Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman Seizes Control of the State Board of Education

On Friday, two members of the Ohio State Board of Education, including the board’s elected president, were forced to resign because the all-powerful president of the Ohio Senate opposed their vote to retain an anti-racism resolution passed by the state board last year following George Floyd’s murder and not to retract that resolution.

The two who were forced to resign were in the minority when the state board voted in October to replace last year’s Resolution 20.  Here is how, yesterday, the Plain Dealer‘s editorial board summarized the original Resolution 20: “The resolution… condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms, white supremacy culture, hate speech, hate crimes and violence in the service of hatred’ and said the board itself would work to ‘engage our members in open and courageous conversations on racism and inequity’ while offering training ‘to identify our own biases.’ The resolution directed the Ohio Department of Education to examine curriculum and standards to see if any changes were needed to ‘eliminate bias’ and ensure accuracy, and to encourage and support school districts, parents and communities in examining their own practices.'”

In the recently passed replacement Resolution 13, the Ohio State Board of Education simply condemns any teachings that seek to divide and pledges “to promote academic excellence without prejudice or respect to race, ethnicity or creed.”

On Friday, Laura Hancock’s coverage of the resignation of State Board President Laura Kohler made the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s print edition front page, above the fold. The story is important for several reasons. It definitely speaks to the current furor about how the social studies curriculum in Ohio’s schools treats the history of slavery and whether and how to help students understand the role of racism in our history and in our civic and personal lives today.

But Hancock’s story also exposes Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman’s consolidation of power in Columbus. In the new state budget passed in June, Huffman led the legislature to undermine key parts of a new public school funding formula and at the same time to expand the funding for and the availability of private school tuition vouchers and also to increase the state’s investment of tax dollars in charter schools. Huffman is a strong supporter of the expansion of all kinds of privatization of the public schools.

The 19 member Ohio State Board of Education includes 11 elected members from across the state and 8 members appointed by the Governor. Huffman cannot, of course, dictate to the state board of education’s elected members who are responsible to their constituents. But it is apparent that he now controls the appointed members.

Four of the state board’s members were recently appointed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, and Laura Kohler, originally appointed by Governor John Kasich in 2017, had recently been re-appointed to a second term by Governor DeWine.  Huffman points out that state law gives the Ohio Senate the power of “advise and consent” over the Governor’s appointments, though that power is rarely used. The Columbus Dispatch’s Anna Staver explains how Huffman recently seized this provision to control the replacement of the anti-racism Resolution 20 with the much more banal Resolution 13:

“Huffman and Republican Sen. Andrew Brenner (who chairs the Senate education committee) started interviewing the governor’s appointees to the state board. That included Kohler, of New Albany; Steve Dacklin, of Columbus; Martha Manchester, of Lakeview; Eric Poklar, of Worthington, and Timothy Miller, of Akron. The Senate has had the option to ‘advise and consent’ on the governor’s appointments to various boards, but it’s not a power they’ve exercised a lot in the past. It’s a bit of a weird system, Huffman said. Appointees start working before the Senate ever decides if they’re qualified. And if the senators never vote, the appointee simply serves out his or her term. ‘You can get burned that way…, ‘ Huffman said.  ‘And I thought we ought to have some process, especially in these high level positions.’ So, he and Brenner started interviewing the state board of education nominees.”

Staver describes how Kohler understood the meaning of her interview with Huffman and Brenner prior to the State Board’s vote to rescind Resolution 20: “Kohler said no one ever told her to repeal the resolution or she’d lose her job, ‘but it was apparent that neither of the senators was supportive of the resolution.'”

The Plain Dealer‘s Hancock published a follow-up to announce the forced resignation (also on Friday) of a second appointed member of the State Board of Education, Eric Poklar.  Poklar joined Kohler and a minority of the State Board to vote for keeping last year’s anti-racism resolution instead of passing the newer Proposition 13.  Clearly Poklar’s vote, like Kohler’s along with his earlier interview with Huffman doomed his recent appointment by the governor to the Ohio State Board of Education.  Hancock adds that, “Earlier this week, the Ohio Senate confirmed the appointments of three State Board of Education appointees who had voted to rescind the anti-racism resolution: Steve Daklin… Martha Manchester… and J. Timothy Miller….”

