Like the roller-coasters at Cedar Point, the past year had its highs and lows. Amazon didn’t pick Columbus for HQ2 (bummer), and GM says it’s shutting down a plant in Northeast Ohio (double bummer). LeBron left, again, this time for sunny California. But up in Cleveland, Baker Mayfield has the Browns winning; the Columbus Crew is staying put; and Cincinnati made the New York Times’ list of places to go.” And hey, even the state has money socked away in its rainy day fund.

It was also a topsy-turvy year for education in the Buckeye State. The year started with a thud—the sound of the collapse of ECOT, once Ohio’s largest e-school. But later in July, trumpets heralded the opening of a sparkling new school in Akron supported by King James himself. Meanwhile, at the statehouse, various education policies waned and waxed. For instance, Ohio lawmakers dumped the state’s clunky teacher evaluation system known as OTES, while putting competency-based funding for e-schools squarely on the radar. The year also saw debates over proposals to consolidate state education and workforce agencies, to suspend Ohio’s academic distress commissions, and to ditch school ratings.

But in my view, the following five topics were the most interesting—albeit not necessarily the most important—issues, trends, and stories of the year that was.

The great graduation debacle

In July 2017, the state legislature approved various low-level options the class of 2018 could meet to receive diplomas. The move was supposed to be a temporary reprieve, allowing students to exit high school without meeting new requirements that include passing state or college-entrance exams, or earning industry credentials. But district officials and the State Board of Education continued to press the legislature for relaxed standards for future classes. After resisting calls for much of 2018, lawmakers capitulated in December, extending easily-gameable, softball graduation options to the classes of 2019 and 2020.

We at Fordham have made it no secret that we oppose such basement-level standards, arguing that young people’s opportunities over the long haul diminish greatly when they exit high school not having demonstrated necessary academic or career-technical abilities. Moving forward, Ohio policymakers need to stop playing games with graduation requirements—they should either fully commit to the original plan or come up with something (here’s a few ideas) that asks young men and women to earn diplomas under reasonably serious standards.

The rise of “social-emotional learning”

For those not in the education bubble, the phrase “social-emotional learning” is likely unfamiliar and may even sound a bit kooky or technocratic. Nevertheless, “social-emotional learning” wins the prize for the trendiest education cliché of the year. It refers to some of the intangible wherewithals that students, and all people, should have—stuff like “self-management” and “relationship skills.” The term is especially prominent in the State Board of Education’s strategic plan, released last year, which goes as far as to recommend—contrary to expert opinions—that it somehow be crammed into formal assessment and accountability systems.

My colleague Jessica Poiner has rightly rained on that particular parade; and yes, a lone cheer to board member, Sarah Fowler, who voted against the plan because of its overemphasis on “social-emotional learning.” A few national commentators, including Rick Hess and our own Checker Finn, have also taken issue with the growing fad, with Checker noting, rather troublingly, that among the twenty-five “competencies” identified by social-emotional experts, “You won't even find such old-fashioned virtues as integrity, courage, or honesty, and certainly nothing as edgy as patriotism.”

It’s true that schools have a key role to play in character building. But will touting “social-emotional learning” win the hearts and minds of parents, educators, and kids? Maybe—but color me skeptical. Instead, Ohio leaders may want to chew on the more inspiring words of former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett who once put it this way: “A critical function of any public school should be to develop the character of each child.... Although the family is the first and most important incubator of morality, schools must be an ally of parents in the moral upbringing of the young.”

Governance woes in Columbus City Schools

To put it mildly, Ohio’s largest school district has had its share of governance troubles of late. Back in 2012, administrators were caught manipulating data, resulting in state investigations, disciplinary actions, and for the data rigger-in-chief, Steve Tankovich, fifteen days jail time and probation. Several years of calmer waters (and a successful levy campaign) followed under superintendent Dan Good, who was brought to clean up the mess—but he retired at the end of 2017.

The search for Good’s successor, however, took some strange turns in 2018. It started in February when the Dispatch reported that two of the three finalists for the position had “ties” to the data scrubbing scandal. (One subsequently bowed out.) Then, a few months later, with only one candidate still standing, the Ohio Auditor of State sent a letter to the Columbus school board alleging breaches of open-meetings laws during its search. This led the board to start all over again in August, and in a swift, one-month process it selected Talisa Dixon as the next district chief. Then, after some wrangling over her start date, Dixon agreed to take the reins this coming March, hopefully earning every penny of her quarter-million-dollar salary (she’ll face some tough decisions, especially on closing schools). Whew!

Finally, to cap off the year, Columbus board member Mary Jo Hudson wrote this in her December resignation letter: Our completely inadequate model of governance is broken. Until it is fixed, our schools will continue to fail, students will be housed in sub-standard facilities, our board will be unresponsive and our families will be kept in poverty rather than given pathways out.” That about says it all.

Interdistrict open enrollment in Liberty School District

The winner for the fascinating story of the year goes to Liberty School District, a 1,100 student district in Northeast Ohio. No, it isn’t the case of a Liberty kindergarten teacher charged with stealing Chromebooks and kids’ lunch money. Rather, it’s the district’s efforts to stand in the way of students wanting to attend school elsewhere that warrants the spotlight. In April, Liberty school officials passed a resolution barring white pupils from exiting the district via interidistrict open enrollment. According to the local superintendent, Joseph Nohra, the reason was because “it’s creating segregation in our school district.” While he may or may not have a case on those grounds, money was also a key subplot. As Nohra disclosed, “Our tuition out, which includes all open enrollment, every dollar that gets deducted is over $2.5 million.”

Soon after the resolution was made public, the Youngstown NAACP chapter weighed-in—but, perhaps surprisingly, in strong opposition. Jimma McWilson, rebuked the board saying, “You are denying them the opportunity, and denying parents the right to make the decision on where they want their child educated? … It’s not race first—it’s money first.... The kids should not be held hostage because the district lost money.”

Based on June reports, the Liberty board seems to have softened its stance, and current financial records indicate that pupils are still transferring out via open enrollment (and some are transferring in). All as it probably should be, especially in a district named “liberty.”

Ohio gets a classical charter school

Lest you think that 2018 was a total downer, allow me to end on a high note. Loyal Gadfly readers will surely recall that this time last year I predicted that 2018 would see a “rebirth in liberal arts education.” For most of the year, it looked like another false prognostication from yours truly, but in the waning days of 2018, the Blade reported that a classical charter school is slated to open in fall 2019, the first in Ohio. According to the report, this school will focus on phonics, history, and even expect their students to become proficient in Latin. Granted, I’m biased towards the classics—I took Greek and Latin at one point in my life and do love me some Thucydides. But to ring in the new year, I wish all my best to this new Toledo-based school, hoping that it will achieve the same successes as other classically-driven charters across the nation, serving both children in highly disadvantaged communities (South Bronx Classical or Boy’s Latin in Philadelphia), as well as middle-class ones (Great Hearts in Arizona).

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That’s it for now, and we hope you’ll stay tuned to the Gadfly for what should be a very exciting 2019. After all, there are state budgetary matters to debate!

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Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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