The powerful, supermajority Republican Ohio Senate is rushing to attack public education as the 135th Ohio General Assembly convenes this month.
The Statehouse News Bureau‘s Jo Ingles explains: “A bill to take power away from elected members of the Ohio State Board of Education has been reintroduced after falling short in the Ohio General Assembly last year.” You will remember that the bill the Senate tried to pass at the end of the legislative session was a 2,144 page Senate Bill 178 to disempower the state school board, a bill which then got combined with a bill to ban transgender girls from high school sports and another to ban any requirement by school districts that their students be vaccinated for COVID-19. The huge package containing SB 178 failed in the last hours of the lame duck session.
Now Senator Bill Reineke has introduced, as Senate Bill 1 in the 135th Ohio General Assembly, the same provisions to hollow out Ohio’s State Board of Education and move most of the State Board’s primary functions into a new cabinet Department of Education and the Workforce under the governor.
State Senator Andy Brenner (R.-Delaware), the Chair of the Ohio Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee, is the Ohio Legislature’s ex officio, non-voting representative to the Ohio State Board of Education.
Ingles reports that last week Brenner informed members of the Ohio State Board of Education about the bill that has been reintroduced: “(T)he bill is a priority and is the first one to be introduced in that chamber. ‘Senate Bill 1 will put basically the governor in charge.’ Brenner said.”
Ingles explains: “That’s something Ohio governors have wanted for decades but the intensity for advancing a bill to do this was amplified after the November election when three new members, all backed by teachers’ unions, were elected to the board. This bill will create a position, accountable to the governor, that will oversee much of the educational policy now being handled by the state board… Brenner said this bill is needed because the state school board is not effective in some areas.”
Brenner also believes that handing power to the governor would make schools more accountable. Ingles quotes him attacking the State Board of Education because during COVID-19, test scores dropped precipitously in two of Ohio’s school districts serving concentrations of the state’s very poorest children: “I think it is embarrassing when the passage rate in East Cleveland this past year was 2.1% in 8th grade math and low-single-digits in Youngstown—this board should be pounding on the department to get that fixed and those local districts.”
The Plain Dealer’s Laura Hancock describes State Board Member Meryl Johnson’s response to Brenner’s attack on local school districts. Johnson’s state board district has included many of the school districts in metropolitan Cleveland. Meryl Johnson is a very involved, hands-on representative of the school districts she has been serving, and she knows how COVID-19 affected families in her district. Johnson responded to Brenner’s attack on the East Cleveland City Schools by reminding Senator Brenner about something he must somehow have missed or forgotten: the East Cleveland school district was taken over by the state in 2018 (under HB 70), and it has been managed since then under a state appointed Academic Distress Commission. When law makers realized that Academic Distress Commissions had not raised aggregate test scores in any of the five districts taken over by the state, the Legislature created a path for school districts to work their way out of state oversight. East Cleveland’s plan to work its way out of state oversight was approved a year ago.
At last week’s state board meeting, Meryl Johnson reminded Senator Brenner: “There was a state takeover, academic distress, and we didn’t see that doing a whole lot… I know that in East Cleveland, their teachers work hard. I’ve talked to them. I go in there. So I’m just concerned that you continue to raise that as an example. How would SB 1 help East Cleveland do better?”
Teresa Fedor, just retired at the end of December as a term-limited Democrat who has served in the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House, won a seat on the Ohio State Board of Education in the November election. Fedor opposes Senate Bill 1 to gut the State Board of Education as an obvious power grab by an out-of-control Republican supermajority in today’s Ohio Legislature. The Statehouse News‘ Jo Ingles reports: “Fedor opposed the bill then—and she opposes it now.”
Fedor explained her concerns about the new SB 1 to Ingles after Senator Brenner’s presentation last week to the State Board: “This is a ruse to take over public education and hand it over to their friends; then corruption begins… It’s clearly a power grab that will silence the voice of the people and local control… Republicans—we know—can’t be trusted. All we have to do is look at ECOT and 25 years of not funding (public) schools constitutionally… Let’s take a look at the last, I don’t know, 26 years. Who has been in charge? The Republicans. It’s their (state) board. They take direction mainly from the governor. And, in fact, those appointed board members are afraid to make decisions in a bold way because they’ve got to check in with their boss.”
Fedor is an experienced politician; what follows is a quick summary of the political manipulation she watched during her long tenure in the legislature.
The most recent episode is summarized in a December 9, 2022 Plain Dealer editorial: “A curious thing happened on Nov. 8 (2022). Amid a stampede of Republican victories in Ohio, voters in state education board districts ousted two GOP incumbents in favor of Democrats and elected another Democrat in a contested district previously held by a Republican. While the races were officially nonpartisan, the outcome gave board members who’d campaigned to take culture-war issues off the table at the State Board of Education a much larger voice… In response to this clear expression of voter concern that the State Board of Education needed to refocus on the nuts and bolts of educating Ohio children, a substitute bill gutting the board and transferring most of its key powers to an extensively revamped state education bureaucracy emerged in the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee.”
There have been problems in Ohio’s State Board in recent decades after the legislature granted the governor 8 appointed seats out of a state board of 19 members. Most of these problems are themselves the result of political meddling by powerful Ohio Republican leaders. For example, after the State Board passed an anti-racism resolution in 2020, and then in 2021 rescinded it and substituted a bill to ban discussion of divisive topics, Governor DeWine forced the resignation of his appointed members who had voted for the original anti-racism resolution.
Then, as the Plain Dealer‘s editors remind us, “Last January (2022) Gov. Mike DeWine redistricted State Board of Education districts in ways that appeared to target some of the elected board members who’d opposed him on last year’s repeal of the board’s anti-racism resolution. Voters then turned around and elected three new board members who campaigned on returning the board to educational policy pursuits. That expression of the voters’ will shouldn’t have prompted a frontal assault on the State Board of Education itself, supported by Gov. DeWine. But it appears it has.”