In her original front page report for the Plain Dealer, Hancock describes how Senator Matt Huffman described the meetings with the new appointees of the State Board of Education. The word “threat” never appears, of course, but it is clear that the “advise and consent” interviews with appointed board members who were scheduled to vote on whether to rescind a controversial resolution very likely clarified how each member was supposed to vote if he or she wanted to remain on the job: “He said they talked about the anti-racism resolution… He also said he talked with them about the operations at the Ohio Department of Education. He said he regularly hears form local school officials who are dissatisfied with the department. ‘We talked about school choice and school funding and the operation of the Ohio Department of Education.'”

The conversations about the Ohio Department of Education are significant to another important matter. In Ohio, the state board of education is responsible for appointing the state superintendent of public instruction. Hancock explains how Laura Kohler, in her resignation statement, describes the implications of Huffman’s recent action: “Kohler said that she hopes with her resignation that the legislature won’t interfere in the work of the Ohio State Board of Education. However, the board has been looking for a new state superintendent of public instruction since Paolo DeMaria retired in September. ‘I think that the board is going to have to remain vigilant,’ she said. ‘There are some issues that will have great interest to members of the legislature, including the appointment of a new superintendent of public education. I have always strived to promote a partnership between the legislative branch and the board and the executive branch and the board.  My hope is that the partnership will continue with everyone in every role respecting the role that the others have to play.'”

It would be much better for Ohio if Senate President Matt Huffman also had respect for the separate roles of the legislature, the governor and the state board of education and for respectful collaboration.

Social Efficiency, Workforce Development, and the Threat to the Humanities and Social Sciences

In Aristotle’s Wrongful Death , NY Times columnist Frank Bruni contemplates the retreat by colleges and universities from the liberal arts: “History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others. I’m talking about college majors, and the talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?”

Bruni describes how the University of Illinois is combining majors like anthropology and linguistics with computer science, how Assumption College is eliminating majors in art history, geography, and classics and adding data analytics, actuarial science and a concentration in physical or occupational therapy. He reminds us that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is considering dropping 13 majors in the liberal arts and adding “clear career pathways,” and that the University of Wisconsin at Superior is ending majors in sociology and political science and seven other majors in the humanities and social sciences.

The same trend is affecting K-12 education here in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and his allies have been trying to move a bill through the legislature to collapse the Ohio State Board of Education and the Ohio (Higher Education) Board of Regents into Kasich’s own Executive Workforce Board. (See here and here.) Kasich also attempted to get the legislature—in the 2018-2019 biennial budget no less—to require that, to renew their state certification, all teachers would have to sign up for workplace externships to expose them to the “real” world of work. Fortunately, after many people pointed out that teaching is itself a form of work, that initiative was removed from the budget.

In some cases the substitution of workplace-relevant majors is part of an effort by struggling colleges to stay alive. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been tracking what it calls a “sweeping redesign of academic programs at tiny Hiram College. At the end of May, the trustees approved the plan to add criminal justice, international studies, and sports management; and to consider adding majors next year in data analytics, computer engineering and gaming, and interactive media and information technology. The major in religion has been eliminated.  Economics, philosophy, math, French and Spanish are no longer academic majors, although students can earn academic minors in these fields.

All the news about the abandonment of the liberal arts and social sciences, the attention to computer driven skills, and an almost myopic focus on workforce development as the goal of education took me back to David Labaree’s brilliant and very complex 1997 article published in the American Educational Research Journal: Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals. This is a paywalled article and available primarily in college and university libraries. If you can find access to it, you’ll be amazed at its timeliness 20 years after its publication.  It is a largely a descriptive analysis in which Labaree dissects and identifies the frequently competing social goals our society holds for education.

Labaree names three competing goals which he believes over the centuries have been thought to define the broad social purpose of education in the United States: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. The first is what many of us claim to be the purpose of public education—forming a democratic citizenry and promoting equal access and equal treatment for all students. The third—social mobility—is less often named, but certainly practiced by parents positioning their children by purchasing homes in particular suburbs or grasping for access to the Kindergartens in New York City known to be the path to Stuyvesant High School and the Ivy Leagues. Many public schools reflect this third goal institutionally, set up as many are to reinforce our society’s already existing social stratification. And promoters of marketplace school choice incorporate this goal in their arguments. This third goal positions education as something of value primarily to individuals, not society as a whole.

