COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The future of Ohio’s public education system hung in the balance Wednesday after a judge once again extended an order preventing the state from moving forward with a planned GOP-backed overhaul that a group of parents has challenged as unconstitutional.
It’s the latest move in a legal chess game that has Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s office scrambling over how to ensure that 1.6 million schoolchildren still have a functioning educational system — even if it could mean disobeying that temporary restraining order, which Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Karen Held Phipps extended until Oct. 20.
The conversion from the Ohio Department of Education, overseen by an independent state school board, to the Department of Education and Workforce, controlled by the governor, was part of a sweeping K-12 overhaul contained in the state’s budget back in July but was set to take effect Tuesday. A lawsuit filed just last month alleges that the new system Republican lawmakers created violates the constitution on multiple grounds.
Most notably, it would strip the constitutionally created and citizen-elected state board of most of its powers, which include setting academic standards and school curricula. This, the plaintiffs argue, would disregard the intention of a 1953 constitutional amendment that mandated the state board in order to give constituents more say in their children’s education than the governor.
The overhaul “is a prime example of the broader movement by extremist-controlled governors’ mansions and legislatures to deprive communities of meaningful representation,” Skye Perryman, president and chief executive of Democracy Forward, a national legal services nonprofit representing the plaintiffs, has said.
The original order, granted by Phipps on Sept. 21, blocked the state and DeWine from “enforcing, implementing, (and) complying with” the law. That includes “creating” the new education department and appointing a director to take on most of the state board’s responsibilities.
Despite the order, DeWine went forward on the advice of his attorneys with portions of the overhaul beginning Tuesday. The governor said the judge’s order only covers a part of the sweeping law that implements the overhaul.
The governor asserted in a news conference Monday that under the state budget, which is state law, the new department had to take effect at midnight Tuesday because the Ohio Department of Education dissolved at 11:59 p.m. Monday. He said no “affirmative action” on his part was necessary to “create” the department, since the budget he signed into law in July set the Oct. 3 effective date.
DeWine’s position is that no forward movement would result in the state being unable to write checks for schools, teachers and transportation workers or to approve state-funded private school vouchers, among other vital functions.
However, DeWine said he won’t be appointing a new director or transferring the state board’s powers to the department. The state’s current interim superintendent of public instruction, Chris Woolard, will lead the partial implementation.
“If someone wants to file a suit and say he can’t lead, have at it. All you’re doing is taking a leader away from the department that is there to help our kids,” DeWine said in the news conference.
The plaintiffs filed a motion Tuesday to clarify the temporary restraining order and stated that even if what DeWine is saying is true, his complying with the new department’s existence disobeys the court order.
If DeWine was truly concerned about funding for Ohio schools, he would have worked with the court to modify the order, instead of this “blatant violation,” Perryman said.
Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.