Almost a decade ago, my former boss Terry Ryan wrote: “Education governance in Ohio is broken.... The governance structures for education in this state are multi-layered, fractured, and leaderless. No one is really in charge. The buck stops nowhere.”
He was right. With its Byzantine governance model, Ohio has long suffered from weak education leadership and muddled policy implementation. Time and again, governors and state legislators have worked hard to create initiatives that aim to drive higher achievement, only to have reforms undermined by an anonymous state board of education. State superintendents have struggled to find their voice, as they must tiptoe around a nineteen-member board that has the power to fire them. Heck, Ohio hasn’t even had a permanent superintendent for most of the past two years—and running. Lacking clear direction, Ohio’s education policies have often been indecisive and directionless, frustrating schools and likely playing a role in the state’s mediocre student outcomes.
Fortunately, there’s some light at the end of this tunnel. Last week, the Ohio Senate passed legislation (SB 1) that would overhaul K–12 education governance at the state level. The bill, which Fordham supports, heads to the House, where the lower chamber is already holding hearings on SB 1’s companion legislation (HB 12). Like former governors of both parties who have supported governance reform efforts in the past, Governor DeWine has also signaled support for the bill.
In a nutshell, the bill would create a more coherent governance structure by making the state’s education chief an appointee of the governor and included in the cabinet (à la the chancellor of higher education). This would make clear that governors are responsible—and held accountable—for the execution of education laws and progress in schools statewide. It would also strengthen Ohio’s education chief, who would answer to the governor instead of a massive and oft-divided board. As authority is shifted to the governor’s office, the role of the state board of education would be curtailed; under SB 1, it would mostly handle matters of educator licensing, much like a medical board.
In Senate committee hearings, dozens of school and business leaders expressed support for SB 1. Dublin City Schools superintendent John Marschhausen said, “Education leadership needs to be improved; we need a clear vision and direction.“ Also in support of the legislation, Rick Carfagna of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce (and former state representative) noted the need for “greater emphasis...on ensuring accountability for Ohio’s education system.”
But there were some naysayers, too, mostly from progressive groups. Their criticisms largely focused on potential executive branch overreach and a diminished “people’s voice” in education. The testimony of Susan Kaeser from the League of Women Voters encapsulates the position: “There are no checks and balances in this situation.... SB 1 concentrates too much power in one person’s hands [i.e., the governor]. It removes the public voice in selecting who guides education policy and closes the public out of the policy making process itself.”
Those statements are way over-the-top. First, it’s absurd to argue that “there are no checks and balances” under SB 1. Last I checked, the bill doesn’t eliminate the legislative branch, the elected officials who are called upon to restrain the power of the executive. This tried-and-true system of checks and balances is on display all the time in Columbus. State legislators—even from the same party—routinely push back on or modify the governor’s policy ideas. They exercise oversight of executive agencies, and with the power of the purse, they can even reduce their budgets. If, under SB 1, the department of education were overstepping its bounds, the legislature should step in and ask tough questions, either behind closed doors or in open committee. We see this happen on Capitol Hill when federal lawmakers grill the secretary of education and other agency heads in public hearings. Of course, SB 1 maintains the judiciary, which checks the other two branches of government.
The powers of the legislature are nothing to scoff at, and shouldn’t be dismissed or forgotten in the debate over SB 1. In fact, the bill likely increases legislative engagement in K–12 education, as the General Assembly no longer has to wrangle with the state board when it has concerns about the direction of education in the state. And under the bill, the Senate also has the power to confirm (or not) the governor’s appointee, authority that it does not presently when a state superintendent is hired. This heightened legislative oversight is precisely the “greater emphasis” on accountability that Carfagna mentioned in his testimony.
Second, the people’s voice is far from silenced under SB 1. Even without a policymaking state board, Ohioans will still have multiple avenues for engaging in education debates. Let’s count the ways.
- Local school boards: Many decisions, including some of the most politically sensitive topics in education, are made by locally elected school boards. Parents and community members can petition these bodies to address their concerns; they can also have their views heard at the ballot box when board elections roll around.
- Local tax referenda: School finance is not just a matter of state policy. Local decisions about how much funding districts receive (and how much citizens are required to pay in taxes) are hugely significant. Parents and citizens have a voice in those decisions when districts ask them to vote on local tax issues.
- State senators and representatives: As discussed above, members of the General Assembly have a duty to check the executive, and they also have a constitutional responsibility to be good stewards of the K–12 education system. If Ohioans are concerned about the governor’s policies or the department of education, they can and should bring their concerns to a state representative or senator.
- Governor: Nothing is stopping Ohioans from going right to the top and expressing their views to the governor. Just as importantly, as with state legislators, citizens should hold governors accountable for fulfilling their education promises through the ballot box.
- Parental choice: Finally, parents, in particular, have a clear voice in education through their choice of schools. As educational options expand in Ohio, parents won’t necessarily need to go to elected officials to have their demands met. They can simply “vote with their feet” and find a school that implements the policies and practices that they want for their children.
SB 1 aims to clean up Ohio’s school governance mess. Rather than supporting the work of the legislature and governor, the current state board—something of a “fourth branch” of government—has evolved into a body that erodes rightfully enacted laws and undermines the “will of the people,” as expressed through their selection of a governor and state legislators. This needs to stop. Congress doesn’t defer to a national board of education on federal policy; neither should the Ohio General Assembly. U.S. presidents don’t have their secretary of education chosen by a board; nor should Ohio’s governor. With any luck, the state will soon have the governance structure needed to tackle the myriad challenges facing its schools and students.