Labaree’s second goal—social efficiency—is the May, 2018 goal-of-the-month—the one that concerns Frank Bruni. Here is Labaree’s definition: “The logic is compelling: Schooling supplies future workers with skills that will enhance their productivity and therefore promote economic growth. This logic allows an educational leader to argue that support for education is not just a matter of moral or political correctness but a matter of good economic sense. Schooling from this perspective can be portrayed as a sensible mechanism for promoting our economic future, an investment in human capital that will pay bountiful dividends for the community as a whole and ultimately for each individual taxpayer.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Labaree describes proponents of social efficiency as: “policymakers (politicians and educational bureaucrats) who are worried about the high cost of supporting many parts of the educational establishment when the economic utility of this investment is slight.  There are employers and business leaders, who fear that their immediate manpower needs are not being filled by persons with appropriate skills or that they will have to provide training for employees at their own expense…  In addition, at the most general level, social efficiency in education is a concern for any and all adult members of American society in their role as taxpayers. As citizens, they can understand the value of education in producing an informed and capable electorate; as consumers, they can understand its value in presenting themselves and their children with selective opportunities for competitive social advantage; but, as taxpayers, they are compelled to look at education as a financial investment—not in their own children, which is the essence of the consumer perspective, but in other people’s children. The result is that adults in their taxpayer role tend to apply more stringent criteria to the support of education as a public good than they do to their role as consumers thinking of education as a private good… Thus the taxpayer perspective applies a criterion to the support of education for other people’s children that is both stingier than that arising from the consumer perspective and loaded down with an array of contingencies that make support dependent on the demonstrated effectiveness of education in meeting strict economic criteria—to boost economic productivity, expand the tax base, attract local industry, and make the country more competitive internationally, all at a modest cost per student.”

He continues: “For taxpayers in general and for all of the other constituencies of the social efficiency goal for education, the notion of education for social mobility is politically seductive but socially inefficient. Sure, it is nice to think that everyone has a right to all the education he or she wants, and of course everyone would like to get ahead via education; but (say those from the social efficiency perspective) the responsible deployment of societal resources calls for us to look beyond political platitudes and individual interests and to consider the human capital needs of the society as a whole. From this pragmatic, fiscally conservative, and statist perspective, the primary goal of education is to produce the work force that is required by the occupational structure in its current form and that will provide measurable economic benefits to society as a whole.

Labaree describes considerable interaction over the decades among the three goals, and it is clear that today in our high-tech economy, the third—social mobility—is also driving at least a lot of talk across K-12 schools about STEM preparation—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students want jobs with status, and hi-tech is where it’s at. Colleges, of course, are lured to provide what students think they need to qualify for lucrative, high-status jobs.  In the state universities, however, especially in the all-Red states engaging in austerity budgeting after tax cuts, the motive of social efficiency conspires with market-based social mobility against the humanities and the social sciences.

Labaree’s primary purpose is to define and describe the many goals that compete from era to era to drive education policy.  Frank Bruni takes a position—flatly rejecting what seems to be the dominant goal right now—social efficiency through workforce development.  He worries about a fourth goal—one that many of us hold: intellectual development itself.  Bruni writes: “I worry that there’s a false promise being made. The world now changes at warp speed. Colleges move glacially. By the time they’ve assembled a new cluster of practical concentrations, an even newer cluster may be called for, and a set of job-specific skills picked up today may be obsolete less than a decade down the road…. (I)t’s a balancing act, because colleges shouldn’t lose sight of what makes traditional majors—even the arcane ones—so meaningful, especially now. And they shouldn’t downgrade the nonvocational mission of higher education: to cultivate minds, prepare young adults for enlightened citizenship, give them a better sense of their perch in history and connect them to traditions that transcend the moment. History, philosophy and comparative literature are bound to be better at that than occupational therapy. They’re sturdier threads of cultural and intellectual continuity. And majoring in them—majoring in anything—is a useful retort to the infinite distractions, short attention spans and staccato communications of the smartphone era.”

Bruni agrees with our society’s greatest proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, who, in 1897, published a Pedagogic Creed, in which he declared: “((T)he only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers. With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work….”

All this is to malign neither fine vocational training nor workforce preparation in fields where students will find employment opportunities—including teaching. But one should be alarmed if, as is being considered at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, future teachers will still be able to earn state professional certification even though the future high school teachers among them will no longer be able to earn academic majors in the subject areas in which they plan to teach.

Defining workplace prep as the single, dominant goal of education is merely another example of how out-of-kilter things have become in America.

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?

Rebel on Ohio State Board of Education Finds a Way to Make His Voice Heard

Ohio is currently one of America’s 23 all-Republican states—Republican House, Republican Senate, Republican Governor.  It even has an elected state supreme court that is dominated by Republicans. Although all the seats on Ohio’s 19-member state board of education are formally designated as non-partisan, 8 seats are held by appointees of the governor, and only 7 seats are currently held by members who identify themselves as Democrats.  If you are a Democrat in such a situation, you need to be creative about getting your voice heard.   

