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With election over, Ohio lawmakers propose assigning many state school board powers to governor

Dept of Education - credit Kasler (4).JPG
Karen Kasler
/
Statehouse News Bureau
The Ohio Department of Education in downtown Columbus, where Ohio State Board of Education meetings are held for two days each month.

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.

State school board members are non-partisan and the 19-member board, elected by communities throughout Ohio, determines a lot of what happens in Ohio's K-12 schools.

But a Senate bill, SB178, would change that.

Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said senators are going to consider a bill that would give the governor and legislature more power over the state’s school board.

“We have an isolated bureaucracy with no oversight. That’s the problem. It’s not who is on the board. It is the legal makeup of what is happening right now," Huffman told reporters Wednesday.

Huffman said being on the state school board is a part-time job with no staff. He said they are unable to manage the Ohio Department of Education.

"That system as it has grown through the decades in the state of Ohio essentially has an isolated Ohio Department of Education, has no responsibility to the state legislature and essentially can thrust and parry whatever it is that the state board of education members put before them from time to time and they don't have any responsibility toward the governor either because they are not his employees," Huffman said.

This legislation would strip the elected board of most of its current educational responsibilities and put them under a new cabinet position in the governor's office.

Cynthia Peeples, founding director of the non-partisan statewide coalition Honesty for Ohio Education says she hasn't seen the bill yet but is opposed to some of the ideas behind it that would weaken the power of school board members. She said it is a matter of government overreach.

“We are really concerned about this. I mean anytime you are taking power away from communities, you are taking power away from taxpayers and voters to have a say in what education looks like for their own communities and for their own students and families, it's very concerning. And that power and decision making should not rest on one government body," Peeples said.

Peeples said the governor is a partisan position and by putting decisions now made by the state board under the power of that office would inject partisan politics into K-12 education.

She said she is especially concerned because lawmakers are considering making such a big change during the lame duck session of the Ohio Legislature when there won't be time to thoroughly vet the legislation.

But Huffman said the change is needed now because even some state lawmakers have been waiting six years to get calls returned from the department.

Recently, some conservative members of the board have been trying to get a resolution passed that would push back on a Biden administration anti-discrimination policy that requires school districts receiving federal funds for school lunches to investigate cases of LGBTQ discrimination.

Meanwhile, school choice advocates have been pushing for legislation that would allocate public funds for students to use for private schools.

This isn't the first time there's been a push to move some of the board's responsibilities under the governor's power. Former Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, tried to put some of the board's duties under his office in 2018. Before that, former Gov. George Voinovich, a Republican, tried to make a similar move in 1991.

Contact Jo Ingles at jingles@statehousenews.org.