COLUMBUS — Public education is no stranger to controversy. Whether it’s standardized testing, academic standards, graduation requirements, charter schools or school funding, discussion and disputation are part of the deal. At present, the K–12 issue triggering the liveliest arguments in Ohio is academic distress commissions, or ADCs.

ADCs are Ohio’s current method for driving change in persistently low-performing schools by establishing new leadership in them. Though operating today in just three districts — Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland — ADCs have triggered lawsuits, contentious town halls and a growing cadre of opponents pushing to eliminate them.

In recent months, legislators have labored to figure out what is and isn’t working under the ADC law and how to improve the process going forward. Many hoped the issue would be dealt with in last month’s state budget, but the House and Senate couldn’t seem to get on the same page regarding ADCs.

When lawmakers return from their summer break, both chambers can expect to find ADCs high on their to-do lists. They’ll face an array of details and trade-offs needing to be weighed and resolved as they struggle to craft a new system that (we hope) will work better and with less controversy than the current one. As they struggle, three key lessons should shape their decisions.

First, as Gov. Mike DeWine has made clear, Ohio has a “moral obligation to help children in failing schools.” The districts currently under ADC control have long histories of low achievement, weak academic growth, meager college completions and few students who even reach proficiency in basic subjects. Such schools produce too many graduates who aren’t prepared for college or the workplace, and their communities, families and local employers pay a high price for this, along with the young people themselves.

Lawmakers must ensure that any system they adopt maintains a mechanism for state intervention when local attempts at improvement are unsuccessful.

Second, critics are right to note that lasting, positive change is unlikely without local buy-in. While any new ADC strategy must default to intervention by the state, local leaders must be given both ample warning when things are amiss and a fair chance to rectify matters before the state steps in.

Many promising solutions don’t start in Columbus, but in districts. Consider the positive efforts in the Akron Public Schools around college and career academies and innovative partnerships like the I Promise School. A new ADC system must ensure that local leaders get the first opportunity to right the education ship.

Finally, struggling districts will need assistance if they’re to succeed with major changes. This includes both financial support and technical expertise. Change is hard, and resources will be needed to identify problem areas and craft and execute a plan.

The Ohio Department of Education has information about evidence-based programs that work, and districts should look to these (and other) sources for guidance. While deciding what approach to take should remain a local decision, it’s important for the state to pursue every opportunity to help districts identify proven solutions based on rigorous research.

After years of overheated rhetoric, Ohioans can expect more passionate debates about academic distress commissions when the General Assembly reconvenes. But a solution is reachable if lawmakers commit to giving local districts a chance to improve, providing the resources necessary to do it, and preserving state intervention as an essential last resort if local efforts continue to fall short.

The stakes are high. Poverty and achievement gaps are steep mountains to climb, but they are not insurmountable. Every Ohio child is capable of learning and deserves to be held to high expectations. It is imperative for state leaders to craft a workable school intervention policy. Ohio’s students deserve nothing less.

 

Aldis is vice president for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.