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Ohio Senate committee passes education overhaul, moves measure to full chamber vote




Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The Ohio Senate Education Committee Tuesday passed a bill along party lines to overhaul the state’s department and board of education, over objections from multiple education board members and the the Ohio School Boards Association.

The passage came after a second day of opponent testimony against the bill.

Opponents speaking on Tuesday questioned the ability of the executive branch to address the actual needs of the education community, including those situational issues outside of the classroom that still impact things like test scores.

Kevin Conwell, of the Cleveland City Council, pushed back on the use of test numbers to explain the struggles of the schools by Committee Chair Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, which he has used in multiple hearings to fault the state board of education for lack of action on falling test scores and other problems.

“Reading the paper and having an up-close view are two different things,” Conwell said.

With students in Cleveland and neighboring East Cleveland school districts dealing with “abject poverty,” Conwell said it’s hard to understand the needs of the districts without seeing them. SB 1 doesn’t address the needs that would really help Cleveland students exceed, he said.

“You can’t compare and contrast Cleveland and where you live,” Conwell told Brenner. “It’s not SB 1, we need bills to address abject poverty and the things our students deal with.”

Those issues include domestic violence, hunger struggles, and students who also act as financial supports for their families, along with the poverty, according to Conwell’s fellow councilman, Richard Starr.

“Those test scores also reflect some of the issues that we’re dealing with,” Starr said.

recent national study found that low-income neighborhoods and areas with more students of color need more funding than richer neighborhoods to level the educational playing field.

Those who asked the committee not to pass the bill also took issue with the reduced role of the state board of education and its partly-elected members.

“By stripping it of all but its regulatory role, the board would no longer be acting in any significant way on behalf of the citizens they represent,” said Nicole Piscitani, lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association.

Toledo resident Jennifer Simkins-Bullock said SB 1 proposes “essentially neutering” the state board by giving most of its roles to a position under the governor’s cabinet, and lead to more politically-motivated education policies in the state.

With the governor’s power to appoint eight of the 19 state board of ed members, Simkins-Bullock said one person already has involvement in education.

“Putting essentially all educational matters into the hands of the governor allows a single person to have too much control over the direction of education in the state,” Simkins-Bullock said. “And this person would likely not be specifically trained in education or even likely ever took a course on education or educational management.”

A fourth member of the state board of education spoke out against the bill on Tuesday. Kati Hoffman is one of the most recently elected board members, and said such expansive changes as are included in SB 1 should be put to voters, rather than passed by the General Assembly.

“If this committee wants to change the will of the people, then let the people decide,” Hoffman said. “Put it on the ballot and see what voters think of your plan to remove the powers given to the State School Board and the ODE by the Ohio Constitution.”

Some of Hoffman’s fellow board members spoke at last week’s committee meeting, criticizing the bill for a lack of accountability and action as well.

The GOP majority on the committee rejected all but one of Democrats attempted amendments to the bill.

The committee allowed ranking member and Democratic state Sen. Catherine Ingram’s amendment to require at least one public hearing before the Senate holds a vote on approving head of the Department of Education and Workforce, as it would be called under the bill.

Several other amendments, including one that would require the superintendent of public instruction and and the State Board of Education to make recommendations to the DEW and provide support to the state board, and another that sought to emphasize stakeholder engagement with the deputy directors of the new department, were all tabled along party lines.

Brenner pushed for the tabling of all of the amendments that were rejected, saying some were not needed and others would “undermine” the goals of SB 1.

Republicans brought their own set of amendments, all of which were accepted into the bill.

Committee Vice-Chair state Sen. Sandra O’Brien, R-Ashtabula, presented amendments to require the department heads to update or rescind any administrative rules on home education or non-charted non-public schools that don’t conform with the bill 90 days after the bills passage, if passed.

Other amendments passed on Tuesday clarify that students receiving home education are subject to truancy law, change the implementation of the law from June 30 of this year, to 90 days after effective date of the law, if passed.

The GOP also added a change to the role of the superintendent of public instruction, permitting rather than requiring the official to act as a DEW advisor.

Brenner said the passage of the bill out of committee, and hopefully both chambers of the General Assembly, will bring about a system of accountability.

“We are in a situation where we need seriously faster change to improve our schools, and the system that is in place right now is a system that is designed to be slow and bureaucratic,” Brenner said on Tuesday.

The committee chair said, with the governor’s support, he expected the public school-favoring Fair School Funding Plan to be fully funded “I think in the next couple of general assemblies.”

Ingram said she was disappointed but not surprised about the SB 1’s passage out of committee.

“The problem is that we have not had a real discussion about what this bill will do,” Ingram said.

Bringing up the academic distress commissions that created state takeovers of school districts in Lorain, Youngstown, and East Cleveland, she said state takeovers have not had success, and therefore prove state control is not a fix for the education issues in Ohio.

“When we start to talk about the money, and we start to talk about the failing schools … we have to be prepared to be cohesive about how we get this work done,” Ingram said.

State Sen. Vernon Sykes said he agrees that urgent change is needed in the education realm, but fast-tracking SB 1 isn’t the answer.

“We should also take enough time to make sure that … this is going to fulfill the intended purpose,” Sykes said.

The Ohio Senate is set to meet for a full session Wednesday afternoon, though it’s not clear whether SB 1 will appear on the agenda. The bill is likely to pass since it is supported by the GOP, including Senate President Matt Huffman who pledged to pass the bill after it was held back in the last GA. The GOP holds majority in both the House and Senate chambers.

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

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