Recently, The Washington Post published an article purporting to summarize Ohio's current legal battle over education governance. “Ohio governor and elected education leaders both say they're in charge,” blares the headline. The subhead claims that “the state passed a law wresting authority over education policy from voters.”
If you stopped reading after that, you might assume that Ohio voters no longer have any say in education policy, and that “the state” now has some kind of unfettered ability to do what it wants in Ohio schools. Neither are true.
Let's start with the facts. Earlier this year, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and the General Assembly enacted legislation that overhauls K–12 education governance at the state level. For many years, a state board of education that’s roughly half-elected, half-appointed has controlled the state’s education department. Unfortunately, this board has been dysfunctional and often fails to keep the focus of Ohio schools on student achievement. Fed up with its inconsistent leadership, Ohio lawmakers took steps to reduce the role of the state board and shift control of policy implementation to the governor’s office. The state’s education chief is now appointed by the governor (with the advice and consent of the Senate) and serves as a cabinet member. Even though this move more closely aligns Ohio with the education governance structures of other states (and the federal government, too), it has upset some of the elected state board members, who filed a lawsuit seeking to block the reforms.
The sensibility of these reform efforts is likely lost on Washington Post readers for several reasons. First, the paper’s headline writers strategically place the term “elected” in front of “education leaders.” The state board of education members who are referenced here are, indeed, elected. But so, too, is the governor. Despite what the phrasing subtly implies by associating just one of the two sides with the will of the people, officials on both sides of the debate are elected. In a similar vein, the “state” referenced in the subheading isn’t some nefarious entity operating in the shadows and wresting away control from voters. The “state” is comprised of state-level lawmakers who are also elected by the people.
All three of these groups—the state lawmakers who passed the governance overhaul, the governor who signed it into law, and the state board members who are now trying to stop it—were elected to their positions. All three qualify as education leaders. All three must answer for their actions at the ballot box. And yet, in an attempt at a drop-the-mic moment in the final paragraph of the piece, the Washington Post offers this quote:
“For decades, parents in Ohio have gone to the voting booth to exercise their right to elect representatives empowered to advocate for them at the state level,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement when they filed the lawsuit last month. “We will not sit back and let stand such a brazen power-grab that flies in the face of Ohio residents who value local input and control over their children's education.”
The implication here is that the governance overhaul would make it impossible for parents to do what they've done for decades—specifically, go to the voting booth and exercise their right to elect representatives charged with advocating for them. But that's not true. Ohioans will still elect members of the state’s General Assembly—representatives and senators who are charged with advocating for them at the state level, including in matters of education policy. They will also continue to elect a governor. Under the new structure, the governor—regardless of his or her political party—would appoint the leader of the revamped education department. In doing so, the governor would become more directly responsible to voters for educational decisions and student progress. In Ohio, that will create more public accountability for the overall direction of K–12 education, not less.
It’s equally important to note that eliminating the state board changes virtually nothing about local decision making. Quoting an accusation from a national advocacy group that the overhaul will “undermine the ability of school districts or school boards [or] elected leaders...to exercise their judgment over public education” is blatant fear mongering. It completely ignores that local school board elections across Ohio will continue to be held just as they have for decades. Local school boards exert considerable power over local schools: They establish academic policies and priorities, adopt curricula and instructional materials, sign collective bargaining agreements, manage the district's budget, and decide when to go to taxpayers to ask for additional funding. Parents and community members directly elect these local officials. Overhauling the governance of the state department of education won’t change any of that.
The rebuttal to these facts is likely an argument that the state board offered parents and voters a special privilege: Elected officials who were responsible only for education policymaking, and thus could focus all their attention on doing what's best for kids. Even if parents still have a say in education—and obviously, despite the clickbait headline, they do—it’s not as much of a say as they had under the state board. But that argument overlooks two important realities.
First, the myth that state board members are somehow better or more efficient than other elected officials because they only have to focus on education has been repeatedly disproven by the actions of board members themselves. Over the last few years, the board has been so busy miring itself in controversy and engaging in “psychological games” and public backbiting that it isn’t doing the work it should be. Laura Hancock, writing for Cleveland.com, said it best: “The board spends significant portions of time in confusion and arguing over parliamentary process. The board is ideologically divided and spends hours arguing over resolutions that don’t directly affect student achievement, even though Ohio kids are behind because of the pandemic.”
Second, there are several glaring historical examples of the state board refusing to do what's best for kids because doing so would require holding adults accountable. For example, in 2010, state lawmakers established a new set of graduation requirements that thoughtfully and purposely raised the bar for students to ensure that they were ready for what comes after high school. By the spring of 2017, the state board was trying to circumvent that law and advocating for a set of alternative requirements that would allow students to earn a diploma based on things like attendance, capstone projects, and volunteer hours. These measures have little to do with the knowledge and skills that most colleges and employers are looking for, and would likely have resulted in students earning meaningless diplomas. It’s hard to argue that state board members are doing what’s best for kids when they champion policies that don’t expect kids to learn.
None of this history of dysfunction was mentioned in the Washington Post article. Instead, the piece attempts to argue that Republicans overhauled education governance because they’re thirsty for power and actively trying to undercut the will of voters. Actions taken by Republicans in other states are provided as evidence, as is the fact that three Democrats recently won seats on the board. No mention is made of the fact that these three Democrats did not shift the board’s majority (Republicans still had control regardless of losing those seats.)
Also conspicuously absent from the piece is any mention of 2008, when Democrat Ted Strickland was governor and also proposed taking control of the education department away from the state board and putting it under the control of a director of education. This director would be appointed by the governor, approved by the Senate, and would serve in the governor’s cabinet—the exact same structure that Republicans recently put into law. In his 2008 State of the State address, Strickland noted that “the most important duty of the state should not be overseen by an unwieldy department with splintered accountability. This change in organizational structure will ensure, like higher education, that there is a direct line of responsibility and accountability in K–12 education. It will ensure that our elected and appointed leaders are working together to strengthen education in Ohio.”
Sounds an awful lot like what Republicans have been saying, doesn’t it? And yet, the Washington Post would have you believe that this is a partisan effort.
For those who care more about kids than political posturing, this piece from the Washington Post is yet another in a long list that puts adult interests above student needs. Ohio's state board of education is not a bastion of democracy, no matter what self-interested members of the board say. Ignoring facts, local history, and the board’s many issues and failings is either a hugely significant oversight or it’s cherry-picking. Claiming that voters have been disenfranchised when they haven’t is terribly misleading. And the Washington Post should do better.