After the November election, we woke up in Ohio to a troubling political reality. We have only one remaining Democratic official elected statewide—U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, who now begins the final two years of a six year term. Our state is highly gerrymandered, and all the people elected to run our state government, from Governor Mike DeWine on down, are Republicans—most of them increasingly conservative. Republicans now hold a 26-7 supermajority in the Ohio Senate and a 68-31 supermajority in the Ohio House of Representatives.
Although the term-limited, outgoing House Speaker, Bob Cupp lowered himself by joining Senate President Matt Huffman to create illegal (and implemented nonetheless) gerrymandered legislative and Congressional districts for the November, 2022 election, Cupp’s biography summarizes a complex and nuanced political career: “Speaker Bob Cupp is serving his fourth term in the Ohio House of Representatives. He has served as an elected official in all three branches of government and at both the local and state levels: as an Allen County commissioner, a four-term state senator, a court-of-appeals judge, and a justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.” Extremely knowledgeable about public school finance, Cupp led a several-years-long commission to design a new Fair School Funding Plan and sponsored the legislation as part of the FY22-23 state budget.
Here, however, is the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver describing Cupp’s replacement, Derek Merrin, who was just elected by his peers to become House Speaker in January: “A 36-year-old realtor and real estate investor who launched his political career before he could legally drink is about to become one of the most powerful lawmakers in Ohio… Merrin told reporters… that he plans to push a ‘bold conservative agenda’ in the next General Assembly… Merrin helped shepherd the 2019 ‘heartbeat bill’ through the House Health Committee where he served as chairman… When the next two-year legislative session gets underway, the leaders of both the Ohio House and Senate will be strong supporters of expanding school choice. Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, is known around the statehouse as the school voucher guy, and Merrin co-sponsored ‘the backpack bill.’ That’s a plan by House Republicans to make every K-12 student in Ohio eligible for a tuition voucher for private school. ‘Speaker-elect Merrin has been a strong supporter of funding students, not systems,’ Center for Christian Virtue President Aaron Baer said. Baer worked closely with lawmakers on House Bill 290, (the Backpack Bill) which was introduced more than a year ago.”
Senate President Matt Huffman has been shamelessly willing to brag about the power his gerrymandered, Republican supermajority grants him. Last spring, he told reporter Anna Staver: “We can kind of do what we want.”
There are many of us here in Ohio who are concerned about the values likely to be trampled not only in the lame-duck legislative session right now but also in the next General Assembly and the biennial budget that will be its first priority. What are we to do? Working with other partners across the state like Ohio Public Education Partners, the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education sat down on a recent Saturday morning to develop a clear list of legislative priorities.
Here is a brief review and, in some cases, an update on what’s happening with those priorities. It is already clear that action in the Ohio Legislature’s 2022 lame-duck session will speed forward in some cases; other bills, introduced in this 134th General Assembly, will die if they are not acted upon. What follows is a brief update about what’s happening and what people-in-the-know believe is the status of the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s priorities.
Last June, the current Ohio House passed HB 497—to end third-grade retention for children who cannot pass the state’s third-grade language arts standardized test—by a margin of 82-10, and last month, the Ohio State Board of Education passed a resolution in favor of HB 497 by a margin of 18-1. The Ohio Senate Education Committee heard sponsor testimony on this bill on November 30. People in-the-know worry that Committee Chair Andy Brenner, a strong supporter of test-and-punish school accountability, will not bring this bill for a committee vote before the end of the 134th General Assembly.
Members of the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education will be pressing our state senators—during the current lame-duck session—to ensure that no more Ohio third-graders are held back as a result of one test score. Teachers report that young children are experiencing extreme anxiety about the third-grade language arts test, and research clearly demonstrates that holding kids back severely undermines children’s self esteem and increases the likelihood they will drop out of school before graduating.
The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education OPPOSES SB 178, which would move many of the responsibilities of the Ohio State Board of Education to a cabinet position under the Governor and undermine the role of the State Board of Education.
