Last week, Ohio policymakers took a bold step toward strengthening education in persistently low-performing districts. House Bill 70, which passed both legislative chambers, grants significant new powers and responsibilities to the state’s academic distress commissions. Among the key provisions is a call for an appointed chief executive officer who would lead each district’s reform efforts.

Created by the state in 2007, academic distress commissions are triggered when districts fail to meet basic academic standards. Presently, two districts—Youngstown and Lorain—are overseen by separate commissions. These are the key features of the commission, as specified under present but now soon-to-be retired state law:

  • They are directed to assist the district.
  • They consist of three members appointed by the state superintendent and two appointed by the president of the district board; the state superintendent designates the chair.
  • They must adopt an academic recovery plan for the district, to be updated annually;
  • They are vested with certain managerial rights, such as appointing and reassigning school administrators, terminating contracts, and creating a budget; however, state law does not require a commission to exercise these rights.

Unfortunately, these arrangements were largely toothless. The commission existed only to assist the district and to draw recovery plans—not necessarily operationalize them. It also left intact existing governing entities that could block the commission’s efforts. The locally elected school board and district superintendent, for example, remained in place—a recipe for political turf wars and bickering.

In Youngstown, the tension between local officials and the commission has been palpable and clearly counterproductive. According to the Youngstown Vindicator, there has been “almost constant carping” by the school board about the commission. Meanwhile, the district superintendent, fed up with school board politics that “killed his spirit,” recently high-tailed it out of town for a job in Arkansas. On the heels of this turmoil, the Vindicator pleaded for Governor Kasich and state authorities to become more aggressively involved.

So state leaders answered the call.

House Bill 70 considerably strengthens the commission in a few ways. First and foremost, the commission will appoint the district’s chief executive officer, effectively eliminating the local board’s right to hire a district chief. The CEO will be vested with full managerial rights and operational control. Second, the law will strip the school board of one of its two commission appointments. Instead, the law allows a local executive, such as the city’s mayor, to make the appointment. Third, the commission will be responsible for expanding high-quality school options, including support for community learning centers and reconstituting failed schools. Special state funds may be appropriated to help to kick-start the growth of better choices.

Some of these revisions reflect movements across the nation, in which states are ratcheting up their intervention policies to deal with chronically sick school systems. In Tennessee and Louisiana, for example, state leaders have stepped in to create recovery school districts (RSDs). Chris Barbic, the superintendent of Tennessee’s recovery district (known as the Achievement School District), has been widely credited with leading visionary, albeit challenging, reforms. Barbic and his team have recruited high-performing charter operators, leveraged the talent pipeline of Teach for America, and created a teacher residency program. The results from New Orleans and Memphis have been promising, and other states are now exploring or implementing RSD-like models.

Ohio leaders aren’t fiddling while Rome burns either. Governor Kasich and the legislature enacted the Cleveland Reform Plan in 2012, and it’s beginning to bear fruit. Academic distress commissions, a relatively new tool for reform, also have strong potential. But as originally conceived, the commissions were far too weak. By strengthening the hand of the commission—and empowering a CEO with full management rights—House Bill 70 should greatly improve education in Ohio’s neediest communities.

“The buck stops here,” said the famous sign on President Truman’s desk. The statutory revisions to Ohio’s academic distress commissions will help to ensure that a willing and able executive is in charge of districts desperately in need of reform. 

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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