If you’ve been following headlines in Ohio, you’ve likely noticed that there’s an ongoing kerfuffle regarding an overhaul of the state’s K–12 education governance system. The governance change, which was first proposed last December but officially became law as part of the state budget this summer, transfers the majority of the powers and duties assigned to the state board of education to a revamped executive branch department known as the Department of Education and Workforce (DEW). Unlike the previous department, which was overseen by a state superintendent who answered to the state board, the DEW will be led by a director appointed by the governor.
Opponents to the move filed a lawsuit in September, claiming that the overhaul was unconstitutional. They also requested a preliminary injunction to prevent the revamped department from operating as the lawsuit made its way through the courts. A temporary restraining order was granted and then extended. But on October 20—the day the extended order expired—the Franklin County Common Pleas Court denied the preliminary injunction request. The judge ruled that the plaintiffs have grounds to sue, so the case isn’t officially over. But for now, the DEW is free to hit the ground running.
Given the sheer amount of work to be done in the wake of the budget bill, running is exactly what the department will have to do. Here’s a look at three issues its leaders should prioritize in their inaugural months.
Priority one: Addressing concerns over public engagement
Two of the primary complaints put forth by opponents are that eliminating the state board would reduce transparency and provide parents and citizens with fewer opportunities to voice their concerns about education. Magistrate Jennifer Hunt noted in her ruling that the department has systems in place to provide transparency, and that even if school board members no longer have the power to act on constituents’ concerns, they can still voice them to the new director. As I noted in this piece, the overhaul also doesn’t change the fact that Ohio parents still have considerable influence over education policy, particularly at the local level.
However, even if the governance revamp won’t diminish the ability of parents and citizens to voice their concerns, they’ve been told it will by some pretty prominent sources. They’re likely concerned, and the department’s leaders shouldn’t take those concerns lightly. In fact, state officials and administrators should go out of their way to reassure parents and community members that their voices will still be heard, public office-holders will still be accountable for student outcomes, and transparency is still a priority.
To their credit, lawmakers have already taken the initial steps to do exactly that. The budget contained a provision requiring the director of DEW to convene a public meeting at least once every other month where department staff will present information about significant new or existing initiatives or policies, changes to state or federal law that will impact the department or its stakeholders, and any rules the director plans to adopt or change. An opportunity for public discussion must follow the presentation, which gives parents and constituents a regular opportunity to voice concerns and offer feedback. Department leaders could also consider conducting a statewide listening tour with a few stops in each of Ohio’s five regions, not only as a visible effort to engage the public, but also as a way to collect a list of grassroots issues the department should pay attention to moving forward. Lastly, the department could invest more time and effort into publicizing the public comment periods it offers for various plans and decision points. Many parents may not realize that they already have these opportunities available to them or that they can sign up for regular email updates from the department.
Priority two: Early literacy
The same budget bill that created the DEW also established important early literacy reforms. For instance, starting in fall 2024, Ohio public schools will be required to adopt curricula and instructional materials that align to the science of reading—an evidence-based approach that emphasizes explicit phonics instruction. Discredited curricula, including approaches like “three-cueing,” will be prohibited (although there is currently another lawsuit challenging this provision). State lawmakers set aside approximately $170 million to assist schools with replacing outdated curricula and offering aligned professional development for teachers. Reading coaches will be dispatched to the districts that need them most, and teacher preparation programs will be required to train prospective educators in the science of reading.
These are ambitious reforms that could boost Ohio’s literacy outcomes. As such, rigorous implementation should be a top priority for the DEW. My colleague Aaron Churchill recently outlined seven implementation steps that state leaders should take. They include keeping low-quality options off the state’s approved lists of curricula and materials (and ensuring that schools have access to the lists as soon as possible so they can make timely decisions), wisely allocating the state funding that was set aside to subsidize the purchase of new materials, bolstering teacher professional development, and strictly enforcing the requirements outlined in law. Although there will inevitably be bumps along the road, checking off these seven boxes would put Ohio well on its way toward improving the reading skills of its students.
Priority three: Career-technical education
Ohio has an established and vibrant career-technical education (CTE) sector. State law requires every public school to ensure that students in grades 7–12 have the opportunity to enroll in CTE programming in state-approved career fields. These courses and programs provide students with the opportunity to explore various jobs, participate in work-based learning, earn high school and college credit, obtain a high school diploma, and attain industry-recognized credentials that can lead to well-paying jobs or additional educational opportunities.
Given all this potential, it makes sense that the recent state budget included a quarter billion dollars in new state funding to expand the capacity of CTE providers and increase participation in high-quality programs. But now that the department has been transformed into the Department of Education and Workforce, leaders and staff will need to do more than just spend the CTE dollars they’ve been allocated.
They could start by improving transparency around CTE, perhaps by spotlighting providers with the best student outcomes or working to link students’ K–12 and higher education records with workforce outcomes, such as wages, career fields, and employment records. Doing so would help identify which CTE programs should be expanded or improved. The DEW should also consider conducting informational campaigns that reach out to students and families and ensure that they are aware of all the CTE options available to them. Increasing industry engagement by offering additional incentives for employers to participate in career exploration and work-based learning opportunities could also pay dividends. The bottom line is that the DEW needs to take seriously its increasing responsibility to support workforce development and take action to expand and improve the state’s CTE sector.
Overhauling Ohio’s education governance model will be complex and difficult. But such a huge change is necessary after years of disorganization and inaction. Now that the DEW has been cleared to operate, department leaders and staff should waste no time tackling the issues outlined above. They’re obviously not the only items that matter to parents and advocates. But getting off to a good start in these three areas, in particular, will go a long way toward setting the agency—and by extension Ohio students—up for success.