As state lawmakers continue to endlessly tinker with Ohio’s education system, a savvy educational coalition backed by Ohio’s biggest business groups—Ohio Excels—has emerged in a few short years to become a powerhouse force in Statehouse circles.
With a penchant for building unlikely coalitions that bridge typical politics, Ohio Excels has been right in the thick of the most important education policy debates of recent years—fighting to revamp graduation standards, defend Ohio’s report card system, and pushing for outcome-based measures in Ohio’s newest school funding rewrite.
In a lobbying space traditionally dominated by powerful teachers’ unions, school administrator groups, and state education bureaucrats, Ohio Excels has carved out a new role as the voice of Ohio’s business community. Eager to dive into the details and unafraid to ruffle feathers, the group has grabbed the ear of Statehouse lawmakers.
“When we created this organization, we expected that when you had people that really understood education policy working these issues 24-7—along with the backing of the business community—that it was going to be a powerful one-two punch,” said Ohio Excels President Lisa Gray, a veteran education policy expert tapped to head the group. “And it has worked out that way.”
Created in 2018 by Ohio’s corner office crew—the Columbus Partnership, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the Ohio Business Roundtable, and others—Ohio Excels has brought a “singular focus” on education issues that was sorely needed to become a major player, said Ohio Business Roundtable President and CEO Pat Tiberi.
– Pat Tiberi, President and CEO, Ohio Business Roundtable
“It’s been really hard historically if you don’t have the constant engagement with the Department of Education and the colleges and universities,” said Tiberi, a former nine-term Congressman. “Ohio Excels has shown 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.”
In 2019, the coalition first made their mark 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 was similar in many ways, but with an escape hatch that allowed 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.
As the clashing proposals made their way to the Statehouse, Ohio Excels had a critical edge—an unlikely coalition of charter school advocates, wealthy school districts, and the state’s largest urban school districts all were on board with their plan. In the end, Ohio Excels won that fight—and the balance of power in creating education policy began to inexorably shift toward the band of job creators. “It put us on the map in terms of education policy groups taking notice that this new organization was part of the education landscape,” recalled Gray. “It was a really pivotal moment on a really important issue.”
It also gave Ohio Excels a recipe for Statehouse success that they used in future policy fights: Outflank competitors by creating a broad coalition that defies convention and (eventually) unites around detailed policy proposals after a lengthy series of meetings. It’s a secret sauce they followed in largely successful fights to maintain transparency and increase accountability as lawmakers made changes to district report cards and the state’s school-funding system.
“We believe in the power of relationships and we know we don’t have all the answers,” said Gray. “We know that having educators at the table helps us to be more thoughtful about the policy, and, frankly, having us at the table gives them a perspective they might not always have had.”
Ohio Excels has “done a really masterful job of bringing everyone to the table,” said Roger Geiger, the longtime executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). “They have really been a godsend in helping to marshal forces to focus accountability on the education system in this state.”
– Roger Geiger, Executive Director, National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB)
While the bread and butter for Ohio Excels has been the traditional lobbying that takes place every day in the well-polished halls of the Statehouse, they have also thought creatively to break through the noise on issues.
During the fight to defend the state report card from a major overhaul, for example, Ohio Excels released several statewide polls of parents showing that moms and dads cared deeply about having easy-to-understand report cards for schools. “We used that to dispel the narrative that parents don’t care about these specific issues,” said Kevin Duff, the group’s vice-president of policy and research.
The group has also drawn attention to an overlooked corner of the education world by championing business advisory councils for every school district in Ohio. Barely functioning in most districts, Ohio Excels has pushed the state Department of Education into revamping their guidelines and expectations for the state-mandated councils. “They have taken the lead in shining a light on business advisory councils who can really be significantly important on a school district by school district level,” said NFIB’s Geiger.
While Gray called this push “very much a work in progress,” she said the advisory councils can be a launching pad for public-private partnerships that better prepare students for the workplace through internships and other career exposures.
As Ohio Business Roundtable CEO Tiberi looks toward the future for Ohio Excels, he sees a need for better alignment between higher education and the workforce needs of the business community. “We have more challenges than time,” he said. “I think we’ll have more opportunities in the future to bring people together—frankly like no other organization does—and I think it’s really unique and really encouraging for me to see.”