Recapping Ohio’s 5 biggest education issues in the first half of 2018

Image courtesy of State of Ohio

With summer vacations now in full swing, the Ohio legislature is taking a breather after an eventful first half of 2018. The sudden resignation of House speaker Cliff Rosenberger and a contentious battle for his replacement stalled legislation for weeks. But once new speaker Ryan Smith was elected in early June, a flurry of bills passed. Let’s recap what the General Assembly has (and hasn’t) done so far this year on the most talked about education issues.

Online schools

Fallout from the mid-year collapse of ECOT continues to unfold. The legislature, undoubtedly sensing the need to ensure a debacle like this never occurs again and worried about its impact on the fall elections, passed several provisions aimed at improving online education. Some of them were introduced in House Bill 707 and later enacted as amendments to House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 216. Our more detailed comments on e-school policy are here, but three important provisions that passed last month are well worth a review.

First, e-schools are now required to withdraw students who fail to participate in learning opportunities without excuse after 72 instead of 105 consecutive hours. This change will result in chronically disengaged students transferring more quickly to settings with greater educator supervision. Second, the state superintendent must recommend clearer definitions for key terms in the rules for counting e-school students—e.g., “participation” and “idle time”—which are part of the full-time equivalency manual, an Ohio Department of Education (ODE) document that has been at the center of the legal fight between ECOT and ODE.[1] Third, a committee will study competency-based funding for e-schools. If done well, shifting to this approach—as other states have done for online learning—would allow Ohio to avoid the problems of using “screen time” proxies for participation (and in turn to calculate funding), and instead fund e-schools based on demonstrations of pupil competency.

The legislature also made a minor misstep and missed an opportunity. Regarding the former, lawmakers extended a “safe harbor” to charter schools whose enrollment increased by more than 20 percent as a result of accepting displaced ECOT students in the middle of 2017–18. Though likely limited to other e-schools, as they enrolled significant numbers of former ECOT students, any eligible school is partly shielded from the threat of automatic closure through 2019–20.[2] Furthermore, all displaced ECOT students will be excluded from the academic portion of charter sponsor evaluations for 2017–18 and 2018–19. While these allowances may appear reasonable at face-value, they unnecessarily weaken accountability. For 2017–18, the test scores of mid-year transfers would already be excluded under Ohio’s full academic year rules. In future years, schools (and their sponsors) should be held accountable for ECOT transfers because they will have attended their new schools for an entire year.

As for the missed opportunity, legislators failed to pass an important provision introduced in HB 707 that calls on ODE to create rules that would permit e-schools to disenroll students refusing to actively participate. This is different than the consecutive hour rule because it’s focused on students who attend but aren’t doing academic work. Allowing e-schools, as Indiana now does, to hold pupils accountable for active participation would better ensure that online learners are working to learn the course material instead of cruising along. The legislature should revisit e-schools’ enrollment policies in the coming months.  

Graduation requirements

Aside from ECOT, the most talked about issue in education has been Ohio’s graduation requirements. Starting with the class of 2018, the state now requires young people to pass state end-of-course exams, earn a college-ready score on the ACT or SAT, or gain industry-recognized credentials. Last July the legislature approved various alternatives to these pathways for the class of 2018, including softball options such as attendance rates or volunteer hours. Although several policymakers pushed to extend these weakened alternatives to the classes of 2019 and 2020, the legislature stood firm and rebuffed the competency-free approach to earning diplomas. The debate around graduation requirements is unlikely to cease, but this is a hopeful sign that the appetite for basement-level standards might be waning.

School accountability

For the past year, Ohio’s school report cards have been a front-burner issue. Since 2013, Ohio has assigned A–F ratings on various report-card components, with an overall composite grade being included for the first time this year. After sharply criticizing this system last fall, Representative Mike Duffey introduced legislation in April (House Bill 591) that would transition Ohio to a “dashboard” system in which various academic data are displayed, but no ratings appear. We at Fordham opposed the legislation, stressing the critical importance of clear ratings for families and communities (though also noting the need to make important tweaks). As the bill began to receive committee hearings, Governor Kasich stepped up and reiterated his support for school ratings. Administration spokesperson Jim Lynch told the press, “Removing the letter grades returns to the situation where it is impossible for the public or the community to understand how well their schools and districts are doing.” To his credit, the governor has halted this badly misguided attempt to overhaul school report cards—and that’s good news. Nevertheless, lawmakers still need to undertake a more careful revision that retains key A–F grades but also yields simpler, fairer report cards.

