HB 487 – A Triumph for Nonpublic Schools

Since I started with OAIS in 2011, I have reminded folks (sometimes ad nauseam, I imagine) that Ohio is the most regulated state in America when it comes to independent and other private schools. No other state imposes the cumulative number of curriculum, testing and graduation restrictions on private school students that Ohio does. Despite the level of state aid that is directed to Ohio schools from state government, which is also one of the highest, if not highest, levels in America, there is no relationship between the restrictions and mandates and the aid received from the state. Aside from those schools with religious objections to state government involvement in education, there is no option for a private school, or even a traditional Catholic school, to opt out of funding and opt out of restrictions. The most intrusive requirement, for the past 20 years, has been the mandatory passage of the Ohio Graduation Test in order for a student to receive a diploma.

Thanks to HB 487, this trend is now in reverse. Committed legislators, who value the unique role that private schools play in our educational system, led the charge to give private schools an opt-out from the end-of-course exams while still maintaining some kind of accountability to the state. Beginning in October of 2015, private schools will have the option of mandating that all students take a national assessment of college and career readiness and publishing the results by graduating class. In the meantime, a select committee will meet to determine whether or not other testing requirements and options would be appropriate.
No private school chartered to operate in Ohio should have to change its curriculum to meet the mandates of a state-issued standardized test. The curriculum at private schools should be driven by professionals, parents, the marketplace and (when relevant) religious teachings. I am proud of the way the nonpublic school community came together to work for these common sense changes and I look forward to a continued discussion of the appropriate relationship and boundaries between state government and private schools.

Independent Schools Are Exceptional, Not Exceptions

In the process of doing some research for a project, I was going through some of the old documents on file with OAIS and I ran across an article prepared by my predecessor, Karin O’Neill. She pointed out, with accuracy, that part of the creation of the charter school and voucher movement was to create schools and situations where students could benefit from environments that were less regulated and less one-size-fits-all. She later noted that the practical effect of regulation in Ohio has been to make nonpublic schools more regulated than even the charter/community schools that were supposed to look like nonpublic schools.

I read this at the same time I was thinking about the implications for some of the studies recently released regarding the concept of private school authorizers and the use of exit exams for granting a high school diploma. As I have mentioned on Twitter, I think the idea of private school authorizers that Andy Smarick raises has a great deal of merit. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) tries to utilize nonpublic school accrediting associations as a liaison between the Department and member schools and ODE has greatly improved on their efforts since I came on board in 2011. With the amount of regulation that Ohio nonpublic schools are required to comply with on everything from school menus to teacher transcripts, I have no doubt there’s potential for savings on both the government side and the school side in centralizing these compliance efforts. I do take issue with the idea that the effectiveness of a school or an authorizer ought to be based on standardized test results. On the use of the exit exams, the conclusions of the study are, in my opinion, consistent with what OAIS school heads have been saying for years: There’s merit in standardized tests, and all of our schools use them, but they simply should not be used to determine who may or may not receive a diploma, especially at a private school that sets its own curriculum apart from what government mandates or thinks should be a standard.
All of this brings me back to the initial passage I ran across. I can really only speak for Ohio but I constantly have the feeling that legislators, decision makers, state board of education members and school leaders ought to collaborate with OAIS school heads to find out what we’re doing that’s working. It’s easy to say that independent schools achieve more because of higher admission requirements, higher average family wealth and all of the other reasons usually cited but the fact remains that our schools are growing in enrollment as a whole and we are consistently graduating students who are ready for college. WIth few exceptions, I’m not aware of any efforts by the public or charter school communities to reach out to find out what we’re doing that’s innovative and leading the way in education. Look at the many programs and institutes our schools are establishing. You’ll find 3 things in common with all of them: 1. The type of educational experience they offer is in demand by students; 2. Colleges are looking for these experiences in applicants; 3. There is a very high level of satisfaction by the parents and students participating in these programs.
The programs and institutes our schools are establishing are unique, but I don’t believe they can only be done at independent schools. Focusing on innovation at all types of schools and making schools exceptional will, in the long run, allow students to develop the creativity they will need to succeed in work and in life. Reducing unnecessary regulations, streamlining compliance with necessary regulations, allowing school professionals, not elected officials, to determine who may or may not go to college and encouraging innovation and collaboration will go a long way to increase the quality of all educational options.