Between expanded voucher eligibility, funding increases for charter schools, and improved transportation guidelines, the recently finalized state budget was a boon for school choice. But tucked deep into the legislation is another, less heralded change that will help ensure that students who exercise school choice receive the supports they need to be successful.
The provision focuses on school records, which refers to “any academic records, student assessment data, or other information for which there is a legitimate educational interest.” In lay terms, that means class transcripts, state test results, and important documentation, such as individualized education programs (IEPs) and 504 plans. This information is vital for schools to effectively serve students. A high school guidance counselor can’t enroll students in the classes they need to meet graduation requirements or college admissions standards if they don’t know which courses students have already taken. Elementary and middle schools need access to state test results to ensure that struggling students receive intervention and to help teachers plan accordingly. And teachers in all grade levels and subjects need IEPs and 504 plans to provide students with the accommodations they’re entitled to under federal law.
For most students in Ohio, these data are readily available and easily accessible. When students progress to a new grade level or move on to middle and high school within the same district or charter network, their records follow. But for families that switch between school types, it’s more complicated. Students who transfer to a charter or private school, for example, don’t show up on registration day with records in hand. Administrators have to request them from the school that the student previously attended. Districts face a similar issue when students transfer from a charter school, private school, or a traditional public school in another district.
In theory, it should be a pretty simple exchange. The new school requests the records, and the previous school sends them as soon as possible. In practice, though, that’s not always what happens. Schools sometimes find themselves waiting weeks—even months—just to get copies of the records they request. Even worse, there’s nothing they can do to speed up the process. Administrators just have to keep calling and emailing and making requests, and hope that, at some point, the previous school will finally send over the records.
The recent budget tackles this issue by putting a deadline on student record requests. Going forward, all schools will be required to send a transfer student’s records within five school days of receiving a request. On the one hand, this is an example of policy working as it should. The failure of some schools to transfer records in a timely manner prevented others from serving their students well. Policymakers smartly recognized this problem and created a legislative solution to fix it. On the other hand, it’s also an example of the limits of policy. Districts and schools might now be required to transfer records within five days, but that doesn’t mean they actually will. Because the provision has no teeth—some kind of enforcement provision that holds schools accountable for following the law—it’s likely that inertia and general busyness will lead them to drag their heels.
In an ideal world, the state would have a secure and centralized database of student records that could be easily accessed by schools of all types. Administrators wouldn’t have to worry about making or responding to requests because they’d have automatic access to the records of their enrolled students. Given understandable data privacy concerns, that future seems a long way off. In the meantime, the deadline provision included in the budget could help. It hardly seems like too much to ask for schools to transfer records in a timely fashion. But to ensure that they actually do, lawmakers may need to add some accountability. One possibility is to mimic what they’ve already done with student transportation: Strictly enforce the law using warnings and consequences so that districts, charters, and private schools have to follow the rules and students aren’t shortchanged. Each violation, for example, could result in a $1,000 fine—not because the state is looking to cash in, but because there needs to be a sufficient incentive for the provision to work as intended. Providing schools with recourse to report when they aren’t getting records in time would also be a smart move.
Ohio’s school choice policies were designed to open educational doors for students and families. But to ensure these policies are effective, legislators have to get the details right. The transfer of school records is one of those details. Lawmakers took a good first step by adding a deadline provision to the budget. Now, it’s time to closely monitor implementation and, if necessary, add some consequences.