COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The Ohio Senate on Wednesday approved a bill to strip the State Board of Education of most of its powers and redirect control over the implementation of education policy to the governor’s office.

Several top Republicans, including Gov. Mike DeWine, have signaled their support for the 2,144-page proposal to rename the Ohio Department of Education as the Department of Education and Workforce, or DEW, and create a cabinet-level position within the governor’s office to direct the agency, absorbing most of the state board of education’s roles.

“I think virtually every governor for 40 or 50 years have wanted to have more control in regard to the Department of Education,” DeWine told reporters last week.

As it stands, the 19-member, majority-elected State Board of Education is tasked with guiding the Ohio Department of Education’s implementation of learning standards, graduation requirements, school performance, and teacher licensing. But GOP lawmakers – who advanced Senate Bill 178 from the floor in a 22-7 vote less than a month after its first public hearing – argued that years of political infighting among board members, dwindling state report cards, and a lack of focus on readying students for the workforce indicate it’s high time to transfer those roles elsewhere.

“You’ve got to have leadership, you’ve got to have structure and you’ve got to have the ability to have accountability in place for an urgency to get these kids caught up,” Sen. Andrew Brenner (R-Delaware) said. “It’s not there – it hasn’t been there for several years.”

Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson (D-Toledo) and other opponents of SB 178 urged bill supporters to pump the brakes on the fast-tracked proposal that, though introduced in previous legislatures, allotted little time for stakeholder review.

Transitioning from a superintendent chosen by the majority-elected state board to an appointed official tucked inside “a layer of bureaucracy in the cabinet,” newly elected board member and former Toledo-area Rep. Teresa Fedor said, could threaten the public’s level of say when it comes to education in Ohio.

“Is this really the silver bullet that you need,” Hicks-Hudson asked those testifying in support of SB 178 on Nov. 29, “Or is there something else that can be done?”

State Board of Education has ‘too much on its plate,’ lawmakers say

Under SB 178, the state board would remain intact, with its authorities diminished to administering educator licenses, directing disciplinary processes, and overseeing teacher and school counselor evaluation systems.

The superintendent of public instruction would instead act as an advisor to DEW’s director, whose department would oversee two divisions: one for primary and secondary education and a second for workforce development.

Greg Lawson, a research fellow at right-leaning think tank The Buckeye Institute, said the proposed restructuring is long overdue, as its hybrid composition – 11 members are elected by the public, with nine appointed by the governor – and “extensive responsibilities” have hindered progress in the state’s educational sphere.

“Gov. [George] Voinovich observed more than three decades ago that the State Board of Education has too much on its plate, and the plate has only gotten fuller since then,” Lawson said. “The time for reform is now.”

The original sponsor of SB 178, Sen. Bill Reineke (R-Tiffin), pointed to problems he said have plagued the State Board of Education in recent years, including:

  • A failure to select a permanent superintendent of public education after its latest leader resigned in June
  • Being mired in political controversies that fall outside the board’s purview, including a recent measure that would reject federal protections for LGBTQ+ students
  • Mismanagement of the Afterschool Child Enrichment Program (ACE), with less than 10% of 250,000 students receiving the program’s intended financial aid packages
  • Transportation problems that have left “hundreds if not thousands” of students without a ride to and from school

“It is dysfunctional because there is no real leadership there, and there really can’t be because of the way it’s designed,” Brenner said.

But Fedor told NBC4 shortly after the bill’s first hearing that the blame for Ohio’s poor academic performance can’t reside solely on the board.

“Let’s remind the voters in 600-plus school districts that Republicans have been in charge of public education for over 30 years, minus four years with the Strickland administration, and we’re now ranking in the 30s for education,” she said.

Nicole Piscitani, a lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA), admitted that frequent changes to Ohio’s education policy have presented “significant implementation” challenges for department staff and local school districts. The OSBA’s general interactions with department staff, however, have been positive.

Touting the state board’s frequently used public comment period that allowed parents and teachers to speak about various policy proposals, Piscitani suggested moving to an entirely elected state board to ensure Ohio voters are represented.

“We have seen parents, school leaders, educators, and the public take advantage of the public nature of these deliberations,” she said. “These opportunities for public input and participation will be lost if rulemaking is moved outside of the state board of education.”

An emphasis on workforce development 

One element of the bill that has been widely accepted, regardless of political affiliation, is its emphasis on bolstering Ohio’s ability to adequately prepare students for the workforce.

Greg Edinger, superintendent of the Fremont-based Vanguard Sentinel Career and Technology Centers, said the education department’s current model often leaves a perception that opting for a career-and-tech-based education is a “lesser than” option for students who don’t meet academic standards.

The board’s current structure, he argued, provides little room to react quickly to workforce and economic changes in order to “truly meet the demands and expectations of the workforce in an all-encompassing manner.” 

“If we simply choose to maintain the status quo, Ohio will continue down the same education pathway without recognizing the enormous shifts in workforce demands and without facilitating our sector’s expansion,” Edinger said.

How is education governed in other U.S. states?

The 19-member Ohio State Board of Education is unique in its structure, according to Lawrence University professor Arnold Shober, who specializes in state governance models. 

“Ohio does have an unusually large board, and that may be to its detriment,” Shober said. “The more people you have, the more conflict there is, and I think that may be what’s happening here – even with the personalities on the board.”

The Buckeye State is one of eight in the U.S. where at least one member of the board of education is elected by the public, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. In most states, the governor is tasked with appointing, so long as the legislature’s Senate approves, members of the state’s board of education.

Only five states – Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Texas, and Utah – hold elections, either partisan or nonpartisan, for each person that sits on the school board, the NASBE found.

Moving powers to a cabinet-level position does come with risks, Shober said, including a loss of accountability to the public, as “politicians, whether you love them or hate them,” are trying to convince voters to adopt their own educational agenda. 

There’s also the threat, he said, that Ohio could lose qualified board members each time a new governor rolls around.

“They’ve been around the block many times in Ohio education policy, and when you take that and say, ‘No, I’m going to appoint as the governor,’ well, you might get good people but every time you get a governor, you lose that expertise, you lose that continuity,” Shober said. 

A potential perk of shifting the state board of education’s powers to the governor’s office is efficiency. “Certainly, it’d be more efficient” since the governor would likely have visions more aligned with their choice for the department’s director, Shober said.

Tony Podojil, executive director of the Alliance for High Quality Education, expressed support for a number of provisions in SB 187. But dozens of unanswered logistical questions remain, he said, like the level of public access to decision-making processes, the standard timeline for implementing legislative directives, and what might ensue if the governor or DEW director disagrees with the state board and its superintendent.

“The question is,” Podojil asked, “Do we change the processes, and will that fix where we’re at today?”