Moving Ohio towards a more coherent K–16 governance model

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Two weeks ago, several lawmakers introduced legislation that proposes a major restructuring of education governance in Ohio. The crux of House Bill 512 is to foster a more coordinated approach to K–12 and postsecondary education policy, with the governor taking a clearer leadership role. To accomplish this, the bill proposes a new agency that would be led by an appointee of the governor and confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate. Most of the current duties of the Ohio Department of Education would transfer to the new agency, along with those of the Ohio Department of Higher Education and the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation.

The governing framework proposed in this bill charts a course towards a more coherent, seamless, and unified vision for education—from preschool all the way to the workforce. This change in approach is critical as data show that too many young people in Ohio struggle to make transitions from high school to college or career. Consider the following statistics:

  • College remediation: It’s no secret that too many college-going freshmen require remediation before taking credit-bearing courses. According to the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Higher Education, 31 percent of students attending a public college or university require remediation in either English or math. Research from Complete College America indicates that students needing remediation are far less likely to earn college degrees.
  • College completion: Though roughly three in five Ohio high school graduates enroll in a college or university, only about 30 percent actually earn two- or four-year degrees. Various reasons—from academic unpreparedness to financial challenges—could explain the disparity between matriculation and completion rates. But regardless of the reason, policymakers need to take steps to narrow the college enrollment-completion gap.
  • Work-ready credentials: Research from Georgetown University finds that Ohio has thousands of “good jobs” available—careers that pay respectable wages but don’t require four-year degrees. Yet data from ODE indicate that only 4 percent of the high school graduating classes of 2015 and 2016 left with industry-recognized credentials—certifications that can open doors to meaningful employment. Although these data predate the state’s new graduation requirements that now encourage students to pursue credentials, such miniscule numbers—in addition to anecdotes of employers struggling to find qualified workers—indicate that Ohio is falling short in its efforts to prepare young people for entry into the workforce.

The changes proposed in HB 512 would better align Ohio’s K–12, higher education, and workforce development systems so that they no longer operate in separate spheres. Though many states still maintain formal separation between K–12 and postsecondary systems, New York, Florida, and a few smaller states take a more unified K–16 approach. While not without challenges, structures such as these can promote consistent expectations, align policy development and information systems, and create a culture of joint accountability for the well being of young people.

In addition to improved alignment, HB 512 would also create conditions that allow initiatives aimed at improving students’ readiness for college or career—from preschool on—to be vigorously implemented. The key is granting the governor greater leadership responsibility over education policy. In the realm of K–12, Ohio has a fragmented system in which both the governor and state board of education try to exert influence over policy implementation. On some occasions, they work in harmony. But other times, they work at cross-purposes, leading to less coherent policies or weakened implementation.

Consider the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, an early-literacy initiative championed by Governor Kasich. Initially, he had wanted third graders to meet strict reading standards before schools could promote them, but these have been diluted by rulemaking and implementation processes. Today, a seemingly impressive 94 percent of third graders are allowed to move to the next grade, despite the fact that just 63 percent of students are deemed proficient on Ohio’s fourth grade reading exams, and that even fewer meet NAEP’s more rigorous proficiency standard.

By allowing the governor to appoint the director of a unified education and workforce development agency, HB 512 would create a more cohesive policy environment. Rather than being frustrated by boards and bureaucracies, the governor—as the state’s chief executive—would be able to ensure faithful execution of the policies he or she initiates and supports. This is surely why governors of both parties, including Governors Voinovich, Strickland, and Kasich, have sought more formal authority in primary-secondary education. It is also likely the reason that the large majority of states grant governors appointments over state education boards and/or agency directors. This is not to say that governors should always get what they want. Checks and balances are essential to any governing model. But the check on the governor should come primarily via the legislature and, of course, through the will of the people who ultimately hold him or her accountable at the ballot box.

The time is right for Ohio lawmakers to make these changes. Due to term limits, Governor Kasich will leave office in January, and the fall election promises to be hotly contested. Restructuring per se is unlikely to deliver the results Ohio needs to secure its future prosperity, but the changes proposed in HB 512 would create conditions that promise more seamless transitions for students. Just as importantly, it would allow the next governor of Ohio—whoever he or she may be—to create, implement, and lead initiatives aimed at preparing more young people for college and the workforce.  

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