Higher ed access, speech on campus bill moves on for House review

By: - June 18, 2021 12:40 am

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A bill seeking to address financial barriers and access to higher education, along with speech on campuses, is now headed for House review after the Ohio Senate passed it nearly unanimously.

In a 31-2 vote, Senate Bill 135 cleared one chamber of the Ohio legislature, pressing forward new rules for student debt transparency and a pilot program for those who dropped out of school, but want a second chance.

The proposed legislation also requires not only higher education institutions, but K-12 facilities as well to adopt a policy on speech on campus and and establish a process to appeal allegations of free speech violations.

“This bill is about protecting the free speech of all students and faculty to ensure that our campuses and school districts are not only beacons of free speech and individual expression, but that the focus is on critical thinking skills, to ensure that students can thoughtfully develop their own opinions and make their own decisions,” bill sponsor state Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, said.

The measure hits the Senate floor one day after two bills were introduced in the House to control teaching in all tax-funded educational forums that would promote certain “ideologies” over others. One bill targeted K-12 education specifically, the other was more broad.

Cirino said SB 135 would provide $3 million over the next two years for scholarships that would allow 1,500 students who left higher education in the past five years to try again.

Under the measure, an initiative would also be put in place to allow community college students to transfer credits to state universities and requires partnerships between state universities and community colleges and technical colleges for dual enrollment and programming.

For those just beginning the process of secondary education, the bill targets high school guidance counselors in an effort to make sure students receive all their post-graduation options, including trade schools, community schools and four-year colleges.

That advice should also include the actual cost of a chosen education path, Cirino said of the bill.

“The solution to student debt is not wholesale forgiveness, because that does not solve future problems,” Cirino said. “The solution to student debt is to make sure that students know early on in their career what their lower cost options are, for us to help make them available, and to make sure that they are better counseled on these options.”

In the Senate floor vote, the bill received bipartisan support, with the only criticism stemming from the clauses on freedom of speech. Sen. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, said she was encouraged by the rest of the language in the bill, but heard concerns on whether the free speech language “actually encourages or quashes that.”

“We want people to have the freedom to express their ideas and do that in an environment that’s safe and open,” Antonio said before voting against the bill. “It’s what our democracy was founded on.”

Antonio said she hopes the bill will evolve under House consideration.

The bill had the support of several community colleges and higher education advocates in previous committee hearings, despite the free speech language.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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