Predicting the top 5 education issues for 2018

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To ring in the New Year, we at the Ohio Gadfly have a tradition—two years running!—of predicting the top issues in education for the coming year. Once again, the job has fallen to yours truly to peer into the crystal ball and see what’s on the horizon in our corner of the world. Some may be more under-the-radar than the usual topics that make headlines, but are nevertheless worth taking stock of. Without further ado, here’s my top five.

5. Parent Power via Homeschooling or Private Education

Parents can make their voices heard and their preferences known in various ways within conventional school systems. But families also seem to be taking even bolder steps in their children’s education—either homeschooling them or enrolling them in non-chartered private schools, which operate under even less oversight than more traditional private schools. In Ohio, the number of homeschooled children increased from 25,565 to 28,539 between 2014-15 and 2015-16 (the most recent data available). Meanwhile, the number of non-chartered private schools is also on the rise. In 2014-15, the Ohio Department of Education listed 312 non-chartered schools; in the current school year, there are 425 such schools. It’s not clear why these upticks have occurred, but news outlets are taking note of this trend, including a recent look at Columbus-area families who formed an “educational cooperative” and coverage indicating that African American parents are embracing homeschooling. Of course, not all parents will find such off-the-grid options as attractive or feasible. But as Millennials become parents themselves (gasp!), we may start to see more families taking greater control of their kids’ education beyond the well-worn choice pathways, including public charter schools, private-school scholarships, interdistrict open-enrollment, and more.

4. Remaking School Report Cards

For Ohio parents and taxpayers, annual school report cards are an important check on the academic outcomes of students in their communities. But shortly after the release of the 2016-17 report cards, several lawmakers suggested that it might be time to reconsider how ratings are assigned to districts and schools. In December, a State Board of Education member put forth a resolution to create committees that would explore ways to improve report cards. These are promising signs that, in the coming year, Buckeye policymakers will address several key trouble spots in Ohio’s school rating system. As this debate moves forward, we at Fordham suggest a focus on achieving two goals: 1) simplifying the report card so that Ohioans can gain a clearer understanding of school and district performance; and 2) creating a better balance between the state’s achievement-based metrics and growth measures. If Ohio policy leaders make the right course corrections, a simpler, fairer report card should begin to emerge.

3.  The Next Governor of Ohio

The November elections will bring the Buckeye State a new governor as John Kasich leaves office due to term limits. During his tenure, Governor Kasich has led several praiseworthy school reforms, including policies that place an emphasis on early literacy and strengthen oversight in the charter sector. What role will education play in the campaigns? Expect the Democratic candidate to advocate for increased spending on K-12 public schools and the GOP nominee to press for deregulation and greater local control. Interesting also will be the way school choice and testing/school accountability policies are debated during this election cycle. Regardless who wins, we know that he or she will be in a position to shape education policies entering the 2019 state budget debate. We certainly have ideas on what the signature issues should be—e.g., reforms such as direct funding for choice programs and unwinding funding caps and guarantees should be atop any governor’s list. Stay tuned in the coming year for more commentary on what we think the next governor should tackle upon entering office.

2. High School Graduation Requirements

Last spring, policymakers backtracked on the state’s updated graduation requirements by creating various options that the class of 2018 could meet in order to receive a diploma. Given the debate at the recent State Board of Education meetings, it appears that at least some policymakers are ready to extend similar alternatives to the class of 2019 and beyond. Unfortunately, these options include softball criteria such as attending school regularly, accruing a modest number of volunteer or intern hours, or completing an undefined capstone project. Over the past year, we at Fordham (and a few others) have urged state leaders to maintain a high bar, though also suggesting possible tweaks that wouldn’t obliterate standards. Perhaps the only thing stopping policymakers from extending these options to future classes is educators who take a stand against carelessly promoting students. Some already are: In a recent NPR article, several teachers shared their disgust at this practice, with one commenting, “this culture of passing [ill-prepared students] is endemic.”

1. Rebirth of a Liberal Arts Education

Technology and career-oriented training seems to be fashionable in education circles these days. In many regards, this is a positive trend: An education well-grounded in STEM and/or technical fields is critical for young people who will compete for the jobs of the future. And technological advancements can unlock personalized learning opportunities for students. But has the pendulum swung too far? Various commentators seem to think so. My last prediction—or perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part—for the new year is that K-12 schools will start moving towards a proper liberal arts education—making certain that all students have the opportunity to learn broadly (and deeply) across areas such as literature, history, civics, geography, and the fine arts starting in the early elementary grades. The humanities are where students learn to reflect and think clearly about what is right and just; true and honorable; good and beautiful—all things that are of equal importance for vibrant civic, professional, and family life as learning how to type, code, or weld. We’ve already seen several schools across the nation committing deeply to a classical liberal arts education; it would be great to see more schools like these take root in Ohio. Moreover, all schools—no matter their focus—can implement rich, knowledge-based curricula that allow students to thrive academically. With any luck, 2018 will mark the first year of a renaissance for the liberal arts in K-12 education.

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These are the five education topics that might make waves in our neck of the woods. Of course, other important topics will almost certainly make headlines, including the possible resolution of the ECOT court case, debate on teacher licensing and evaluations, the continuing evolution of the charter sector, potential improvements to Ohio’s voucher programs, and more. What do you foresee? The comments are open—and yes, Happy New Year.

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