Ohio Governor John Kasich and the Ohio legislature are fast-tracking a bill that that would consolidate nearly all educational departments into one unelected executive agency controlled by the governor. It’s a giant power grab by Kasich and Ohio Republicans, who have become frustrated by their inability to control the Ohio Department of Education and the elected members of the State Board of Education.
HB 512, currently under consideration by the Ohio House, seeks to combine the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), Ohio Department of Higher Education, and Ohio Department of Workforce Transformation into a single new department organized under the governor. In addition, the elected State Board of Education (SBE) would be stripped of most its powers to promulgate rules related to K-12 education. The current board, which has 11 regionally-elected members and eight at-large members appointed by the governor, has purview over a wide variety of education issues, including standards, assessment selection, proficiency determination, state report cards, teacher/student ratios, private and homeschool regulations, and public school operating standards.
“What I really want… I want to be able to run the Department of Education,” Kasich said at an Associated Press forum in early February, signaling his support for the move. “I don’t think we should have this elected school board.” Instead, he said the governor should be in charge of education in the state.
“We have no clue who these people are and they’re running education policy,” Kasich said. “And I’m governor and I can’t tell them what to do. It’s nuts.”
That’s the way democracy works, John.
In her written testimony to the Government Accountability and Oversight (GAO) Committee, Melanie Elsey, legislative director for the American Policy Roundtable and legislative liaison for Christian Home Educators of Ohio, said that the new agency is “enormous in terms of its scope and power.” In fact, she said, there are several sections of the 2,430-page bill (which she read in its entirety) that “provide unlimited scope of authority for the appointed director and unlimited size of the agency itself.”
The most egregious change, she warned, “is the transfer of authority from our State Board of Education to one person appointed by whomever the governor may be.” As a result, “every four to eight years the focus and direction of [the agency’s] broad scope of power can change, which is not conducive to stability,” Elsey said.
If HB 512–which was (inexplicably) assigned to the GAO Committee rather than the Education Committee—becomes law, the elected school board’s control over education would be transferred into the hands of a single individual, appointed by Gov. Kasich. That individual would also have the power to appoint other bureaucrats to impose the governor’s will on the people, setting the stage for a massive bureaucracy.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the perils of concentrating control of K-12 education in the hands of unelected bureaucrats. Under the current system, the state school board is required to give notice of rule changes and hold hearings that are open to the public before changes are made. Under King Kasich’s system, Ohio parents could wake up one morning to find crippling regulations imposed on homeschools and religious schools. Or, the head of the Orwellian-sounding “Department of Learning and Achievement” (DLA) could unilaterally write new rules governing how state standards are to be implemented in local districts. The bill under consideration declares that this unelected DLA:
Shall have all powers and perform all duties formerly vested in and imposed upon the department of education, the department of higher education, the superintendent of public instruction, the state board of education, the Ohio board of regents, and the chancellor of higher education, except for those powers and duties expressly delegated to the state board of education, the superintendent of public instruction, or the department of education. [Emphasis added]
Since Ohio voters approved a ballot measure to enshrine the SBE in the state constitution in 1956, nearly every governor has made noise about stripping it of its power—or eliminating it altogether—and handing over the reins to the executive branch. The Ohio legislature’s decision under Republican Gov. George Voinovich to stack the board with political hacks turned what was once a functional, effective board into one that’s now overtly political and wildly dysfunctional.
Rep. Andrew Brenner (R-Powell), who chairs the House Education and Career Readiness Committee, defended the move in a Facebook debate, complaining that the current board is “controlled by union Democrats” who don’t like school choice. “If the state school board actually served as an oversight body that was accountable to voters I would agree [that it should remain as is],” he said. “I sit on it as an ex officio member. It is completely ineffective at holding the Ohio Department of Education accountable to anything. Even if we moved it to an all-elected board, the Democrats would control it. The unions would control it,” he said. “House Bill 512 may not be the answer,” Brenner conceded, “but the state school board clearly isn’t the answer.”
Democrats have come out against the bill. State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democratic candidate for governor, called it an “unacceptable power grab by politicians.” He added, “There’s no excuse for taking control from Ohio voters and giving it to yourself—especially when it comes to our children’s education.”
Rep. Bill Reineke, who sponsored the bill and is vice chair the GAO Committee, did not return PJM’s request for a comment.
Kasich spokesman Jon Keeling denied the charge that stripping the board of its authority is a power grab.
“The governor’s term is up in less than a year, so this isn’t about him—and it’s not about any other governor,” Keeling told Cleveland.com. “It’s about Ohio’s children getting the fair shot at a quality education that they deserve.”
Elsey disagrees. “Ohio has populations of students, whose education is governed only in the Administrative Code—[non-charted private school] students and home educated students. It will be a disservice to each and every one of these students to place their fate every term in the hands of a different bureaucratic director,” she said. “We believe Ohio’s students and their families are better served if there is a genuine change to the system instead of creating a structure that is less accessible to families and less accountable to the public.”
The State Board of Education currently has rather broad authority to impose regulations on homeschools, religious school, and every other school in the state. The General Assembly, of course, has the power to do the same. But because both the board and the General Assembly are elected, We the People have some control over the process. If they step too far out of line, parents can march down to a board meeting and have their say—or they can appeal directly to their elected representatives.
Democracy is risky business. You don’t always get what you want. But the democratic process is far better than putting decisions about our children’s education—not to mention the constitutionally-protected right to practice our religion as it applies to education —into the hands of faceless bureaucrats. What happens when the unelected agency steps out of line? To whom will parents appeal then? The executive branch should never be permitted to amass such power. Elected officials, at least, are bound by the Constitution and must swear to uphold it. There is no upside to giving unelected bureaucrats controlled by the sitting governor the power to determine whether Ohioans’ right to educate and practice their religion as they see fit is maintained.
Sarah Fowler, a conservative member of the SBE, told PJM that the answer is not to consolidate power in the executive branch. Instead, she said, the state should “return to an entirely elected State Board of Education. It was functional and held the bureaucracy in line much better than it has since becoming a split board.”
“The legislature should ensure that they give authority to the SBE to hold ODE accountable and to promulgate rules through a public, transparent process. Examples of where this hasn’t happened include federal grants, some community school regulations, and recent rules around the job readiness seal,” Fowler said.
UPDATE March 12, 1:12 p.m. EST: A reader emailed asking for contact information for lawmakers who should be pressured to stop this bill:
Rep. Bill Reineke, sponsor of the bill and vice chair of the GAO Committee:
Phone (614) 466-1374, Email
Rep. Louis Blessing, chairman of the GAO Committee:
Phone (614) 466-9091, Email
Rep. Andrew Brenner, chairman of the Education Committee
Phone (614) 644-6711, Email
House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger:
Phone (614) 466-3506, Email
Phone: (614) 466-3555, Email
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