State schools superintendent Richard Ross will resign Dec. 31, ending a term that focused on third-grade reading standards and early-childhood education, but ends with significant turmoil over charter school oversight and funding.
Ross planned to retire this summer, but then the charter school evaluation scandal broke in the Ohio Department of Education in July. Ross’ then-director of school choice David Hansen manipulated those evaluations to make some sponsors look better, leading to his resignation.
“Because of who I am and what I believe, I couldn’t leave then,” Ross said. “We needed to correct the problem. I knew it happened on my watch and I had to bear some responsibility for that. We rescinded the evaluations, that employee is no longer here, and we made some structural changes in the department that needed to happen.”
Charter school controversy continues, though, as the U.S. Department of Education this week put a hold on Ohio’s $71 million charter school expansion grant, questioning Ohio’s “ability to administer its grant properly, particularly in the areas of oversight and accountability.”
Ross said he understands and accepts those restrictions. But he argues that between the internal changes ODE has already made, the charter reforms passed in House Bill 2, and an advisory committee’s ongoing revamp of charter school evaluations, Ohio “is in a better place now” on charter schools.
ProgressOhio, a charter school critic that called for Ross’ resignation after the Hansen scandal, cheered Ross’ announcement, saying it gives the state a better chance for charter school success.
“Key provisions of the new charter school reform law place an extraordinary amount of authority with the Ohio Department of Education,’’ ProgressOhio executive director Sandy Theis said. “Dr. Ross’ history of protecting even the worst-performing charter schools had school reform leaders worried that he would try to undercut these hard-fought, bipartisan reforms.’’
Ross, 65, served as superintendent of the Ottawa-Glandorf, Bryan and Reynoldsburg school districts, staying in that last spot for 20 years. In retirement, Ross served as an education advisor to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, then became state superintendent in March 2013.
Ohio Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said Ross’ biggest accomplishment was the focus he brought to early literacy, in the form of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and a push for advances in early-childhood education. She also emphasized that Ross wasn’t pushed out of the job.
“It’s been a very challenging time to be a superintendent of education in any state,” said Lehner, R-Kettering. “To work up front with the legislature to have a hand in shaping what legislation they pass, but then also be sort of stuck with implementing whatever version passes, that’s very difficult.”
Ross said that process of working through legislation “is almost like triage.” But he said he thinks the early reading intervention created by the third-grade guarantee “will make a long-term, positive difference.”
Asked to pinpoint one issue where he wished he had accomplished more, Ross said more work is needed to create a culture of high expectations for all students, regardless of their background.
State school board member A.J. Wagner of Dayton said he likes Ross as a person, but disagreed with him widely on how to handle charter schools, testing and other policy questions. Wagner continues to call for an independent investigation of the Hansen affair, and said if he had to grade Ross’ term the way Ohio schools are graded, he’d give it a D or an F.
“The Dayton Daily News did a story last year saying the state as a whole would have graded as a D on its test scores, and that reflects on him,” Wagner said.
“We just got back the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, and we were down. We recently got back the grad rates for 2013-14 compared nationally, and we were one of only six states that went down. So we’re not seeing much success in our schools and in the reform movements that Dr. Ross believes in.”
West Carrollton City Schools Superintendent Rusty Clifford called Ross an honest and passionate educator, using Ross’ own signature phrase in saying Ross was focused on “what’s best for all the boys and girls in Ohio.”
Clifford said it’s important that Ohio choose a new superintendent who is able to deal with a state legislature that is very active on education issues.
“With all the changes — from teacher evaluation, to testing, charter schools, transparency, funding — it’s like a firehose from the legislature to the Ohio Department of Education,” Clifford said. “It’s like they say, here’s what we want done and when, you guys go do it. And ODE has more work to do with a lot fewer people.”
Those frequent changes in state education law lead some to question how desirable Ohio’s superintendent position is, especially when combined with a state school board that is deeply divided on political lines.
Ross said his two main qualifications for a new superintendent are that they keep the focus on students, rather than adults, and that they not be satisfied with the status quo. Current state school board president Tom Gunlock praised Ross for that very desire to push beyond the status quo, saying Ross’ leadership will have “a lasting and positive impact on Ohio families for many years to come.”
Lehner said Ohio needs to choose a superintendent who’s able to collaborate well with other educators in the field. But she also questioned the procedure for picking a superintendent.
“That’s a real issue — who actually is going to be making this hire?” Lehner said. “Technically it’s the (state school board), but we all know the governor plays a significant role in that decision. Frankly we ought to clarify once and for all — the superintendent is either a cabinet level position picked by the governor, or a job hired by the board.
“Right now I think we’re not quite sure which it is.”