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Government/Politics

After Five Years Heading Ohio's Schools, State Superintendent To Step Down

For the first time in five years, Ohio will be looking for a new state schools superintendent, now that longtime Department of Education veteran Paolo DeMaria will be stepping down from that post this fall.

DeMaria came ready to greet staffers at the Ohio Department of Education on his first day in June 2016. 

“I bought 300 donuts and we were down in the lobby starting at 7:30 just to welcome all the staff,” DeMaria said.

DeMaria is a former state budget director who’s worked for two governors, the state Senate and in the Department of Education before being elevated to the top spot as the unanimous choice of the state Board of Education in May 2016. He was the fourth superintendent to take the helm of ODE in five years.

The challenges were big and immediate. DeMaria had to wrestle with new federal regulations and new testing, and a looming crisis with changes to graduation rates that had as many as a third of high school students not on track to graduate. And he was also dealing with then-Auditor Dave Yost’s claim that ODE was the “worst” state agency, and had to work with a state school board that the interim superintendent said was marked by what he called “political sniping”.

“I think I’ve made it clear that we’re not always going to agree,” DeMaria said in 2016. “But some of the fundamentals we’ll always agree on. We always want to be working toward having the best education system we can possibly have. We always want to be working to support students and creating the conditions where students can succeed and be ready for college careers and life, and those things can fundamentally unify us.”

DeMaria also had to manage the fallout from a 2015 scandal in which David Hansen, the head of ODE’s charter school office, scrubbed bad grades of online charter schools to help the state get a $71 million federal grant. Hansen was the husband of then-Gov. John Kasich’s chief of staff. After putting restrictions on the state, the feds eventually delivered about 8% of that grant.

Much of DeMaria’s tenure coincided with the state’s fight against its largest online charter, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. ECOT was ordered to pay back $80 million in state funding it got, though it had 60% fewer students than it claimed were enrolled.  The school ended up shutting down in 2018, eight months before the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against the school on student enrollment versus student participation. DeMaria made very few comments about ECOT, only saying he thinks the law on student enrollment was clear.

As DeMaria prepares to leave, the state is preparing for its second overhaul of report cards for districts in a decade. The A-F grading system implemented by Kasich in 2012 is on its way out, to be replaced with a star rating system in five categories. The change comes after years of criticism that the grades were too simplistic and didn't reflect what was happening in schools.

After years of discussion, new graduation requirements will fully take effect with the Class of 2023, with options including scoring well on end-of-course tests, earning industry credentials, taking the SAT or ACT, and demonstrating competency and readiness. That was a top issue for DeMaria, as education leaders and state lawmakers debated what students needed to accomplish to get diplomas.

Ohio was the first state to close K-12 schools, and the impact of the pandemic on students - some of whom learned remotely, some in hybrid settings, and some not getting much education at all because of technology and other challenges - is still being weighed. But DeMaria insisted that state tests not be abandoned because of them.

“We should not rank, rate, or punish, or have consequences for districts based on testing because we knew their year was interrupted. We know they are not putting forth their best efforts,” DeMaria told lawmakers in February 2021.

Testing did go forward, but lawmakers passed a bill waiving federal requirements on tests, extending the windows in which tests can be taken and reported and allowing for end-of-year grades to be used for graduates instead of tests.

DeMaria announced this week he'll retire on September 24.

In a letter to state Board of Education President Laura Kohler, DeMaria wrote:

"The future of Ohio is in very capable hands, and you have my commitment to support a smooth leadership transition ensuring the continued progress and success of Ohio’s strategic plan for education, Each Child, Our Future, and the education system."

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