COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – After failing to muster enough votes in the last General Assembly, a sprawling, 2,000-page bill overhauling Ohio’s education system and its governance has passed one statehouse chamber.

Ohio state senators had student test scores and what they called failings of bureaucracy on their minds when the chamber voted along party lines, 26-7, to send Senate Bill 1 to the House floor Wednesday. Best known for stripping power from the state board of education, the bill also makes it easier for parents to home-school children and refocuses the state Department of Education to consider Ohio’s workforce needs.

“In Ohio, too many of our schools are struggling to succeed,” Sen. Bill Reineke (R-Tiffin), the bill’s sponsor, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Our educators are doing their best in the classroom, and I applaud them for all that they do, but they are laboring under a structure in Ohio that is inherently flawed.”

Senate Education Committee Ranking Member Catherine Ingram (D-Cincinnati) expressed her appreciation for the work and compromise the committee undertook over five hearings before referring the bill to the floor. She also commended what she called the original intention of the bill, to reform education, but said the existing bill doesn’t meet that goal.

“Unfortunately, reform is a correction — this is not a correction,” Ingram said. “This is a revolution. We are just going to blow it up and start over.”

Under the bill, the Department of Education would take command of most of the responsibilities currently assigned to the state board of education, including:

  • Developing academic standards and model curricula
  • Adopting minimum education standards for schools and operating standards for districts
  • Issuing and revoking state charters from school districts, buildings and nonpublic schools seeking a charter
  • Overseeing the performance and functions of charter and STEM schools
  • Administering state scholarship programs

The department would be renamed the Department of Education and Workforce and would be split into two divisions, one to address primary and secondary education and the other to oversee career and technical education. The newly-established department director – appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate – would prescribe functions and powers to both divisions.

Proponents of the bill, including Senate Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner (R-Delaware), believe moving functions of the state board under the purview of the governor’s office would streamline policy changes, allowing the state to more quickly implement education-related laws passed in the legislature.

“We are in a situation where we need serious, fast change to improve our schools,” Brenner said Tuesday, before the Senate Education Committee voted to move the bill to the Senate floor. “The system that is in place right now is a system that is designed to be slow and bureaucratic. We don’t have time for bureaucracies when you’ve got passage rates in the low single digits on proficiency, when kids, hundreds of thousands of them, are behind.”

Brenner repeatedly highlighted declining test scores across school districts in the state — scores that have only worsened since the start of the pandemic — as evidence that the state education board has failed in its responsibility. But critics of the legislation see the move not only as a way to circumvent bureaucracy, but to disenfranchise the public.

As the law currently stands, the 19-member state board of education – 11 of whom are elected, with eight appointed by the governor – operates as other public bodies do, with debates, actions and most discussions occurring during public meetings. 

An amendment to the bill requires the department to seek stakeholder feedback and public comments before adopting any rule changes, but the department is not required to respond to feedback or negotiate rule changes with stakeholders. Critics in the statehouse and outside of it argue that moving the administrative and regulatory power to a cabinet position shrouds it in opacity and protects decision-makers from accountability.

Ingram said before the committee vote Tuesday that she feared the bill – specifically, the reorganization of the Department of Education and state board – will have wide-sweeping consequences not yet foreseen.

“We have to be prepared to be cohesive about how we get this work done,” Ingram said. “I do not believe that having that education czar as the director and then having two persons there as deputy directors will get us to where we need to be.”

Weakened home-school requirements

The bill removes existing requirements for parents to home-school their children, instead granting the home-school exemption as long as the child is taught core subjects, including English, math, science and social studies, and is under parental supervision. Existing law mandates that children be taught by someone with a high school diploma or under the supervision of someone with a bachelor’s degree. 

Currently, parents are also required to submit annual home-school exemption requests and academic progress reports to their local school district’s superintendent, who verifies the home-school program is compliant with further regulations. Instead, S.B. 1 requires that parents notify their local school district of their intent to home-school at least five days before the start of the academic year. 

In addition to relaxing the home-school requirements, the bill prohibits the Department of Education and Workforce from making additional rules for home-schools and non-chartered, nonpublic schools, instead requiring the department director to update or rescind existing administrative rules within 90 days of the bill’s effective date.

Amendments to rein in the home-school exemption were tabled Tuesday, including reasserting current law requiring students be taught by an adult qualified to teach.

“I have heard from home-school parents all over the state of Ohio,” Brenner said. “They do these things very well and their kids are highly educated.”

Opponents of the home-school changes, however, point to the recent discovery of a pro-Nazi homeschooling network based out of Upper Sandusky as evidence that home-school programs need more oversight, not less.

“Oversight of student spaces is critical, especially those that threaten to proliferate discrimination against Ohio students along lines of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or disability,” testified Leah Winsberg, staff attorney at the Children’s Law Center, at Tuesday’s committee hearing.

The originally proposed bill did not address truancy requirements for home-schooled children. An amendment added Tuesday reasserts that existing truancy laws will remain applicable to home-school programs.

A focus on workforce development

In addition to establishing a division of career and technical education under the new Department of Education and Workforce, the bill requires that the department implement multiple provisions designed to boost Ohio’s trade and technical workforce. The deputy directors of primary and secondary education and career-technical education will also be appointed to the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board.

Under S.B. 1, the department must develop educational literature for seventh and eighth graders on career opportunities and how students can take career-technical courses to fulfill graduation requirements. The department must also identify in-demand jobs by surveying employers and publicizing those jobs on its website. The list shall be updated every two years, in collaboration with the Office of Workforce Transformation and the Departments of Job and Family Services and Higher Education.

A refocus on workforce and career-technical education is one of the few components of S.B. 1 receiving bipartisan support, with trade school programs, career centers and school districts commending the emphasis on college-pathway alternatives.

“Creating two divisions within the new department makes sense because although education and workforce are not the same, both do hold equal value in developing Ohio’s economy,” Jamie Nash, superintendent of the Buckeye Hills Career Center, said at a February committee hearing. “We need a workforce that is reliable, knowledgeable, and skilled. The S.B. 1 model would provide the governor and legislators a security blanket to make certain all arms of education and workforce development are equally represented at the highest table.”

Still, Democratic lawmakers weren’t convinced the bill would uplift career-technical programs as intended. Sen. Kent Smith (D-Euclid) questioned the approach to a career-technical workforce crisis that doesn’t address other factors impacting student success.

“The comment was made that it is the structure that prevents student achievement. I disagree, I believe it is poverty,” Smith said. “We’re not doing enough with a population of students, half of which are in poverty, to get them ready for future workforce jobs.”

S.B. 1 will now go to the House of Representatives, where it will be referred to a committee. If the House amends any part of the bill and passes it, it will be reintroduced into the Senate for another vote before heading to the governor’s desk.