Ohio Republicans work to politicize our schools, destroy power of elected state school board

September 26, 2023 4:30 am
The Ohio Department of Education in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

The Ohio Department of Education in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Last fall I voted for a serious candidate to be my levelheaded voice on the Ohio Board of Education. Like many voters, I was fed up with the far right craziness that had infiltrated the ed board at the expense of real issues roiling public education in the state — unconstitutional school funding, under-resourced schools, teacher shortages, chronic student absenteeism, etc.

Enough with the invented “culture wars,” censorship, book bans, trans bans, rescinded anti-racism resolutions and worse. Voters revolted. On Nov. 8, 2022, my state school board district elected a former educator and formidable public school advocate. A week later, Ohio Senate Republicans introduced legislation to strip that school board member (and the whole panel of state educators) of nearly all power.

The measure effectively nullified the votes of over 157,000 Ohioans in my district. They elected a school board member to fulfill the constitutionally mandated duties and responsibilities of the state board of education, not to be a figurehead. But that’s what voters got with Ohio Senate Bill 1, which reduced the authority of board members to busywork.

Ohioans who voted in five state school board races last year trusted the winning candidates to carry out the educational interests of local schools, parents, students, and communities spread out over multiple counties. But that trust and those votes meant nothing to Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman who schemed all along to transfer the core duties and responsibilities of the elected education board to an unelected political appointee in the governor’s office. 

No doubt the election of several Democratic members to the ed board in 2022 hastened his timeline. When Huffman’s attempt to obliterate 70 years of independent, nonpartisan educational governance in Ohio failed to garner enough legislative support to become law, he shoehorned his power grab of the state school board into a must-pass budget bill. 

It swiftly sailed to the governor’s desk and into the Ohio Revised Code. In short order, Ohio voters were discarded as stakeholders in educational policymaking and state school board elections were discounted as, well, meaningless. That is not how democracy works. But that is how dictators, drunk on dominance, rule. “We can kind of do what we want,” bragged Huffman. 

With his rigged partisan supremacy in the state, the Lima Republican did whatever he wanted with unconstitutional redistricting. He’d do the same with his smarmy takeover of the state board of education. Huffman was driven to consolidate power in the hands of extremists and everything was going as planned. 

His ploy to wrest educational oversight in the state from the independent school board and give it to the governor (and his partisan lackey) was on track to take effect Oct. 3. But two weeks out, a group of seven elected school board members fought back. They sued the state and Gov. Mike DeWine to stop the shift of most of their powers to a governor-controlled education department. 

“We represent the majority of Ohioans (from seven different districts) and they voted for us expecting us to do our job,” said board member Teresa Fedor. The plaintiffs argued that the massive overhaul in how the state oversees K-12 public schools, including decisions on academic standards and school curricula, violated the Ohio Constitution. 

They noted Ohio voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1953 to create an independent ed board largely as a backlash to the politicization of education under the governor at the time (ironically). “If unchecked by this Court,” the lawsuit reads, “the system Ohio’s citizens mandated for governing education in Ohio will be rendered virtually powerless.” 

The suit also contends that the General Assembly cannot abolish a constitutionally-created board “via legislative workaround.” (Senate Bill 1 was snuck into an unrelated appropriations bill as a last-minute, 1,300 page rider which plaintiffs maintain violated the constitution’s single-subject lawmaking rule)

The strength of that “logrolling” complaint convinced a Franklin County court to issue a temporary restraining order putting Huffman’s education upheaval on hold last week. A preliminary injunction hearing is Oct. 2, the day before the scheduled transition — which could be paused indefinitely pending resolution of the case.

Senate Republicans huffed that their move to eviscerate Ohio’s public education system, as it exists today, was legally kosher as the duties of the ed board are “prescribed by law” in the constitution. No one is disputes that the legislature has certain powers to determine the board’s duties, replied Maddy Gitomer, senior counsel at Democracy Forward and one of the attorneys representing board members.

But, she added, courts draw the constitutional distinction between lawmakers “modifying” duties “prescribed by law” and eliminating them outright. “They say when the legislature attempts to hollow a body out and turn it into an empty shell of itself, that is unconstitutional. You can’t take away the core, inherent power that was part of the body when it was created by the people via ratification of a constitutional amendment.” 

That’s exactly what Ohio Republicans did. But their maneuver to enact sweeping change without accountability has been challenged. That’s a good thing. “We’re standing up for our rights, the rights of voters, local school districts, parents, communities to have a voice on state education policy,” declared first-year board member Fedor. 

It’s the democratic way.



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Marilou Johanek
Marilou Johanek

Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.