THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER
By Jessie Balmert
COLUMBUS – In Richard Ross’ two-plus years as Ohio’s education chief, he found no shortage of people to upset.
Parents railed against long tests and faulty technology used to assess whether students were hitting Common Core marks. Charter school opponents argued he was too lenient on the schools. His charter school czar David Hansen resigned after fudging data to make some sponsors appear more successful than they were. Others complained about the third-grade reading guarantee that could force children to repeat a grade if their reading skills weren’t up to snuff.
But Ross didn’t mind taking the heat, said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsors charter schools.
“There are many paths you can choose to take. Some are easy; others are more difficult. He often took a more difficult path, and I think that’s commendable,” Aldis said.
Ross, 65, will retire, again, at the end of the year after more than two years as the head of a headline-making department. He came out of his first retirement to serve as an education adviser to Gov. John Kasich then was selected to lead the Ohio Department of Education in March 2013.
In that time, Ross championed the third-grade reading guarantee, set aside $280 million for school innovations through the Straight A Fund and expanded preschool options for children in low-income families. He also pushed for a program that allows adults older than 22 to obtain a high school diploma.
“Dick Ross has been a true champion for students and I have the greatest respect for him,” Kasich said in a statement. “Many of the initiatives he helped us pursue hold great promise for the future of our state, including the third-grade reading guarantee, transforming the Cleveland school system and changing the way we help struggling schools. I’m sad to see him go but I’m grateful for his service to our state and I wish him and his family well.”
But Ross made a few enemies as well. Hansen’s resignation called into question a culture at the Department of Education that discouraged intervention into questionable behavior. Democratic lawmakers called for him to resign. Some state school board members called for an independent investigation into data scrubbing but the idea was quickly quashed.
“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,” ProgressOhio executive director Sandy Theis said of recently passed changes to charter school oversight.
A spokeswoman didn’t respond to The Enquirer’s request to interview Ross. He told Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper he had planned to retire this summer, but postponed those plans after Hansen’s misuse of charter school data come to light.
“Things got a little interesting here at the department and I couldn’t leave then,” Ross told the Plain Dealer. “I had to deal with that and I think we’ve done that.”
Earlier in his tenure, Ross was criticized for not acting quickly enough on complaints about problem charter schools. More recently, Ross accepted a $71 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for charter schools — despite the state’s troubled history with them. He also took hits for working with Kasich and GOP lawmakers to take over Youngstown’s failing schools, placing a CEO in charge instead.
“From the recent scandal involving the cover up of failing charter school grades to the takeover of Youngstown public schools that was crafted behind closed doors, the department of education under the direction of Superintendent Ross has suffered from a systemic lack of transparency and accountability,” said Rep. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, in a statement.
Even with the controversies, the increased focus on charter school oversight is an important change — something Ross did better than his predecessors, Aldis said. The department shut down several schools for health and safety concerns during Ross’ tenure, he added.
Ross also listened to complaints from parents and students about the abysmal launch of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests, said Damon Asbury, director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association. Education officials were prepared to replace the PARCC tests when lawmakers scrapped them.
Pat Bruns, one of the state board of education members who will select Ross’ replacement, said she wants the next superintendent to micromanage teachers less and invest in innovative programs more. Still, Bruns, a West Price Hill Democrat, commended Ross for his work on the third-grade reading guarantee.
Opponents of the guarantee criticized it for putting pressure on young students to pass tests. But in practice, students ultimately were promoted and put in remedial reading courses. The third-grade reading guarantee became “less of a threat and more of a promise,” Asbury said.
“It has spotlighted some of the challenges that some of our students have to overcome to get a great start,” Bruns said.
Ross, a former superintendent at Ottawa-Glandorf Schools, Bryan City Schools and Reynoldsburg City Schools, plans to spend more time with his wife and new granddaughter.
“Coming out of retirement four years ago to advocate on behalf of the boys and girls in our classrooms has been the most rewarding experience in my career,” Ross said in a statement. “I enjoyed putting to use my 40 years of experience to strengthen education in our state and I am proud of the progress we’ve made in pursuing new reforms that can position our schools for better academic success.”