Ohio Governor and Legislature Threaten to Quash Democracy in Education Governance and Oversight

Ohio’s Governor John Kasich likes to have full control. And he views education pretty much as a tool for his highest priority: workforce development. Ohio’s economy persists in lagging, and Kasich seems to believe that if he can seize more control of education, that might be the answer. (The essential question of whether education has other purposes besides workforce development—preparing thoughtful citizens—developing critical thinking and imagination—nurturing appreciation for literature and the arts—will have to wait for a future blog post.)  Governor Kasich and his close partners in the legislature are pushing House Bill 512 to consolidate several departments that have education in their portfolios and remove power from Ohio’s 19 member State Board of Education, which Kasich already partially controls through the 8 members appointed by him. The other 11 are elected from districts across the state. The plan would also eliminate the State Board-appointed Superintendent of Public Instruction.

There is some mystery about the Governor’s intense advocacy for HB 512, because term limits ensure that he will no longer be the governor after voters elect a new governor in November.  Even if Kasich can consolidate power for all of the state’s educational functions into one super cabinet-level department in Columbus, he won’t any longer be the governor, and he won’t have any power over his new agency.

Here is how the editorial board of the Akron Beacon Journal describes the merger at the heart of HB 512 along with some questions and concerns: “The bill would merge the departments of higher education and education, plus the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation…  The governor did not consult widely or effectively.  For one, Paolo DeMaria, the state school superintendent and a logical source for input, was not asked for his thoughts by those putting together the proposal…  The governor already controls two of the three offices that would be merged. The potential exists for having considerable clout with the third, the Department of Education, along with (the) state school board… Yet though the department plays a big and obvious role in the work mission, the governor did not put the state superintendent on the workforce transformation board.  Neither has the governor filled seats on the state Board of Regents overseeing higher education. The nine-member board currently has just two members.”

A political fight over HB 512 has been taking place in packed hearing rooms in Columbus, as Kasich allies argue for more efficiency, and opponents protest another theft of democracy, following an earlier education efficiency plan rammed through the legislature in the middle of a summer night in 2015—the Youngstown (and now Lorain) school takeover.  The Youngstown Plan designed and delivered by Kasich and his allies puts an appointed “academic distress commission” (ADC) in charge of running Ohio’s poorest and lowest scoring school districts and an appointed CEO responsible to the ADC and the state. The elected local school board continues to exist, but only in an advisory role.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes the arguments being made by both sides around the governor’s 2018, HB 512 plan to consolidate the Ohio Department of Education, the Higher Education Board of Regents, and Workforce Transformation: “A bill to create that merger, which would also wipe out about 80 percent of the power of the state school board and give it to the governor, has drawn some support but also a backlash from educators and the public… Backers of the plan say combining the three will give students a smoother path to learning skills they need for jobs and a promising future. By eliminating the ‘silos’ of the three departments, they say, the state can lessen an ongoing problem of graduates lacking the right skills for available jobs and employers struggling to find people with those changing skills… But a wave of opponents say that placing the combined departments under the control of the governor, who would appoint the head of the new department, would take away the voice of voters to guide education policy… Though the (state school) board would remain in place, as mandated by the state constitution, it would lose policy-making power, the ability to hold hearings on changes and the right to make department officials answer questions publicly about their work.”

Ohio’s state board of education would continue to exist, but would lose all power apart from overseeing teacher licensure and investigating educator misconduct. One of its most prominent roles currently is its power to appoint the state superintendent of public instruction.  For the record, on Tuesday, members of the state board of education voted 11-4 to oppose HB 512.

As the raucous and packed hearings in Columbus continue, there is growing suspicion that the fight is really about politics, not policy—about political payback.  Kasich didn’t oppose the state board of education after it affirmed his own choice, Dick Ross, several years ago for state superintendent. Ross was forced to resign in November 2015, after it was discovered that an official in his Department of Education had lied on a federal Charter Schools Program application—claiming that Ohio had cracked down on charter school sponsors and charters that were academically failing or financially unsound.  In fact no such law had been passed, although at the time the legislature was considering improving the oversight of charter schools.  After Ross’s resignation, members of the state board of education voted unanimously to appoint State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, who has operated more independently and who has seemed to listen to complaints from the public about over-testing and the state report cards.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s, Catherine Candisky reports that Governor Kasich and State Superintendent DeMaria have not been on speaking terms. While both men, through their spokespersons, claim they have a cordial working relationship, Candisky adds that Kasich neither asks for guidance on K-12 education from DeMaria nor has Kasich appointed DeMaria to the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board, though DeMaria “has sought to be more involved ” and has requested such an appointment.

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and his Ohio Department of Education were also involved in the investigation that eventually closed the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.  Superintendent DeMaria refused to stop the investigation, despite pressure from legislators who had received huge campaign contributions from ECOT’s founder, William Lager.  At the end, the Ohio Department of Education participated actively in cracking down on the huge online school that overcharged the state during two recent school years (2015-16 and 2016-17), according to Ohio Department of Education calculations, by $80 million for phantom students.

Innovation Ohio’s Stephen Dyer believes HB 512 is really driven by retribution: “As Kasich recently told a forum last month: ‘What I really want… I want to be able to run the Department of Education… I don’t think we should have this elected board.’   Whatever the backroom dealings, it’s clear that Kasich is pushing HB 512 to punish the department for something, or some things.  One is clearly the board and superintendent’s role in closing down the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow…. But it appears that Kasich’s indifference to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction may have additional roots in DeMaria’s unanimous selection as Superintendent by the State Board.”

HB 512 is not the only symptom of problems with Kasich’s autocratic theory of school management. Big problems are emerging with the state-driven Youngstown takeover, Kasich’s pet 2015 project.  Three members of the school district’s  five-member, appointed Academic Distress Commission have resigned in the past two weeks. And the appointed CEO, Krish Mohip, has been openly seeking a job as school superintendent in Boulder, Colorado. Mohip has publicly explained that, after instances of vandalism at his house, he believes he cannot bring his family to live in Youngstown.  The Ohio Department of Education, given overall responsibility of the state’s Youngstown takeover district, has now appointed John Richard, the state’s deputy state superintendent, to Youngstown’s Academic Distress Commission.

It should not be surprising that citizens of Youngstown remain unhappy about the state takeover of their public schools. Mohip’s lack of sensitivity as an appointed outside overseer is a symptom of what can go wrong when efficient management rather than democracy is the priority.  Not only did Mohip insult the community by declaring it unfit for his family, but speaking about the 2015 takeover that made the locally elected school board a mere advisory body, he recently told Youngstown: “I am disappointed the board (of education) and community members haven’t gotten over that House Bill 70 (the state takeover) is here… It’s about building sustainability and a sustainable future for this district, and I feel we have a solid system in place.”

I wonder if Mohip has taken the trouble to build consensus within the community for the “solid system” Mohip says is now in place?