Ohio ed. policy remains a hot summer topic

This month the State Board of Education officially kicked off its search for the state's new superintendent of public instruction. The search is occurring amid continued uncertainty about the actual role and responsibilities of the superintendent if Gov. Strickland gets his way with the creation of a cabinet-level director of education. The board and governor seem in agreement on the wish list of qualifications the next superintendent should have (see here). The hunt is on for a state superintendent with experience as a district superintendent, but some board members and other thoughtful observers such as the Columbus Dispatch aren't sold on seeking a traditional educator to lead the education department (see here and here).

Five months after announcing his intent to overhaul the state's public-education system, Gov. Strickland commenced this week with a series of "conversations" around the state to gather public input on education in Ohio (see here). The governor's office is billing these 12 "Conversations on Education" as giving "local citizens the opportunity to share their thoughts and vet proposed ideas." But the meetings are open to invited guests only. Jane and Joe Ohioan will need to watch them on public TV or online and submit their thoughts to the governor in writing (see here).

Strickland says he is still formulating his plan for the future of the state's K-12 system (including his promised school-funding fix), but the State Board of Education has shared its plan. At its July meeting, the board approved a "vision document" that spells out a series of objectives and strategies intended to help Ohio meet its 10-year goal that "all students will graduate well prepared for success" (see here). The board also approved a set of 39 legislative recommendations ranging from cleaning up existing legislative language to instituting new programs and policies (see here).

Some of the recommendations are plain common sense. Eliminate pesky calamity days and still ensure that all students receive a full year of instruction by changing the minimum school year from one based on days to one based on total classroom hours. Grant high-school credit to eighth graders who take high-school courses. Remove the "operator appeal" provision that provides an avenue by which a charter-school operator can remove the school's governing authority.

Other recommendations don't make much sense at all. The board is proposing a pilot project of five "innovation schools" in which districts "have the flexibility to implement new practices to improve student achievement by lifting many of the restrictions that schools typically face." Innovation in public schools is welcome and much-needed, but it is unclear how these schools will differ from the state's charter-school program. In fact, at least 49 districts already use the charter option to operate flexible, less-regulated schools. A smarter move would be to shore up the charter sector to be a more desirable option for districts who want to try something really new and innovative (see recommendations for doing just that here).

While the governor and state board wrangle over policy and politics, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) is beginning to show signs of the pressure that comes with political turmoil and leadership uncertainty. The annual August release of achievement data and some 5,000 "local report cards"-one for every public school building and district in the state-is more challenged and complicated than years past. ODE has not yet scheduled a release date for the report cards and attributes the delay to the inclusion of value-added data in this year's reports as well as working with a new printer. But this is also the first year since the introduction of Ohio's standards and assessment system that Mitch Chester has not led the process. Chester was the driving force behind Ohio's academic accountability system and his position at ODE has gone unfilled since his departure in May to become Massachusetts' education commissioner. It likely will not be filled as the department seeks ways to save money and awaits its new superintendent.

Next month ODE will lose another top staffer in Associate Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, arguably the most knowledgeable person in state government when it comes to school funding and education finance. DeMaria has overseen the state's mammoth school-funding operations and, for the past year, has guided the State Board of Education's school funding subcommittee through terrific work toward improving the state's education-finance system (see here). It isn't clear yet what will come of the subcommittee's work or who will take over the funding reins at ODE.

Fortunately for Ohioans, DeMaria isn't going too far. He'll join the Ohio Board of Regents and help create the internal operations and culture needed to carry out the agency's expanding mission.

In fact, one can argue, the Board of Regents seems to be the one real source of stability, leadership, and forward motion in Ohio public education. On the heels of his much-lauded 10-year strategic plan for the higher-education system (see here), Chancellor Eric Fingerhut-with support from Gov. Strickland-has made major strides in a matter of only a few months. All of the state's public universities have signed on to join the "Voluntary System of Accountability" so that the public can review and compare school performance with each other and with other schools across the country. The Ohio G.I. Promise will modify the state's residency requirements so that all veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces (as well as their spouses and dependents) can attend Ohio's colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates. The Board of Regents was also largely unaffected by the governor's recent budget cuts (see here).

Whether by design or by default, Ohio's higher-education system is being bolstered by a strong leader who has a solid vision and unbridled support from the governor while the state's K-12 system flounders in limbo. Is this part of the governor's grand plan, setting Eric Fingerhut up to rescue the K-12 system and become the Ohio Education Czar after all (see here)? Time will tell, but in the meantime it is fun to speculate.

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