Last month, Governor Mike DeWine cruised to a second term, easily dispatching challenger Nan Whaley by a 63 to 37 percent margin. Congrats to the governor, Lieutenant Governor Husted, and their team on the win. Now comes the real work—and the rewarding part—of the job: helping to secure a stronger and brighter future for Ohio.
In K–12 education, Governor DeWine has already made a mark during his first term. His most notable accomplishments include launching a supplemental funding program for quality charter schools that narrows funding gaps and supports the expansion of great schools, creating an incentive program that encourages high schoolers to earn in-demand industry credentials, and pushing for stronger non-academic supports in schools such as mental health, mentorships, and counseling.
Of course, much of his first term was understandably consumed by the pandemic, including helping schools navigate the unprecedented challenges. In this area, he recognized the importance of promptly reopening schools for in-person instruction and put educators at the front of the line for vaccines to help make it happen. Seeing the impacts on student learning, he asked schools to craft academic recovery plans in early 2021. He even nudged the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to reopen after reports surfaced that the district planned to delay reopening, even though nearly every other school system had already done so.
While the pandemic has thankfully passed, students are still reeling from the disruptions. National and state assessment data released earlier this year unambiguously show that large numbers of students remain far behind. Ohio’s 2022 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress slumped to their lowest levels since 2003. Likewise, student achievement on state exams in 2021–22 fell well below pre-pandemic marks. Both assessments indicate that Ohio’s low-income and minority students have suffered the greatest academic setbacks. The declines have hit nearly every community in Ohio: 563 out of 607 districts, for example, registered lower performance index scores last year compared their pre-pandemic marks.
If these losses are left unaddressed, tens of thousands of Buckeye State students will leave high school with weaker academic skills, thus diminishing their likelihood for success in higher education or technical training, lowering their earnings capacity, and imperiling the long-term growth of Ohio’s economy.
No one wants a dimmer future for Ohio’s next generation. But getting students back on track is a big lift—one that could certainly use the governor’s muscle. While Governor DeWine is undoubtedly aware of the academic challenges facing students, it’s not yet clear whether educational recovery will be at the top of his second-term agenda. He didn’t say much about it on the campaign trail, and his forthcoming budget proposals have yet to be unveiled (that blueprint, which will be released early next year, will more clearly signal his priorities).
As the governor considers policy priorities, he should put learning recovery front and center. But how, specifically, could he tackle learning loss? Consider the following:
- Set the tone for a strong recovery. Governor DeWine could use his platform to make sure that parents, citizens, the media, and civic and business leaders are aware of the academic challenges facing Ohio students and the long-run consequences of failing to act. Speaking regularly about the urgent need for recovery could help persuade families to more actively seek extra supports needed for their own children, as surveys suggest that large numbers of parents are underestimating the impacts of the pandemic. Doing so could also rally communities and stakeholders to address learning loss and would set the tone for an all-hands-on-deck effort.
- Challenge the K–12 education system. The governor could use his position to urge Ohio schools to strengthen their focus on improving student achievement. To this end, he might consider the leadership model of President Kennedy, who in 1961 challenged the nation’s scientific community to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In similar vein, Governor DeWine might set a goal that, by 2025, student achievement in Ohio would return to pre-pandemic levels, and by the end of the decade, scores would surpass them by 10 percent. Or he might set a goal that Ohio make faster academic recovery than any other state. Some may scoff at such possibilities, but as business guru Jim Collins has noted, companies with bold, visionary leadership often set “big hairy audacious goals” to instill a stronger sense of urgency and stimulate quicker progress—something that is sorely needed in Ohio’s recovery efforts.
- Turbocharge initiatives that specifically address learning loss. To his credit, the governor has already supported important recovery programs, including tutoring and summer school grant programs with federal Covid-relief dollars. The governor should continue to support these kinds of efforts—and push for the use of state funds, if necessary, to continue them. But such “opt-in” programs likely need some extra oomph to reach the students who need the supports the most. To this end, Governor DeWine could consider launching and offering a personal touch to a statewide campaign that aims to reach Ohio parents and encourage them to enroll their children in summer and afterschool learning programs, apply for direct tutoring and enrichment grants via ACE accounts, and remind them to read to their children and engage in their schoolwork. Such a campaign might also include appeals to Ohioans to serve their local communities as “reading buddies,” math tutors, and mentors for Ohio students (schools have been struggling to find extra helping hands). Having won multiple statewide races, Governor DeWine has clearly gained the respect of Ohioans, and he could certainly put that goodwill to use by “stumping” on behalf of Ohio’s students.
- Push for rigorous implementation of recovery initiatives. Finally, putting on his “chief executive” hat, the governor and his administration could make sure that state agencies rigorously oversee and evaluate the success of recovery efforts. For instance, he could urge the department of education to check that its tutoring grants are actually being used to support “high-dosage” programs—commonly defined as an in-school, one-on-one or small group instruction that occurs at least three times a week. He might also ask the department to make sure that grant-funded summer programs run at least five weeks, provide a minimum of three hours of academic instruction, and use high-quality curricula (as recommended here). Governor DeWine could also insist that state agencies collect and publicly reporting basic data such as program participation, as well as carry out rigorous evaluations of effectiveness. Last, he could encourage the department of education to ensure that all low-performing schools—those identified under federal guidelines and provided extra federal dollars—are offering students quality supplemental learning opportunities such as high-dosage tutoring and summer school, as well as implementing solid, evidence-based core curricula in math and reading. Such schools enroll thousands of students who were hit hard by the pandemic, and making sure their schools are boosting achievement remains, to paraphrase the governor’s own words, a moral imperative.
Ohio’s 1.7 million students need an advocate in high places who can stir Ohioans to act on their behalf and ensure that they do not suffer the long-term consequences of a crisis not of their own making. Governor DeWine has already achieved much during his tenure in public service. Leading the charge in helping students get back on track might just become his signature accomplishment.