Education policy plays a crucial role in determining whether students reach their full academic potential. The funding systems that allocate dollars to schools, data systems that track student outcomes over time, and the policies that hold adults accountable for meeting the needs of students are all incredibly important.
But they’re also incredibly complex. For the most part, this complexity is necessary in working towards systems that are as fair, equitable, and efficient as possible. But sometimes policy can become too complex. Regulations can become burdensome instead of helpful, and changing times call for changing rules. It’s important for policymakers to take a step back every few years and reconsider what’s on the books.
In early October, state lawmakers started that process by introducing Senate Bill 168, legislation aimed at “education regulation reform.” The bill eliminates a handful of “obsolete” provisions from law and adjusts several others. It also has the support of school administrator groups, whose members believe that it would “reduce burdensome and unnecessary regulations, vest more decision-making back into local communities that know their students best, and better equip our school leaders to prepare our students for the future.”
Reducing unnecessary regulations and empowering local leaders are worthy goals. But there are a few provisions in Senate Bill 168 that lawmakers should consider tweaking before they give their final stamp of approval. Here are three areas that deserve a second look.
1. Exempting high-performing districts from certain statutory requirements
In 2016, the legislature passed an initial education deregulation bill that exempted qualifying districts from a variety of statutory requirements for a three-year period. To be eligible, districts had to earn at least 85 percent of the total possible performance index score points on their state report cards, have a four-year graduation rate of at least 93 percent, and a five-year rate of at least 95 percent. The exemptions included requirements related to teacher licensure and qualifications, as well as class size. Senate Bill 168 would permit districts to renew these exemptions every three years, as long as they continue to meet the qualification benchmarks (current law does not address renewal). It would also require the Department of Education and Workforce to annually notify districts of their eligibility, and of the exemptions that exist.
At first glance, these changes seem perfectly reasonable. But a lot has changed since 2016, and it’s important to reevaluate the original policy before expanding it. For example, under the 2016 law, eligible districts have been exempt from the teacher qualification requirements of the third grade reading guarantee. More specifically, they’re exempt from provisions requiring that retained students be assigned to a highly-effective teacher or one with specialized training in teaching reading. Under recent revisions to state law, parents can now request that students be promoted to fourth grade regardless of whether they read at grade level. But even in this case, promoted students are required to receive intensive reading instruction “in the same manner” as retained students. That means they also must be assigned to highly-effective or specially trained teachers. Given the state’s efforts to prioritize early literacy instruction, as well as evidence that many teachers don’t have the training they need to effectively teach reading, it seems unwise to exempt any district, high-performing or otherwise, from this requirement.
2. Reductions in non-teaching staff
Non-teaching employees play a critical role in districts and schools. But under current law, districts making reductions to their non-teaching staff must give preference to employees under continuing contracts—also known as tenure—and then to employees on the basis of seniority. This rule ties the hands of district administrators when they need to reduce staff, as seniority can override their ability to retain high-performers with less seniority. Senate Bill 168 seeks to change this by eliminating the preference for retaining non-teaching staff on the basis of seniority unless the district is deciding between two employees with comparable evaluations.
This is a smart change, as it would give districts more leeway to retain their best non-teaching employees rather than just those who have been around the longest. It also aligns with current law regarding teachers: Districts needing to make reductions in their teaching force are prohibited from giving preference based on seniority unless they’re deciding between teachers with comparable evaluations.
But both current law and SB 168 still require districts to give preference to teaching and non-teaching staff who have tenure. And in Ohio, tenure is more or less determined by how long a staff member has been around (and, in the case of teachers, graduate coursework). It’s not tied to quality or effectiveness, meaning it’s basically another measure of seniority. If lawmakers are truly committed to empowering district leaders with regard to personnel decisions, then they should allow them to retain their most valuable teaching and non-teaching staff, regardless of seniority and tenure, when reductions in force are necessary.
3. Employing unlicensed teachers
Policymakers have recently launched and passed a variety of initiatives and policies aimed at bolstering the teacher pipeline. SB 168 offers another. It would allow public schools to employ individuals as teachers who are not certified or licensed as long as they hold a master’s degree from an accredited institution and have successfully completed an exam in the subject area in which they will teach.
The idea behind this provision is understandable: It could expand the pool of potential teachers, while still ensuring they have some level of content knowledge. But the type of master’s degree someone has should matter, as should the age of potential students. It makes sense to allow someone with a master’s degree in chemistry to teach high school students chemistry. But someone with a master’s degree in communications shouldn’t be teaching sixth grade math, nor should someone with a master’s degree in exercise science teach third grade reading. With this in mind, lawmakers should consider tweaking the bill in two ways. First, unlicensed teachers should have to hold a master’s degree in the subject area in which they will teach in addition to passing a content exam. Second, they should be limited to teaching high school grade levels, where high levels of content expertise are most needed.
Lawmakers deserve kudos for tackling education deregulation, especially in areas that have been ripe for reform for nearly a decade. It’s important to ensure that district and school leaders have flexibility, and that they aren’t prevented from doing what’s best for students because of burdensome regulations. With a few key tweaks, SB 168 could be a good first step toward doing just that.
 Until the 2021–22 school year, districts also had to earn an A grade for performance indicators met.