Back in 2015, former Governor John Kasich encouraged the General Assembly to address the persistent failure of several school districts by strengthening academic distress commissions (ADCs), the state’s mechanism for intervening in chronically underperforming districts. Legislators obliged. The final product—House Bill 70—the power of local school boards and empowered ADC-appointed CEOs to lead improvement efforts.
The bill has been controversial since the moment it became law. For years, the three districts currently under ADC control—Youngstown, Lorain, and most recently East Cleveland—have starred in countless news stories about, , and . In the last few months, legislative action has only increased the media attention. Standalone bills in the and , as well as language in the state budget bill from both the and the , have been widely debated.
Into this mix, the Senate Education Committee recently offered an amendment that proposes an entirely new process for intervening in persistently low-performing districts. It establishes a statewide school transformation board that would be responsible for overseeing district turnaround efforts in the Buckeye State, as well as new timelines and requirements for districts that earn overall F grades on their state report cards going forward. Here are four reasons why this amendment makes sense.
- It begins the intervention process after one year of an overall grade of F. Under current law, districts must receive three consecutive overall F’s before they face intervention. While such a slow moving timeline might work well for adults, the students these schools serve deserve a more urgent solution. By designating districts as “in need of improvement” and requiring them to both undergo a root cause analysis and create an improvement plan after just one year of poor performance, the law will ensure that serious efforts to improve student learning begin as soon as results indicate there is a problem.
- Local school districts drive initial improvement efforts. One of the most common criticisms of ADCs is that they weaken local control. This amendment addresses those concerns by allowing struggling school districts to take the lead in crafting their own improvement plans. The planning process itself also encourages local participation by requiring the convening of community stakeholder groups. Both these changes should improve the operational dynamics of improvement efforts. Districts will also have the option—but won’t be required—to contract with a school improvement organization at the state’s expense. This provides them with access to both expertise and financial resources that they didn’t have before.
- There is clear accountability for districts that fail to improve. The ADC revisions included in the House’s version of the budget (which mirror those in ) would require persistently low-performing schools to implement locally created improvement plans indefinitely—without any consequences for a lack of improvement. That’s a clear abdication of the state’s responsibility to students and families. As Governor DeWine has , the state has a “moral obligation to help intervene on behalf of students stuck in failing schools.” This amendment is a far better option, as it would require districts that have failed to improve after five consecutive years—as well as districts that aren’t following their improvement plans with fidelity—to transition to the more rigorous intervention of a school improvement commission. It’s also worth noting that this amendment outlines clear exit criteria from “in need of improvement” status for districts that do successfully improve.
- School improvement commissions are public entities that must engage with the stakeholders in a transparent way. Another common criticism of ADCs is that CEOs aren’t accountable to or transparent with the local community. This amendment addresses that complaint in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it creates a school improvement commission that is subject to public records, open meetings, and ethics laws. Commission members must be residents of the county where the district is located or an adjacent county. The amendment also requires the school improvement director—hired by the commission to operate the district—to appear before the district and give quarterly reports about the progress being made. Finally, the commission is required to conduct an annual performance evaluation of the director and submit it to the local school board. These provisions ensure that commission leaders are held accountable, and that the public is privy to all aspects of their work.
The debate over ADCs has been contentious and troublesome, but the framework outlined in this amendment is a smart, well-thought out response to some of the loudest criticisms of House Bill 70. Even more important, it has the potential to bring meaningful change for students who attend persistently low-performing schools. Here’s hoping this makes it into the final version of the budget.