Republican’s bill would strip power from Ohio education departments

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WYTV) – A massive and historic plan by state lawmakers to restructure state departments was announced at the Statehouse Wednesday morning.

The bill seeks to “streamline” the Ohio Department of Education, Ohio Department of Higher Education and the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation. As part of the bill, they would be under a new cabinet-level appointee heading up the Department of Learning and Achievement.

The bill is being touted as aligning Ohio’s education system with workforce needs and preparing students for demands of the 21st-century economy.

According to the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Bill Reineke, there is a terrible workforce shortage across Ohio.

Some have serious concerns about this plan, however. They say it is just the next step in an effort to put more power over education into the hands of the governor, and it sets the state up to be doomed to repeat the past.

From 1912 to 1953, Ohio had one person handling education reporting to the governor.

In 1953, the voters decided through a constitutional amendment that should change. They wanted an elected board of individuals to share that responsibility and accountability.

Giving up power has never been easy, and since then, political powers have been trying to wrestle that power back.

In 1991, Governor George Voinovich wanted to replace the elected board with appointed members. That didn’t work because constitutionally, he couldn’t do that.

But by 1995, he found another way to gain influence. In the state budget, he was able to get a measure passed that allowed him to appoint eight additional members to the board.

Those eight members were outnumbered by the 11 elected officials, so on its face, there was still some separation. However, all that any governor would need to do is get two ardent supporters elected to the board to potentially have control of it.

According to William Phillis, this was the start of a tremendous amount of dysfunction that has since plagued the State Board of Education.

Phillis was instrumental in the coalition that sued the state over how education was being funded nearly 30 years ago. He says Wednesday’s announcement gives him grave concerns.

The proposed plan keeps the original State Board of Education intact, which it must under the state constitution, but it strips away almost all of its decision-making power.

It would be left to deal solely with licensing and disciplinary issues, and the State Superintendent would have virtually nothing to do.

As Reineke put it, the superintendent would do whatever the State Board ordered them to do, but under their restricted areas of responsibility, it would have nothing to do with education curriculum or policy.

So, is the failure in developing our workforce the fault of the State Board of Education and the Department of Education?

“Our local districts and our local educators are fatigued with curriculum requirements, with testing requirements, with evaluation requirements,” said State Representative Rick Carfagna who is supporting the bill.

But, when pressed that those things that come from the legislature, he adds a caveat.

“Ultimately, it should, but not all of it does,” said Carfagna.

When asked which the issues he brought up did not stem from the legislature, he pivoted slightly.

“I don’t think there is any one source that is causing problems, I think it’s just disjointed. I think you get mixed messages from the legislature, from the state school board, from ODE, and I think we just need to come up with a more streamlined process for education policy here in the state,” said Carfagna.

Reineke’s bill is over 2,400 pages. It will take a few days to get through it to see what else might be in the bill that has been overlooked for the more attention-getting message of solving the state’s workforce shortage.

Reineke believes that the bill is the best way to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Capitol are rejecting the plan.

State Senator and candidate for Governor Joe Schiavoni released a joint statement with his running mate, Stephanie Dodd, who is an elected member of the State School Board.

“This legislation will reduce government accountability that currently falls on the State Board of Education. Decisions will be made by bureaucrats instead of elected officials who have a responsibility to represent the best interest of their constituents,” said Dodd. “There is no honorable excuse for removing the elected voice of parents and students from education. On top of that, combining agencies doesn’t remove inefficiencies. It creates them. We need collaboration between real leaders to improve Ohio’s education system.”

Schiavoni has several workforce development bills and career technical education bills awaiting hearings at the Statehouse.

He says, “The GOP could easily work to address these issues without a government restructure that will have lasting consequences for future generations of Ohioans.”

The Ohio Department of Education and the Board of Education released statements as well.

“We remain focused on supporting Ohio’s education community in providing excellent learning opportunities for each student and making sure they’re ready for the economy of tomorrow,” said Superintendent Paolo DeMaria.

He was echoed by Board President Tess Elshoff, “My focus remains on working to ensure Ohio’s students receive a great education in our schools.”