A.J. Wagner keeps figuring out how to make people listen.  Wagner was, early in his career, an elementary school teacher, then later a Dayton attorney, and later still a Dayton Municipal Court judge, and the Montgomery County Auditor.  Finally, before retiring from the bench in 2010, Wagner was elected to serve as a judge in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.

Last summer when the Cleveland Plain Dealer exposed that the Ohio Department of Education had mysteriously omitted the ratings from Ohio’s notorious online charter schools and dropout recovery charters from a new state rating system for authorizers of charter schools, Wagner pressed the State Board of Education to insist on bringing in an outside investigator.  The state board tabled his request, though the press across the state and most notably the Plain Dealer continued to press for transparency. David Hansen, who ran the Department of Education’s charter school office, subsequently resigned.  Eventually Dick Ross, then Ohio’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, retired at the end of 2015.

Now, according to the Columbus, Ohio blog, Plunderbund, Wagner has taken to his Facebook page to publish a personal letter to Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Education, to protest the letter she sent recently to all chief state school officers to remind them that No Child Left Behind’s accountability standards will remain in place during 2016. Plunderbund publishes both Whalen’s letter and Wagner’s response.  Whalen’s letter warns state school leaders that they must not let up, despite that No Child Left Behind has now formally been left behind.  Many of the old law’s regulations will, according to Whalen, continue to insert the U.S. Department of Education into regulating education across the states for the rest of this year.

Wagner raises serious concerns with federal education policy—first: “I find some of your language and some of the federal legal requirements conflicting.  For instance, you demand adherence to the rule that 95% of students be tested for English and math from grades 3 to 12.  Yet, the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states the authority to affirm parents’ right to opt their children out of tests.”

Then Wagner examines the U.S. Department of Education’s Testing Action Plan—the Department’s administrative rules that Whalen warns will remain in place this year.  Wagner explains that the long-running, U.S. Department of Education-approved, standardized testing program in Ohio has, in his estimation violated the Department’s own rules for some time.  First there is the rule that the tests should be “worth taking”—that test results will be provided in a timely way and “present useful information and questions that push students’ critical thinking skills.”  He responds: “In Ohio we administered the PARCC assessments last year.  We still don’t have the final results of those exams… Even if the results had been provided in a timely manner, there has been no preparation to instruct schools and teachers in how to interpret the results so as to implement changes in areas where they fall short.  The tests are, therefore, useless.”  He adds that, “the tests in question have not been validated.  Further, the standards being tested have not been validated by any scientific measurement that would show their effectiveness and ability to improve education.”

Wagner adds, “The tests for which you require 95% participation and high quality have been used, in Ohio, almost exclusively to measure the success of teachers, principals, and school districts.  At every step of this process, careers are on the line with the outcome of these tests.  To suggest a cap on test preparation (as the U.S. Department of Education has asked states to do)… is sound advice unless you’re the teacher, principal, or superintendent who will be evaluated by the result.”

Then Wagner examines fairness—covered in the Department’s Rule 4 in the context of children with physical disabilities and language barriers. Wagner inquires about the role of poverty: “Poverty brings its own barriers to the classroom.  Stress, hunger, poor health, emotional trauma, and lack of intellectual stimulation in the early years handicap most of our poorest children… You only require standards they cannot meet while unvalidated tests discourage them from even trying.”

Wagner wonders how Ohio can comply with a requirement that states effectively communicate the meaning of test scores to parents: “As it is, we give them the scores (which we do with our own nomenclature so as to hide the true meaning of them), give teachers the scores, and do so in an extremely untimely manner.”

He concludes: “Because your threats to school chiefs were widely distributed, I will post this letter on social media as a response.  Please do not interpret this as a lack of sincerity on my part.  These are serious and important concerns and I hope to obtain answers that reflect the importance of our shared interest in our children.”

You may scoff at Wagner’s letter as though it is a mere stunt.  I think it is significant that a person of his experience and stature—a former teacher, an attorney, a county auditor, and a judge—is raising such questions about test-and-punish school accountability.  I admire elected officials who persistently confront the narrative about test-and-punish accountability that is usually accepted unquestioned—as received wisdom.  A lot of people, including the Congress that kept the test-and-punish philosophy while devolving its enforcement to the states in the new law, can’t remember any other way to think about education.

