An ambitious plan by Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives to remake the state’s education system has opened an important conversation. After more than two decades of trying to raise standards and increase accountability, Ohio still has far too many students who don‘t score high enough on proficiency tests and who graduate from high school unable to do college-level work or get good jobs, and even fail to graduate.
The problem may lie, as backers of the proposed overhaul contend, with the state’s unwieldy education governance. Though many assume the governor is responsible for schools, he or she mainly proposes policies, usually through a budget proposal.
Whether those ideas become law and get funding is up to the legislature.
Then, a third layer: Carrying out education policy falls to the Department of Education, which answers not to the governor or the General Assembly, but to the state Board of Education, made up of some members elected from districts and others appointed by the governor.
Critics say the diffuse authority gets in the way of getting anything done.
One example might be state requirements for high-school diplomas: Ohio has been struggling for years to get them right. Raising standards is always a popular choice — until it turns out that lots more seniors won’t be able to graduate. Then, school districts lobby for the standards to be eased, and Ohio continues to turn out graduates who can’t do college-level work or get skilled jobs.
That’s where we are right now; tougher requirements passed by lawmakers in 2014 were supposed to be in effect this year, but worry over 20 percent who might miss the mark induced lawmakers to add some easier ways to graduate in 2018. Now, the state school board wants lawmakers to keep the graduation bailout in effect for classes of 2019 and 2020, too.
Standards for school-district “grade cards” issued by the Department of Education have similarly been subject to constant tinkering.
House Bill 512, proposed by Rep. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, would combine the Department of Education, Department of Higher Education and the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation into a new, cabinet-level agency called the Department of Learning and Achievement. It would be under the governor’s control.
The Board of Education would remain to oversee teacher licensing and some other functions, but would no longer set policy.
Backers say streamlining authority would clarify state policy and allow it to respond more nimbly to changes in the economy.
Critics say a “mega-department” might be even less accountable than the current system.
The debate will center on competing ideals: an independent, partly elected board of education allows voters one form of leverage, but relatively few Ohioans vote in those races and most can’t name their school-board representative. If the governor is solely responsible, everyone knows whom to hold accountable, but an individual’s leverage is less.
House Republicans seem to be in a hurry to pass Reineke’s bill, but they should slow down. It’s 2,430 pages of detail about what would be a major change. Lawmakers need to hear input from all parties and take time to deliberate.