Today, Tuesday, December 13, 2022, the Ohio House Primary and Secondary Education Committee will consider and possibly pass and advance to the full Ohio House the more than 2,100 page, Substitute Senate Bill 178, introduced into the House committee just yesterday, December 12, 2022. This bill, which guts the State Board of Education, came out of the Ohio Senate’s Primary and Secondary Education Committee only last Tuesday; it was passed on Wednesday by the full Ohio Senate during the 134th General Assembly’s lame-duck rush.
Substitute SB 178 would hollow out the State Board of Education and transfer most of its responsibilities to a new cabinet level Division of Education and the Workforce under the control of the Governor’s appointed deputy director. A State Board of Education would continue to exist; it would appoint a state superintendent (but one whose responsibility would be severely reduced) and handle educator licensure and disciplinary actions. Most of the power and responsibility of the current State Board and the State Superintendent would, however, be transferred to the new Division of Education and the Workforce. The bill also creates a new Division of Career-Technical Education, which would have its own deputy director.
Constitutional law professor and historian Derek Black provides some important historical background on the role of state boards of education and independently appointed superintendents of public instruction. All the states have education clauses in their state constitutions, many enacted in the period immediately following the Civil War: “Today all fifty state constitutions protect the right to education. All fifty states, through constitutional language, place that right on a pedestal. They also attempt something quite curious: they try to insulate public education from partisan politics.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p.15)
Black continues: “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised. But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 232)
At the Ohio Statehouse today, we are watching politicians whose intent is precisely to insert politics into the governance, operation, and funding of public education. The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s editorial last Friday perfectly captures this reality—explaining that Sub. SB 178, “will take key policymaking out of the hands of a state board subject to Sunshine Law rules and with required public input, and give it to a new Director of Education and the Workforce named by the governor with the advice and consent of the state Senate.”
The newspaper’s editors describe what happened after the November election: “A curious thing happened on Nov. 8. 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.”
The Plain Dealer‘s editors continue: “Virtually overnight, one-page Senate Bill 178 suddenly became 2,144 page Substitute Senate Bill 178… Yet… just a day after hearing from the bill’s opponents, the committee voted 5-1 to push the bill out for a full floor vote, and the Senate immediately passed Sub. SB 178 on a lopsided 22-7 vote, sending it to the House.”
Yesterday (December 12), less than a week after the Ohio Senate passed Sub. SB 178, the bill was introduced in the Ohio House Primary and Secondary Education Committee, which heard sponsor testimony. The House education committee meets again today, and could potentially pass the bill and forward it to the full Ohio House of Representatives.
The Plain Dealer‘s editors acknowledge that there have been problems in Ohio’s State Board, especially 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. 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 subsequently 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 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.”
Although the Plain Dealer‘s editors acknowledge recent problems in the State Board, they believe a democratically responsive State Board is necessary: “It has to be said, in fairness that the State Board of Education has not covered itself in glory, bogging down in culture-war battles and failing to name a new superintendent of public instruction… But the State Board of Education provides Ohioans with benefits, too, including transparency in educational policy discussions and voter input into the choice of most board members. Successive governors have tried to squeeze the board’s powers and the voters’ voice on its members, but without being able to gain full control.”
The Plain Dealer challenges the Ohio House—led by Speaker Bob Cupp, who was one of the designers of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan and has been a strong supporter of Ohio’s public schools—to block Sub. SB 178: “Now it’s up to the Ohio House to shut the door on misguided Substitute Senate Bill 178.”
Democratically governed public schools remain the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the public obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students. I wish I were optimistic about what the Ohio House will do in the remaining weeks of the lame-duck session. I suspect instead that as we watch Ohio’s gerrymandered, supermajority Republican legislature eviscerate the State Board of Education, we are looking at a long and difficult battle to protect democratically governed public education in Ohio.