Just over a year ago, I discovered that the young woman sitting at my table at a League of Women Voters event is a member of the Ohio State Board of Education. She was, I later learned, elected by voters in a huge, gerrymandered state school board district, by a constituency that organized to promote the rights of home-schooling families. Sarah Fowler (State School Board District 7) has never attended a public school; neither is she college-educated. A young adult in her early twenties, she was home-schooled. As an adolescent she ran an egg business as part of her family’s farming enterprise.
Ohio’s state board of education is made up of nineteen members—eleven elected and eight appointed by the governor. Earlier this week in anticipation of the 2014 November election, Ohio’s Plunderbund blog described what has been happening on our state board: “Over the past few years, conservative activists have been quietly and diligently working to take control of local and state school boards around the country. Ohio is no exception. John Kasich used his position as Governor to pack Ohio’s State Board of Education with social conservatives and pro-charter activists. Board member Cathye Smith Flory, for example, believes all kids in public schools should be taught about creationism. Debe Terhar, the outgoing board president, compared Obama to Hitler on her Facebook page. And Mark Smith, who also serves as president of Ohio Christian University, claimed Ohio-born novelist Toni Morrison should be banned for her ‘socialist-communist agenda’ and went on a rant about the evils of ‘Equality’ and the benefits of ‘traditional marriage’ at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom coalition conference.”
In Ohio, the eleven districts that elect members of the State Board of Education are so large that it’s likely one doesn’t know much about the candidates running in one’s own district. District 8, for example, includes all or part of 13 counties all the way along the Ohio River and including Youngstown on the north and Athens, the home of Ohio University, toward the south. District 1 covers Ohio’s northwest corner—nearly a quarter of the state geographically—including all or part of 23 counties. The way this is all set up makes it easy, when voters are not paying attention, for a relatively small, organized constituency to get its candidate into office.
Domination of Ohio’s State Board of Education changed considerably when, nineteen years ago, the governor was given more control. An eleven member board was expanded to nineteen, with eight seats to be appointed by the governor. Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal explains that, “the independent representative school board created by voters 60 years ago… no longer exists. In 1995, the legislature added eight more chairs to the 11 elected seats at the table, to be filled by the governor, and for all practical purposes, took the board out of the hands of voters and made Ohio one of only three states to have a hybrid membership. The reason for the change: The elected 11 had endorsed a lawsuit called Nathan DeRolph vs. State of Ohio alleging that the legislature and governor were not adequately funding public education.”
Here are some facts about the state board that Livingston recounted in his investigation a year ago: eight of nine state board committees are chaired by white men; seven of nine committees are chaired by the governor’s appointees; only one member of the state board now lives in an urban school district, despite that 25 percent of Ohio’s public school students reside in urban areas. According to Livingston, despite that the state board positions are non-partisan, “Almost all appointees are significant Republican donors, organizers or fundraisers. About a third of the members attended private schools or send their kids to private schools.”
Livingston continues: “What role does the state board play? Members write the detailed rules that put laws into action. They create academic standards and definitions, approve curriculum, establish test benchmarks, outline teacher evaluations and more.”
Despite the growth in the governor’s power to appoint eight members of the state board, the public controls eleven seats, and there is a move this fall to take back some seats from the far right. Two contested seats are particularly important in the 2014 November election because two retired public school educators are running. Pat Bruns, a thirty-year retired educator, is a candidate in District 4 (Cincinnati) for the seat state board president, Deb Terhar, will vacate.
Retired Cleveland teacher, Michael Charney, seeks to replace Sarah Fowler, the Ashtabula County advocate for home-schoolers and the young woman I met last year. I have personally known and admired Michael for years. For a long time he has been a dedicated advocate for public schools, for adequately funded public schools, for his students, and for school teachers. Here is the platform he endorses: listen to the expertise of classroom and school educators to define classroom life; focus on the literacy life of 3- and 4-year olds; regulate online charter schools so that public school districts do not lose hundreds of millions of dollars; promote public education—not the privatization of public schools; emphasize arts, music, extracurricular activities and physical education, as well as career and college ready preparation; and use the insights of motivated high school students to help their peers who fall behind.
In Ohio, Michael Charney’s basic statement of support for the classic mission of public education is a radical departure from the status quo on our state board of education. If you live in Ashtabula, Trumbull, Portage, or Geauga County, or the part of Lake or Summit County in State Board District 7, I heartily encourage you to vote for Michael Charney. If you live somewhere else, but you know people in these counties, I urge you to talk to them about taking back Ohio’s state board of education to protect the rights of the students in Ohio’s public schools and to protect our democracy.