School Policy Fast-Tracked, Kept Secret from State Board of Education in One-Party Ohio

According to the website of the Ohio Department of Education, “The State Board of Education is made up of 19 members – 11 who are elected and eight who are appointed by the governor.”  The website does not list the political affiliation of any of the members because being on the Ohio State Board of Education involves supposedly non-political oversight. The state board appoints and oversees (supposedly) the work of the Dick Ross, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction—also supposedly a non-political position.  Except that in Ohio, a state with one-party government, things don’t work as they are supposed to.  Power is wielded by the Republican governor and huge Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature.

Patrick O’Donnell, who is to be commended for becoming a whiz investigative reporter on the abuses of public education by those in charge in Columbus, broke another story in yesterday’s Plain Dealer about how power works as policy is set around our state’s public education. O’Donnell reports that the new plan that was fast-tracked through the legislature for the Youngstown schools and, in the future, other struggling school districts—a plan that resembles Michigan’s emergency manager plan and the kind of state-oversight school districts that operate in Louisiana and Tennessee—was designed with the active involvement of Ohio’s state school superintendent Dick Ross, but that Dick Ross kept the evolving plan a secret from the state board of education that appointed him and to whom he reports.  Members of the state board, particularly the Democrats, are furious. This was all in the works as members of the state board took a field trip in May to visit schools in Youngstown and consult with educators there about how to support this district—one of Ohio’s poorest.

O’Donnell reports: “State Supt. Dick Ross never told the state school board that he was helping with the secret improvement plan for the Youngstown schools that was rushed through the legislature and was just signed into law.  Even as he offered guidance since late last year.  And even as the board planned, took, and discussed a trip to Youngstown to review how an existing improvement plan was working. Board members said they spent a day visiting schools, talking to parents and school leaders about what was working and what wasn’t, completely unaware that Ross had been working with another group of city leaders there on a plan.  That new plan was amended to HB 70 in a mad dash late last month, blasting from introduction to passage by both Houses of the legislature in a single day without any opportunity for opponents—or even Youngstown’s mayor or school board—to testify about it.  The plan, which will also apply to any other district declared as ‘failing’ and needing state intervention, was signed into law by Gov. John Kasich Thursday.”

A bit of history.  If you follow this blog you may remember that in late June, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  She attached her amendment to a very popular bill designed to support expansion of the number of full-service, wraparound community learning centers in Ohio.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.  There was never a full public hearing on the amended bill.  Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, had arrived in the Senate committee room to testify in favor of the bill promoting community learning centers.  When she was informed that Lehner would be amending the bill under discussion with a plan to take over Youngstown’s public schools, Cropper tried to address that issue in her testimony, but was informed that she could not speak to the amendment, which had not yet been offered. After Cropper sat down, the amendment was introduced, and, according to Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal, “four men in line behind her who had traveled from Youngstown stepped up to give favorable testimony….”

O’Donnell reported yesterday that when questioned by members of the state board about his role in the design of the new Youngstown plan, Superintendent Ross answered: “It came from Youngstown.  I provided assistance.”  “Ross told the board that a group of Youngstown leaders had been working on a plan as far back as eight to ten months ago….”   Mary Rose Oakar, a member of the state board, challenged Ross: “You had an obligation to come to this board and tell us what you were going to do.  You were part of it.”

When the mayor of Youngstown had met with members of the state board when they visited Youngstown in May, he had no idea at that time about the plan that was already being drafted into legislative language.  In June, the amendment introduced by Senator Peggy Lehner was 66 pages long.  Youngstown’s mayor doesn’t buy that the idea was developed and drafted into legislation by people from Youngstown: “I don’t find that to be a reasonable proposition.  It was written by Columbus.”

When questioned at the state board’s June meeting about the amendment she offered to take over the Youngstown school district, State Senator Peggy Lehner confessed where the real power lies.  According to a Hannah Capitol Connections report that is behind a paywall, “Lehner said Gov. John Kasich’s office, not Ross, had reached out to her about moving the proposal in her role as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.”

O’Donnell reports that those on the state board expressing anger about Ross’s behind-the-scenes work on the Youngstown plan are Democrats.  While it is refreshing to hear the Ohio state board’s Democrats raising questions and expressing anger, it is unlikely that there will be serious repercussions for Ross.  Republicans (including the governor’s eight appointed members) dominate the state board by more than two to one, a very significant margin. Ohio’s State Board of Education is really not a non-partisan body these days.

Help Take Back Ohio State Board of Education from Far Right: Elect Michael Charney

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.