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Ohio Excels is bringing an informed business perspective to the Statehouse to improve and transform Ohio’s education system.

Bringing the Business Community’s Voice to Education Policy in Ohio

By Aaron Marshall

When it comes to education reform and workforce training, the work never ends.

Hang around the halls of the Ohio Statehouse long enough, and you’ll learn that lawmakers, stakeholders, policy wonks, and educational coalitions are endlessly tinkering with learning standards, funding streams and new ways of aligning educational goals with the business world. The labor is endless because the stakes—the future of our communities and our state—are so high.

With so many special interests clashing, genuine reforms and much-needed change can be challenging. But in the Buckeye State, a savvy nonprofit organization backed by Ohio’s biggest business groups–Ohio Excels–has become a powerful change agent, making critical progress at the Statehouse in just five short years.

Created by the Ohio Business Roundtable, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Columbus Partnership, and the Cincinnati Business Committee, Ohio Excels has brought a “singular focus” to education issues that was sorely needed to become a major player in Statehouse policymaking conversations, said Ohio Business Roundtable President and CEO Pat Tiberi, who helped form the organization and serves on its board.

“Ohio Excels has brought a singular focus on education issues that was sorely needed.”

 – Pat Tiberi, President and CEO, Ohio Business Roundtable

With a knack for building coalitions that bridge typical politics, Ohio Excels has been in the thick of the biggest education policy discussions —fighting to revamp graduation standards, defending Ohio’s report card system, making tech education and training a higher priority, pushing for policies that boost college completion, and advocating for the adoption of a student- and outcome-oriented mindset in Ohio’s newest school funding rewrite. That’s a pretty hefty list for a group only celebrating its fifth anniversary.

A trust that investing in effective education is the best investment in children’s futures is the organization’s cornerstone belief, said Ohio Excels President Lisa Gray, a veteran education policy expert. “We fight for equity for all and want for all what we want for our own children: a high-quality education system that prepares all students and adults for success in life.”

Along the way, Ohio Excels has found a secret sauce for Statehouse success the organization has used in a series of policy discussions: creating broad, nonpartisan coalitions that defy convention and eventually establish unity around detailed policy proposals.

“Ohio Excels has shown that the business community can have a voice in education, and that when you do it with mutual respect and accountability, then you have more success,” Tiberi said.

Ohio Excels first made its mark in 2019 as the debate over permanently changing Ohio’s graduation standards took shape, with dueling proposals from Ohio Excels and the State Board of Education. The Ohio Excels graduation blueprint was aimed at simplifying ever-shifting standards, which had grown convoluted and test-heavy as lawmakers frequently moved the goalposts during the debate over graduation standards.

The State Board of Education’s proposal, meanwhile, contained similarities but added an educational escape hatch that allowed students to graduate if they passed a culminating student experience or capstone project.

Ohio Excels was dead-set against this concept, seeing it as a way schools could graduate otherwise ill-equipped students.

As the clashing proposals made their way to the Statehouse, Ohio Excels had a critical edge—an unlikely coalition of the state’s largest urban school districts, charter school advocates, and suburban school districts all were on board with their plan. In the end, the coalition prevailed—and the balance of power in creating education policy began to shift toward the band of job creators.

“It put us on the map. Education policy groups had to acknowledge that this new organization was part of the education landscape,” recalled Kevin Duff, Executive Vice President of Policy and Research at Ohio Excels. “It was a pivotal moment on a really important issue.”

“We know that having educators at the table helps us to be more informed and thoughtful about the policy, and, frankly, having us at the table gives them insights and a perspective they might not always have had.”

 – Baiju Shah, President and CEO, Greater Cleveland Partnership

While that early victory put the Statehouse on notice, Ohio Excels shifted into overdrive in 2023 as it backed Gov. Mike DeWine and his landmark legislation to transition the Ohio Department of Education to a cabinet-level agency, led by a director appointed by the governor. That heavy lift–lawmakers had rejected the idea in the previous session–was the mere dress rehearsal for a series of key policy changes in the state budget propelled by Ohio Excels that lawmakers enacted in July 2023.

Led by Ohio Excels and its coalition partners, the business community’s priorities for education and workforce were included throughout the 6,198-page document.

Working with advocates and reading experts, Ohio Excels successfully pushed increased investments in literacy as well as making computer science and technology education a higher priority. The organization also played a key role in advocating for increased funding for all educational options in Ohio, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, career technical training centers, and expanded eligibility for EdChoice vouchers.

Meanwhile, the group worked to help make Ohio more competitive with need-based aid to give more students the opportunity to attend a college or university of their choice. It tackled a longtime stumbling block for lower-income students by urging the passage of budget language taking steps to end the practice of withholding transcripts from students with institutional debt. And finally, the group supported the administration’s proposals to significantly increase support for technical training and credentialing for adults.

The organization’s success is due to an approach that keeps looking for the best answers by bringing everyone to the table, said Ohio Excels Board Chair and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership Baiju Shah. “We believe in the power of relationships, and we know we don’t have all the answers,” said Shah. “We know that having educators at the table helps us to be more informed and thoughtful about the policy, and, frankly, having us at the table gives them insights and a perspective they might not always have had.”

Along with its critical presence in Statehouse corridors, Ohio Excels keeps abreast of the issues important to the organization’s founding members by hosting regular meetings with the other business advocacy groups.

Ohio Excels has also employed its expertise in the business world by joining with the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation to host a statewide workforce and education conference, which attracts more than 500 leaders each year.

As Gray surveys the education landscape in Ohio since the nonprofit entered the picture, she sees trust being built among her group, lawmakers, and other education reform advocates that could lead to more sweeping changes.

“They are beginning to see that the business community wants all students and adults to pursue careers that provide a family-sustaining wage and for them to share in the benefits of new and thriving industries in our state,” Gray said. “At the end of the day, we are moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches, and mentors who know our future rides on the ability of our young people to flourish in a global economy.”

As work to shape education policy continues without pause at the Statehouse in 2024, Ohio Excels will again be in prime position to influence the debate as it seeks the best answers to today’s most pressing educational questions.

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