Immediately after three Ohio Democrats were elected to the Ohio State Board of Education on November 8, 2022, a brand new bill was introduced in the Ohio Senate to strip the State Board of its power. Jo Ingles of the Statehouse News Bureau reported: “Three candidates who had backing from two large teachers’ unions won big in Ohio State Board of Education races last week. Now, as Ohio lawmakers come back into session after the election, they are considering reining in the power of state school board members… This legislation (SB 178) would strip the elected board of most of its current educational responsibilities and put them under a new cabinet position n the governor’s office.” Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education will be advocating against the hollowing out of the Ohio State Board of Education.
The Ohio Senate Education Committee held rushed hearings on the 2,100 page bill—on November 29 and November 30. Here is the Legislative Service Commission’s summary of the bill in its current form. People in-the-know believe the Senate will pass this bill during the week of December 5. The key question is whether the Ohio House will take up the bill and pass it before the end of the session. Pointing out that a major restructure of the Ohio State Board of Education and the Ohio Department of Education must be carefully considered before any bill is enacted, many key Ohio advocates are lobbying hard to slow down the process. They say that any restructure of the State Board of Education must be delayed until the next legislative session when it can be more deeply studied.
After the November 29th rushed hearing on SB 178, Honesty for Ohio Education opposed the bill with a strong statement: “We are very concerned at Senator Reineke’s introduction of a massive… bill, with little explanation, that dramatically changes the face of public education by shifting oversight of public education from the voters and the State Board of Education to the governor’s office. Not only does this bill inject partisan politics into public education, it also strips the State Board of significant educational responsibilities. More concerning is the blatant attempt to fast-track SB178 through the legislature during the Lame Duck session. This follows a midterm election that seated three new State Board of Education members who prioritize the safety and wellbeing of all students, not extremist politics. The energy around the bill smacks of partisanship rather than thoughtful education policy.”
It is likely that action on the Backpack Bill will become part of the winter’s biennial state budget debate as the new legislative session launches in the new year. The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education will be paying close attention.
Under the Fair School Funding Plan, The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education SUPPORTS the immediate appropriation of the full phase-in of recommended funding for school districts serving children living in concentrated poverty.
The issue of full funding for the Fair School Funding Plan is likely to become part of the biennial budget debate in the upcoming legislative session.
Because current voucher programs were radically expanded in the FY 22-23 biennial Ohio budget two years ago, the legislature was unable to fully fund the Fair School Funding Plan that was also part of that budget. The legislature phased in only two years’ of funding for the six year plan, and did not fully phase in funding needed for school districts serving children living in concentrated poverty. The state’s responsibility for supporting the many school districts in our area of the state which educate children living in poverty is a high priority for the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education.
The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education has been a strong supporter of the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit. Consider the following facts that are part of the lawsuit filed last January by over 100 public school districts, who argue that the state’s expansion of EdChoice vouchers violates the Ohio Constitution’s requirement that Ohio must provide an adequate and efficient system of public schools:
“The EdChoice Scholarship Program poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system. Not only does this voucher program unconstitutionally usurp Ohio’s public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuitions, it does so by depleting Ohio’s foundation funding—the pool of money out of which the state funds Ohio’s public schools… The discrepancy in per pupil foundation funding is so great that some districts’ private school pupils receive, as a group, more in funding via EdChoice Vouchers than Ohio allocates in foundation funding for the entire public school districts where those students reside. This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon’, or private system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools.”
Myriad culture war bills await action in this 134th Ohio General Assembly lame-duck session. Although the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education has prioritized pending legislation that will control the very existence of our state’s system of public education and the future of all 610 of Ohio’s public school districts, members of the organization are also extremely concerned about the myriad bills that have been introduced to curtail discussion of racism and any mention of sexuality or gender. These bills are designed to silence teachers and make some students and their needs and their heritage invisible. Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education will be collaborating with a partner organization, Honesty for Ohio Education, to keep the public informed about the culture war bills and help them take action.
Even though the voices of the members of the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education are outnumbered right now in Ohio politics, its members will join other Ohio advocates to articulate our deep commitment to Ohio’s children and to name the public’s obligation to fund the strong system of public education our state constitution established generations ago.