A new coalition gathered by high-powered business interests is striving for education policy that moves Ohio's economy forward.

This is a story about education policy, but please keep reading anyway. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find this is really a story about who wields power and how what we say we want from our schools is changing.

The leading character in this drama is Ohio Excels, a newly formed group of the states most powerful business interests that’s quickly emerged as a heavyweight lobbying force in education policy in the well-polished halls of the Ohio Statehouse.

In about a year on the job, the coalition’s wing-tipped warriors drawn from the ranks of the Columbus Partnership, Greater Cleveland Partnership and Ohio Business Roundtable, among others, already has put their stamp on Ohio’s new graduation standards established in the latest state budget, besting a competing proposal from the Ohio Board of Education.

While the jury is out on whether the new graduation standards will survive long enough to be fully enacted, the group’s sharp elbows and Statehouse sway have some educators howling and observers taking notice. And while the first round was over Ohio’s high school graduation bar, Ohio Excels has an ambitious agenda aimed at ensuring that Ohio’s students are better prepared than ever to contribute to the New Economy.

Settle in, faithful reader, because this story is only beginning to be written.

Stay up to date with the region’s movers and shakers, top employers, philanthropic causes, real estate developments and thriving creative and startup scenes. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.

It was the lame duck session of the legislature in 2018, and someone had invited “a skunk to the picnic,” explains Pat Tiberi, the former Congressman who is now president and CEO of the Ohio Business Roundtable. The picnic’s main course was a plan to weaken graduation standards for the graduating classes of 2019 and 2020, a move lawmakers had made previously for the class of 2018 at the request of worried Ohio school superintendents. The concern that educators had relayed to lawmakers? Roughly 20 percent of students were not on track to meet the full graduation standards, which involved doing well on seven end-of-course exams; or earning a college-ready score on the ACT or SAT; or gaining industry-recognized credentials. Enter Tiberi, asking state lawmakers to slam the brakes on watering down standards for 2019 and 2020 to the point where having high attendance, a C+ average in senior year courses or performing community service could be paths to a high school diploma.

“We threw a wrench into this at the very last minute,” says Tiberi during a recent interview around the conference table in his Capitol Square suite. “Can you imagine how pissed off they were? We came at it really late and upset what everyone thought was going to happen.”

Lawmakers emerged with a classic lame duck compromise: Extending the easier graduation pathways for the classes of 2019 and 2020, but adding language telling the state Board of Education to consult with the business community before recommending long-term replacement standards for high school graduation the coming April.

Having bought six months by getting lawmakers to punt on permanent graduation standards, Ohio Excels moved into overdrive, holding a series of discussions with legislators and educators as they developed their ideas for how to implement permanent graduation standards that were meaningful. “We were very open and honest about our concerns and said we will work with anyone that wants to work with us,” says Lisa Gray, a veteran education policy expert whom Tiberi tapped to head up Ohio Excels. “I’m an equal opportunity meeting scheduler.”

As Ohio Excels’ plan took shape, the group added some formidable partners, including charter school advocates at the Thomas Fordham Institute, wealthy school districts in the Alliance for High Quality Education and, eventually, the state’s eight largest school districts, known as the Big 8. “It was very far right and very far left coming together and saying we believe these graduation requirements that we crafted are going to drive the equity of expectations for kids,” says Gray. “They are more likely to set kids up for success after high school.”

Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and charter schools advocate with offices on East Broad Street in Downtown Columbus, said the Ohio Excels coalition got attention. “When you have the Ohio Alliance, which are high-performing schools, the eight urban districts, the Fordham Institute and the business community, I think the breadth of that coalition that was built was very important,” he says. Tiberi boils it down: “When the Columbus Public Schools and the Olentangy School District and the business community agree on something, that’s incredible. Really, it’s unbelievable.”

Ohio Excels, which is funded by the business community and foundations including the Lovett & Ruth Peters Foundation, Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Joyce Foundation and City Fund, crafted a graduation blueprint aimed at simplifying ever-shifting standards, which had grown convoluted and test-heavy as lawmakers frequently moved the goalposts during the debate.

Instead, Ohio Excels offered a three-step plan where students would have to first earn minimum course credits. Secondly, students must pass Algebra I and English II tests, earn similar college credits, demonstrate career/technical expertise or show military readiness. Lastly, all students would need to earn two “diploma seals” developed by the state or the local district to show special skills in certain areas such as citizenship, community service or industry credentials.

It was a complicated discussion among coalition members, but it had a simple goal, Gray says. “All of us sitting around that table believed that a high school diploma needed to mean something,” she says.

Meanwhile, in another corner of Ohio’s education policy universe, the state Board of Education was holding a series of public hearings to build its own set of graduation standards to recommend to lawmakers. While the plan being developed by the state board was largely similar to the Ohio Excels plan, it also had a key difference that became a sticking point: The state board wanted to allow an alternative path for students to graduate if they passed a culminating student experience or capstone project. But the Ohio Excels coalition was dead set against it, seeing it as a way schools could graduate otherwise poor-performing, ill-equipped students.