Also of note with respect to school accountability, legislators spurned attempts to raise the minimum “n-size” that determines whether schools are held accountable for the performance of individual subgroups (e.g., ELL students and students with disabilities). Under the Senate-passed version of Senate Bill 216, schools would have been accountable for subgroup performance when they enroll at least thirty students in a subgroup—a higher number than what is being implemented under the state’s ESSA plan, which reduces the n-size to fifteen by 2019–20. House legislators wisely removed this provision before SB 216 passed the full General Assembly. As a result, Ohio will continue to implement an n-size policy that ensures schools pay attention to the needs of children from all backgrounds.

Teacher evaluation and licensure

Known as the “Public School Deregulation Act,” Senate Bill 216 aims to reduce the regulatory burdens on schools. While the passed version of SB 216 covers a number of topics (we discussed some of them here and here), the most substantial issues addressed are related to teacher evaluation and licensure. On evaluation, the legislation wisely scraps OTES—the current framework that calls for the explicit use of student test scores—with a more observation-driven rubric based on the Educator Standards Board’s recommendations. OTES has been panned for its burdensome requirements, inability to differentiate performance, and the need for testing above and beyond state exams. It’s yet to be seen whether trading OTES for the ESB rubric will decrease administrative burdens, better differentiate teachers, or provide educators with more useful feedback. However, the shift should at least reduce some of the more onerous testing requirements, such as developing local assessments for student learning objectives, which are now forbidden.[3] After a pilot year, the new evaluation framework will go into full effect starting in 2020–21. 

As for licensure, the Senate-passed version included provisions that allow district leaders to assign educators to teach in grades or subjects for which they are not specifically licensed. Under a few reasonable safeguards, the proposal would have given superintendents greater latitude in addressing instructional needs. For example, under the initial proposal, a school leader could fill a need for a tenth grade math instructor with a math teacher licensed in grades four through nine. Sadly the House did not approve such broad flexibilities for local management, and the enacted version of SB 216 requires the state board to create a “supplemental license”—which includes several bureaucratic stipulations—that can only be issued by the state at the request of superintendents who need to fill classroom vacancies. Though this provides some leeway around licensing regulations (in a “mother may I” kind of way), the state still has a long way to go before it fully entrusts and empowers school leaders to manage their staff and build teams of excellent educators.

Governance

Finally, two issues of school governance came into to the spotlight this spring. First, the state’s Academic Distress Commissions (ADCs) came under fire, with several lawmakers attempting to put a three-year moratorium on them. However, Governor Kasich, who has strongly supported the ADC model for turning around struggling districts, threatened to veto legislation that included this moratorium. As a result, the General Assembly instead tasked the state superintendent with reviewing ADC policies and producing a report by May 2019. Second, in a high-profile effort backed by Speaker Rosenberger, several legislators sought in House Bill 512 to consolidate ODE, the Ohio Department of Higher Education, and the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation. The proposal aims to improve the alignment between K–12 and post-secondary policy, while also enabling the next governor of Ohio to wield stronger leadership in K–12 education. Vigorous debate ensued over the proposal, but the legislation was shelved after the former speaker’s departure.

* * *

In an “off-budget” year for Ohio, we’ve seen an unexpected amount of discussion on key education issues in the first half of 2018. Some policy developments have been encouraging; for instance, we’ve seen positive movements to improve online learning and to preserve critical accountability measures. But various policies remain disappointingly unsettled. Despite much chatter from legislators about “deregulation,” Ohio still has hundreds of frustrating “input” based regulations—things like licensure requirements—that hamper school-level flexibility and innovation while doing little to boost student achievement. Meanwhile, governance matters such as whether and how the state should intervene in poor-performing districts remain subject to considerable debate. With the election season now at hand, the rest of 2018 may not be as exciting on the policy front. But come January—with a new governor in office and a state budget to pass—all bets are off!


[1] The consecutive-hour rule and sections of the FTE manual apply more broadly to charter schools (which include e-schools), but the impact of these provisions are more limited to online schools.

[2] If charter schools would have met the conditions for automatic closure with the displaced ECOT students omitted from the accountability calculations, they are still subject to closure. Though likely inapplicable, districts that experienced a 20 percent or more increase in enrollment due to the ECOT closure are shielded from the challenged district designation for 2018–19 and 2019–20.

[3] SB 216 still calls for the use of two measures of “high quality student data,” including value-added results based on state exams if applicable to a teacher, and as defined by the state board if value added does not apply. These data points will be used as “embedded” evidence of performance on various dimensions of the revised rubric.

 

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