On June 30, Governor John Kasich vetoed forty-four items in the budget  and signed the rest into law. Among the provisions that survived is an extension of “safe harbor” as Ohio continues its transition to new standards and assessments. Last year, lawmakers created this “safe harbor” policy for students, schools, and teachers; it pertains to certain test-based accountability provisions for 2014–15. With the 2015 budget bill, they’ve extended it by two more years (2015–16 and 2016–17).

The safe harbor provisions for students and teachers are pretty straightforward. For students, test scores from the 2014–15, 2015–16, or 2016–17 school years cannot be used “as a factor in any decision to promote or to deny the student promotion to a higher grade level or in any decision to grant course credit.” While not explicitly mentioned, this means that failed End of Course exams won’t equate to lost course credit or failure to graduate.  

For teachers, safe harbor means that the “value-added progress dimension rating” determined by state tests administered in 2014–15 and 2015–16 cannot be used for “assessing student academic growth” for teacher evaluations, or “when making decisions regarding the dismissal, retention, tenure, or compensation” of teachers. There is, however, a provision that allows a school or district to enter into a “memorandum of understanding collectively” with teachers that permits the use of value-added results for evaluations, dismissal, retention, tenure, or compensation. It’s hard to imagine that any district would take advantage of this provision, or that teachers would agree if they did, but it exists as an option. 

The safe harbor provisions for schools, however, are a bit more complicated. The budget text starts by stating that the department of education “shall not assign an overall letter grade…for any school district or building for the 2014–15, 2015–16, and 2016–17 school years and shall not rank school districts, community schools […] or STEM schools” for those years. Schools will still get report cards with grades for overall proficiency and overall growth—plus the same for various student subgroups—as they do now. (Here’s an example of what that looks like.)

It then goes on to say that “the report card ratings issued for the 2014–15, 2015–16, or 2016–17 school years shall not be considered in determining whether a school district or a school is subject to sanctions or penalties.” Despite this, the bill carefully notes that this does not “create a new starting point for determinations that are based on ratings over multiple years.” In other words, schools don’t get a clean slate once safe harbor is over and overall letter grades are assigned. The report card ratings for school years prior to 2014–15 will be combined with new data starting in 2017–18 to determine which sanctions apply.

While lawmakers may have ensured that persistently failing schools can’t permanently duck accountability, there are consequences to instituting even a temporary safe harbor. Delaying the issuance of overall school grades affects quite a few policies, including programs that policymakers took care to address in other parts of the budget. Most importantly, the affected programs are ones that directly impact students receiving a low-quality education in failing schools—making safe harbor risky for the very students it’s supposed to protect. Let’s examine a few of these programs up close.

Voucher eligibility

Since the budget extends safe harbor protections to schools for an additional two years, Educational Choice Scholarship Program (EdChoice) eligibility becomes problematic. Since school grades can’t be used to determine “sanctions or penalties,” Ohio has essentially frozen eligibility for its flagship voucher program. The schools on the eligibility list as of 2014–15 stay on the list (even if they’ve improved), and the schools not on the list stay off (even if they deserve to be on it). Students attending Ohio’s lowest-rated schools simply can’t afford—and shouldn’t be asked—to wait for a chance to move to a better school.

Automatic closure

“Automatic closure” describes the process that takes place when a charter school is permanently closed due to low performance. In Ohio, the law outlines automatic closure differently depending on the age of the students in the school. The criteria for closure are based on school report card grades. Since the budget mandates that schools cannot be given overall report card grades and that the department cannot use report cards to determine whether a district or a school is subject to sanctions or penalties, automatic closure becomes impossible until after the 2017–18 school year.

This is a major setback. Recently, Fordham published School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio's Urban District and Charter Schools. Accompanying this report was a working paper that evaluated the student achievement effects of closures stemming from the automatic closure law. The authors found that students displaced by an automatic closure made significant gains in math and reading after their schools closed. As my colleague Aaron Churchill writes, “This suggests that Ohio’s automatic closure law has worked as intended; it forcibly shut down some of the worst-performing schools in the state, to the benefit of the children who had attended them.” This is strong evidence that there’s little to be gained—and much to lose—by playing games with automatic closure.

Parent trigger

This law was passed in the 2011 state budget as a pilot program for Columbus City Schools (CCS). According to the law, any school operated by CCS that is ranked according to performance index score in the lowest 5 percent of all public school buildings statewide for three or more consecutive schools years is eligible for parent trigger action. (For more on the parent trigger in Columbus, see here.)

There were twenty-one Columbus schools eligible for the parent trigger as of last September. This year’s report cards may have placed more or different schools on the list. However, since the budget makes it impossible to rank schools until 2017–18, the possibility of a parent trigger remains only for the twenty-one schools that were already eligible. While this isn’t as critical of a freeze as voucher eligibility or automatic closure for charters (since it applies only to Columbus), it still represents another pause on accountability for persistently failing schools.

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While the safe harbor provisions in the budget are well-intentioned, they have created consequences—especially as they relate to a few of Ohio’s key school choice policies. Among these policies, the voucher eligibility issue must be addressed as soon as possible. Students in failing schools have the right to access the best education possible via a voucher. (Plus, there are a ton of success stories.) Policymakers should waste no time this fall in adding amendments that clarify voucher eligibility. Otherwise, far too many students will be stuck in failing schools. 

Policy Priority:

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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