At a heated state Board of Education meeting in March 2019, debate over whether capstones should be included as an avenue to graduation—and the appropriate role the business community should play in crafting education policy—came to a head during a presentation from Gray and Tiberi blasting the concept.

“There’s a lack of consistent and equitable performance expectations for all Ohio students that we worry will disadvantage our most challenged students yet again,” Gray told the board, referring to the capstone concept. “We believe the complexity of implementations will likely lead to inconsistent expectations from district to district, school to school, and class to class.”

State board members bristled at the notion that the capstones would water down graduation standards and questioned the business group’s expertise on education policy issues. “As an educator I would not walk into anybody’s factory—say GM for instance—and sit there and say, ‘You know what, here’s what you need to be doing to make better cars,’ ” said state Board of Education member Meryl Johnson, a retired Cleveland Public Schools teacher. “I wouldn’t feel like I was qualified to do that.”

Other board members jumped in, saying that Ohio Excels didn’t understand the efforts already underway to keep kids pointed toward graduation or the basic inequities embedded in Ohio’s school funding system that vary resources from zip code to zip code.

As tensions rose in the room, Gray and Tiberi bobbed and weaved through the board’s sometimes hostile fire. “We want to be a partner in this work. That doesn’t mean we want to come in and dictate or that we know more than the classroom teacher,” Gray told the board. “But we do have a perspective as the business community that we do believe is something that should be brought to the table.”

In dismissing the capstone projects, some educators see a clear implication from Ohio Excels that schools can’t be trusted to develop objective standards for the projects and have teachers objectively grade them. “You ought to trust teachers to fulfill their professional responsibilities to decide whether students have met the expectations of the curriculum,” said Scott DiMauro, a Worthington social studies teacher and head of the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “There’s an element of distrust in educators that’s lurking in there.”

When the dust settled at the March meeting, the state Board of Education voted nearly unanimously against stripping the capstone idea from its recommendations and forged ahead with its plan. The stage was now set for Ohio Excels and the board to offer dueling proposals to state lawmakers.

Under state law, Ohio House lawmakers got first crack at the state’s two-year operating budget in the spring of 2019, but Ohio Excels leaders quickly found they weren’t interested in tackling the issue of graduation standards in the spending plan. However, it was a different story in the Ohio Senate, where Tiberi has closer ties to members of leadership. After weighing both proposals in state budget hearings, the Senate chose Ohio Excels’ blueprint over the state board’s proposal, rolling it into their version of the state’s operating budget. Eventually, the plan would also get the green light from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and be signed into law.

While business groups always have found a receptive ear with Ohio GOP lawmakers, state Sen. Peggy Lehner, longtime chair of that chamber’s Education Committee, said choosing the Ohio Excels plan represents a new emphasis on listening to job creators over educators on key education policy questions.

“There’s no question that there was a tremendous amount of deference paid toward the workforce,” says the Republican lawmaker from Kettering. “We are really looking toward businesses to find out what they demand from students when they are coming out of high school. Choosing sides with the business community really represents a shift from the tradition of education policy being handled through educators and the school system.”

In an emailed response to a series of Columbus CEO questions, Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria says he sees it a little differently, noting that his experiences over the years with state lawmakers have shown them to be hesitant to wade into untested waters. “One of the big things I’ve learned is that the legislature is cautious when it comes to new ideas,” wrote Ohio’s top education official. “Legislators focus on making a positive difference, but when it comes to proposals that offer a different perspective than the status quo, they might prefer to act more incrementally.” DeMaria added that the board’s work “hugely informed the conversation” and that “in many respects, the system of seals included in the graduation requirements embraces the flexibility and student choice exemplified in the board’s proposal.”

For his part, Tiberi says he thinks Ohio Excels has boldly stepped into a crucial education advocacy role that had been deserted by the business community over the last decade. “There was a vacuum during the Kasich administration from a business community standpoint,” he says. “There needed to be a re-engagement from the business community perspective”—especially as critical workforce issues threaten to hamper the state’s growth.

Aldis—the charter schools official—says the policy void during the Kasich era was because of the energetic governor’s breakneck pace. “Governor Kasich was very much the lead on many of these issues and a lot of change occurred,” he says. “A lot of advocates didn’t do as much during that time because there was already so much going on to react to.”

The sudden prominence of the business community in education policy is a sea change that hasn’t gone unnoticed by educators who think the true experts are getting the cold shoulder. “We are concerned that the legislature seems to be putting more stock into what the business community was saying at the detriment of educators who work every day in the classroom,” says DiMauro, the OEA chief. “They were smart in that they didn’t come in completely on their own…there were some superintendents and educators in their coalition, which gave them credibility they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Ohio Excels was fortunate in stepping into a relationship between the state board of education and state lawmakers that had grown frosty, says John Hagan, a state board member from Northeast Ohio who served eight years in the Ohio House. “I think currently the legislature doesn’t have a real strong opinion of our board or even sometimes the Department (of Education),” Hagan says. “It’s something I’m trying to work on…but I think they may question our credibility.”

In his email, DeMaria disagreed, noting the board’s recommendations have been followed in a number of areas in the past few years including report card reform, reforming teacher evaluations and rolling back graduation standards on two separate occasions. “That doesn’t look like a lack of credibility to me,” he wrote.

