COLUMBUS – Three members of the Ohio State Board of Education publicly opposed an overhaul of the state education system on Tuesday.
The members were among dozens of people asking the Ohio Senate’s Education Committee to rethink Senate Bill 1, a bill to rename and restructure the Ohio Department of Education, and reduce the role of the state board of ed.
Board member Michelle Newman said the bill would lead to a new cabinet-level position with “no direct accountability to districts, families or voters.”
“The people of Ohio put the State Board of Education in place to ensure there was a level of oversight and accountability and to provide a stage for public feedback in both the rules and policymaking process,” Newman said. “SB 1 does none of this.”
Responding to claims from legislators and the sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, that the ODE has lacked accountability and accessibility, Newman said she traveled her district and asked superintendents and other members of the school community if they’d had problems reaching the ODE.
“The answer is a resounding no,” Newman told the committee. “Direct feedback over a period of two years shows that schools hear back timely from the department – not always with the answers they want to hear but with prudence and thoughtfulness.”
Newman concluded her testimony arguing the ODE and the state board “are being used as scapegoats for the decades-long decline in student performance.”
Fellow board member Tom Jackson said he also did not hear requests for restructuring from the 46 school districts he represents on the board.
“If you’re concerned about the educational outcomes of our students and how our educational systems benefit Ohio’s children, more bureaucracy is not the answer,” Jackson said. “Having politicians run our schools instead of education professionals and locally elected representatives is not the answer.”
State Sen. Stephen Huffman, member of the Senate Education Committee, pushed back on Jackson’s testimony, arguing that Jackson’s election to the state board makes him a politician as well. Brenner pushed back in another way, saying the functions of the board of education are set by the General Assembly, thus making it a “political process.”
Jackson didn’t deny his election or that the state board is tasked with working with the General Assembly to move education policy forward, but he said placing blame on the downturn in education outcomes doesn’t help the process, political or not.
“The process could be collaborative, and it could be focused on our students, and I don’t currently see that happening,” Jackson said.
When asked by Brenner what moves Jackson has made as a member of the board to improve the education needs of the state, the board of ed members said, having been sworn in five weeks ago, he needed more time “to understand the dynamics, to understand the people who are in charge of things and to possibly build relationship to improve things.”
A third member of the board, Christina Collins, also submitted testimony to the committee in opposition to SB 1.
She, as Newman had also done, mentioned redistricting’s impact on the district she represents, saying it “created confusion for both me and other members of the board as well as Ohio’s voters through most of 2022.”
“But confusion has been a recent cornerstone in Ohio politics, and Senate Bill 1 aims to perpetuate and create more confusion with an added and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy,” Collins wrote.
She emphasized the need for Ohio to remain a “local control state” where partnerships between local schools and communities take priority.
Collins noted 15 years worth of education changes she’s observed, ranging from state and federal standards, teacher evaluations, third grade retention programs and school takeovers.
“These were all legislated efforts, but you’re still saying our schools are failing?” Collins stated in her testimony. “I ask, who holds this (General) Assembly accountable when the unending educational initiatives it doles out do not work?”
Collins and the other members who oppose the committee said they would rather see efforts on the topic of literacy and even workforce development, without the need to upset the entire system.
“Once again, we are losing previous time lost in confusion and legislative efforts when we should be laser-focused on working together for Ohio’s children,” Collins told the committee.
Amendments Brenner previewed in the last hearing on SB 1 were accepted into the bill’s language, including experience requirements for deputy directors of the proposed Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, regulations for public engagement on education policies and the rule-making process.
Brenner said more testimony on SB 1 will be accepted at the next committee meeting, which could also include further amendments to the bill.