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Education overhaul returns to Ohio Senate




Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

As promised by Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman last year, an overhaul of the state education system is back on the agenda.

The bill, once again led by state Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, was reintroduced on Jan. 11, and already has 10 cosponsors signed on.

The legislation seeks to rename the Ohio Department of Education as the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, which Reineke previously said makes up the bulk of the legislation’s language.

Also a part of the bill are changes to the Ohio State Board of Education, who will see a reduced role if the bill is passed. Many of the roles of the state board would be moved to a cabinet-level position within the governor’s office, called the director of education and workforce.

“Senate Bill 1 will put, basically, the governor in charge of education policy in the state through the cabinet-level position,” said State Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, who is the chair of the Senate Education Committee and an ex-officio member of the state board.

The director would take over, for example, “general supervision of the system of public education in the state,” exercise “policy forming, planning and evaluative functions for the public schools,” develop a financial reporting standard used by the school districts and “administer and supervise the allocation and distribution of all state and federal funds for public school education,” all roles that the state board previously held.

The makeup and size of the board isn’t set to change under the legislation, maintaining its 19 members, with 11 elected and eight appointed by the governor with the approval of the Ohio Senate.

But part of the reason Reineke and other supporters of the legislation, like Brenner, want to see board changes is because of a lack of action and overabundance of disorganization they say they see on the board.

“My concern, and one of the reasons I’m co-sponsoring this bill … is urgency,” Brenner told the state board at its Wednesday meeting. “It’s been 18 months (and) this board still has not picked a permanent superintendent, which is a constitutional requirement of this board.”

Similar legislation, with a similar volume of more than 2,100 pages, was brought at the end of the last General Assembly, and fell short of the needed votes to pass in a late-night House session just before the GA ended.

The previous bill, SB 178, also had two measures added to it at the last minute, one which would have banned transgender youth athletes from participating in the school sport based on their gender identity, and another which would have banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates in K-12 schools.

Those amendments will not be included in SB 1, according to Brenner.

The legislation also received harsh criticism, mostly for the rushed timeline. Teachers unions and public education advocates panned the effort as irresponsible and unnecessary, asking both the House and Senate committees to give the bill more time for stakeholder input before pushing it through.

New state board president Paul LaRue, in speaking for himself and not on behalf of the full board, spoke of opportunities for education over the next year, even as the bill gets considered.

“I just see more opportunity than I see potential icebergs ahead,” LaRue told the OCJ.

He acknowledged that there is “always room for reform, always room for positive change,” he stood behind the board as an accessible state agency who interacts with the public on a regular basis.

“By having that kind of an open dialogue, people can come to us,” LaRue said. “That’s not to say that couldn’t be replicated in a cabinet-level position, but I think that’s something we do really well.”

In his mind, the potential legislative changes don’t have to be an interruption to the priorities of the board and of education overall, including literacy improvement, learning acceleration and career development and the work of the Business Advisory Councils, which fall under the ODE.

“That’s just the bread and butter of what we do,” LaRue said. “We need to improve literacy, we need to make sure every child in the state has the education that they deserve.”

SB 1 should head first to the Senate Education Committee, where Brenner said it will receive “regular committee hearings” for most of February and possibly March, the first of which is scheduled for Jan. 17.

“My anticipation is we’re going to try to put it in the state budget or pass it as a standalone bill,” Brenner said, adding that he anticipates the process being completed by the budget deadline in June.

The Ohio Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment on SB 1.

Brenner also brought up another bill being worked up by the legislature that he says would “de-regulate public schools.” The education reform bill which has not been introduced would “allow more local control to some degree over how school’s operate,” Brenner told the state board.

One education bill that has (yet again) been formally introduced is state Sen. Sandra O’Brien’s Senate Bill 11, which the Ashtabula Republican attempted to get through in the last General Assembly, but ran out of time.

The bill is an EdChoice private school voucher expansion, which would give $5,500 for grades K-8 or $7,500 to high schoolers to attend private schools, and homeschoolers a non-refundable state tax credit of a maximum of $2,000.

The bill is similar to a “backpack bill” brought up in 2021 and supported by the religious lobby group The Center for Christian Virtues. The bill would have allowed school funding to be funded to the child, rather than distributed through public school districts.

SB 11 has not been assigned to a committee or scheduled for its first hearing, though it will likely be considered by the Senate Education Committee.

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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