‘The status quo hasn’t been working’: Ohio lays groundwork for major education overhauls

Despite resistance from education bureaucrats, Ohio is forging ahead with major education reforms to the education department, school choice and reading science.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine received a…

Despite resistance from education bureaucrats, Ohio is forging ahead with major education reforms to the education department, school choice and reading science.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine received a judge’s approval Friday to begin the complete overhaul of the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) into the new Department of Education and Workforce.

Greg Lawson, research fellow at the Buckeye Institute, told The Lion that DeWine’s reforms are “the culmination of years of having a system that wasn’t very functional.”

“There’s been a great deal of frustration with political battles on the [state] school board,” Lawson explained. “Whether it was DEI issues or whether it was transgender bathroom issues or whatever the issue was, you had different factions on the board having a lot of conflict. They were spending more time dealing with those kinds of issues than they were dealing with the fact that we have ongoing education challenges in Ohio.”  

Reading and math scores are bleak in the Buckeye State, with just 35% of 4th graders reaching proficiency in 2022. 

Even fewer 8th graders read at grade level – 33% – and only 29% were proficient in math.  

In addition to teaching basic learning skills, Ohio is also trying to get the next generation career-ready. 

“Ohio is on the cusp of bringing in a lot of new, higher-tech kind of jobs,” Lawson told The Lion. “There is a recognition that our workforce has atrophied, so there’s also a desire to try to make sure that the education system is producing students that are capable of being employable upon graduation. 

“The business community literally has created an organization to lobby for education reforms because the business community was dissatisfied with Ohio graduates.”  

‘Defenders of the status quo’  

The current Ohio state school board is comprised of 11 democratically elected members and 6 gubernatorial appointees. The board chooses and oversees the state superintendent, which effectively prevents the superintendent from being held directly accountable by the governor, Legislature or voters.  

Under the new Department of Education and Workforce, the superintendent role will be filled by a person appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate – much like the process on the federal level with the U.S. Secretary of Education.  

According to Lawson, the new structure will also limit the powers of the board to its administrative function, such as with managing teacher licensing.  

“These campaigns for state school board require funding, and I think it’s safe to say that the teachers’ unions have a great deal of influence in the outcome of these elections,” he added. “If you think that you need to have changes, it’s usually difficult to have changes when defenders of the status quo are electing the people who will make decisions about policy.” 

However, seven state school board members have filed a lawsuit against the restructuring, claiming it’s unconstitutional.  

“[The overhaul] is a prime example of the broader movement by extremist-controlled governors’ mansions and legislatures to deprive communities of meaningful representation,” said Skye Perryman, who is representing the plaintiffs. “In Ohio, these actions are contrary to more than seven decades of non-partisan control by directly elected representatives.” 

In response to the lawsuit, a judge issued a court order temporarily stopping the creation of the new department. But now that the order has expired, DeWine is moving forward with the changes – including appointing a new interim director of the Department of Education and Workforce. 

“I am thrilled that the restraining order has been dissolved and we can focus on the important work of moving forward to help our kids be better prepared for life after high school, whether choosing additional training, beginning a career, or heading to college,” the governor said in a statement.  

But restructuring the Department of Education isn’t the only education battle Ohio is fighting.  

‘The status quo is proven to fail students’ 

According to the 2023 state budget, educators are required to be trained in “the science of reading” – an evidence-based approach to reading, which was overshadowed by the another, the cueing system, in the 1980’s and 1990’s. 

The budget also forbids public schools from using the cueing system in grades pre-K-5 unless an individualized learning plan recommends it.  

In cueing, students are taught to use clues like context or the first letter of the word to guess the whole word, whereas phonics-based approaches emphasize sounding out each letter.  

The Reading Recovery Council of North America (RRCNA) – a longtime proponent of the cueing system – filed a lawsuit against Gov. DeWine. 

“Educators have long debated how best to reach students, but when an educational practice has scientific evidence supporting it, a legislative enactment that prohibits the practice suggests motives entirely outside of educational best practices,” claimed Billy Molasso, executive director of RRCNA. 

The group also complained about the change being lumped in with the 6,200 page budget, citing the precedent that bills only deal with one subject at a time. 

But Lawson believes that argument won’t amount to much.  

“I think that’s a particularly thin reed to hang their hat on because the budget touches everything,” Lawson told The Lion. “It funds most of the state of Ohio’s operations.” 

Ohio is just one of dozens of states that have implemented the science of reading and banned the cueing system in hopes of reversing the reading crisis plaguing schools nationwide. 

To top it all off, Ohio’s school choice programs are also being sued by the education establishment, and teachers’ unions are rallying under the slogan, “Vouchers hurt Ohio.”  

“Vouchers are going on trial,” said one local school board member. “The constitution cannot be ignored.” 

However, state Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, says school choice won’t harm public education.  

“That money doesn’t get taken from the public schools,” Edwards said in June. “That’s the great thing about it.”  

Ohio recently made the educational choice scholarship universal with the support of much of the Legislature. 

The state has a total of five scholarship programs, some of which are tailored to special needs or low-income students. 

Combined, they serve nearly 80,000 students.  

“I think, frankly, all these lawsuits are pretty atrocious,” Lawson told The Lion. “When you strip it all away, this is really people’s own self interest in preserving a status quo, notwithstanding the fact that the status quo is manifestly proven to fail students.”  

Lawson added that while some of the reforms may be more effective than others, “I can guarantee this, the status quo hasn’t been working.”