Senator Lehner, a frequent attendee at state board meetings as the Senate’s leader on education issues, agrees there’s heightened tension but says “it exists about everywhere” in the country when state education boards clash with lawmakers for policy power. “I think it’s inevitable,” she says. “You have two competing entities that are both trying to develop education policy, so you’re going to end up with some distrust. It’s always a bit of a challenge.”

Although the Ohio Excels-backed graduation standards are in place, their staying power is far from guaranteed. After all, lawmakers have twice repealed tough standards when faced with unhappy school officials, parents and students. Tiberi acknowledges that could be an issue. “No one can answer your questions on that,” he says. “But as a policymaker, I can tell you that I’ve never seen the alignment that there is right now between different organizations.”

As educators adapt to the newest graduation standards that will take effect for this year’s high school freshmen, OEA chief DiMauro laments that shifting graduation standards have left teachers and school administrators frustrated. “I think that’s the consequence of politicians making decisions without truly taking the time to listen to the voice of educators who are on the front lines with students,” he says.

Senate Education Chair Lehner says she regrets the moving goalposts Ohio lawmakers have set up for schools. “We have to quit changing policies so much and stick with something for a while,” says the veteran lawmaker who will leave office in 2020 due to term limits.

“We need these standards to develop and grow some roots. If I had one piece of advice for future lawmakers who will come after me, it would be this: Build some stability into the system.”

Ohio Schools Superintendent DeMaria said in an email that he thinks students and parents “are very astute,” and most aren’t paying attention to the debate about the minimum bar to graduate. “I know more students saying, ‘I’m taking three AP classes and involved in all these extracurriculars,’ not ‘What’s the bare minimum I need to do to graduate?’ ” he said via email.

***

Talk to any business leader gazing over the 2020 horizon, and workforce development is bound to come up. At the end of the day, the debate over graduation standards is about how to best prepare students for a work world that needs them to drive prosperity.

Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, the consortium that is a premier power broker in Central Ohio, sees economic development as an arms race between competing states.

“The war is totally on talent,” he says. “What we know is Ohio has some challenges that we have to overcome in that talent war.”

One of the chief challenges for the Buckeye State is the state’s education attainment rate—the number of Ohioans who hold a college degree or other credential beyond high school. Ohio currently has an attainment rate of about 45 percent, a showing that lags three points below the national average. That makes Ohio 45th among the 50 states, an eyebrow-raising statistic that shocks many of those outside the education system, Gray says.

As Fischer sees it, the twin goals should be to move the needle to get more Ohioans to college while also keeping more advanced degree earners here, steering them into the arms of employers eager to utilize their skills. “The states and communities who figure it out and bend the curve on the talent equation are going to be the states winning economically,” he says.

Noting that employers created 330,000 new jobs since the Great Recession while Ohio’s workforce has shrunk by 190,000 workers, Tiberi says the primary solution must be better trained, prepared students graduating from Ohio schools. “We can’t solve it by just importing people,” he says. “We have to fix this problem beginning in kindergarten. It’s not going to happen overnight, but there’s more awareness among the different entities that deal with this.”

Part of that awareness is being built by a statewide steering committee led by Ohio Excels to improve Ohio’s attainment rate. “It’s going to be a heavy lift,” Gray acknowledges. “Most economists think we need to get to the 60 to 65 percent range to drive a robust economy.

“So working on how we improve the attainment rate so that more Ohioans have some sort of postsecondary degree is an important intersection of education and the workforce. It’s a really big piece of our work.”

Gray says she hopes consensus emerges from the working group on where the state needs to make investments to move the needle on attainment. “What policy levers do we need to pull and what investments do we need to make?” she says. “What partnerships need to be in place and how do we align different groups so we are all rowing in the same direction?”

While Ohio Excels made a first impression with its work on graduation standards, the group’s leaders say the issue moved to the top only because it was bubbling in the legislature at the time. On their plates for the future is an ambitious set of K-12 education issues including ensuring children are ready for kindergarten, improving reading scores on the state’s third-grade reading guarantee and chiming in as lawmakers consider revamping the state’s school funding formula (again). “We are really hoping to be a voice at the table, and not just a consumer of the system, but a partner in the system to ensure more Ohio students are prepared for success,” Gray says. “None of those things by themselves are going to get done. There is a whole lot of work to be done.”

For his part, DeMaria says Ohio is “fortunate to have an engaged and active business community that is willing to roll up their sleeves relative to education policy.” And while he’s happy to have the business community’s input on the policy side, the crucial role for them is introducing students to the 9-to-5 world.

“The most important role business can play is at the local level—providing workplace learning experiences (internships, apprenticeships, shadowing opportunities) for students,” he says.

With Tiberi at the helm of the Ohio Business Roundtable and Gray riding shotgun with Ohio Excels, business leaders sound excited about what can be accomplished in the coming years. “I think the next decade is going to be a really unique time for Ohio’s business community and how it comes together under Pat’s leadership,” says Fischer. “I wonder where we’ll be in 10 years. We’ve already made this much progress and no one was even in the room one year ago.”