassuring. But HB 170 seems to walk back Ohio’s Algebra 2 requirement without undergoing a serious debate about whether students need it in order to be college and career ready. To me, that seems like far bigger news than the creation of model curriculum or a push toward computer science careers—both of which are good moves in and of themselves.

Discussions on graduation requirements will no doubt continue this year, though I’m also hoping for more debates on the actual meat of what we’re requiring and why—e.g., Should we allow advanced computer science in place of Algebra 2 (and aren’t the concepts of Algebra 2 necessary to succeed in advanced computer science anyway)? What careers in computer science are available to folks who haven’t taken Algebra 2? Will schools be able to find qualified teachers to teach the subject well?


Here’s to hoping that this busy start to 2018 portends good things for education policy and the lives of the students it ultimately affects. 

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.