COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Members of the state board of education are hoping to preserve their powers before the Department of Education overhaul strips them of most responsibilities.
Seven elected members of the state education board are suing the state over the impending executive takeover of most of the board’s responsibilities in early October. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Franklin County, argued the restructuring of the education department – added as a last-minute provision to the state’s biennial budget – violates the constitutional mandate that Ohio has a functioning state board of education.
If left to take effect, the state board would still exist, but most of its powers would be transferred to a governor-appointed director of the Department of Education and Workforce.
“The General Assembly is not permitted to abolish the constitutionally created Board via legislative workaround,” the complaint read. “And what the Ohio Constitution forbids the General Assembly from accomplishing directly, it also forbids the General Assembly from achieving indirectly.”
Under a tight deadline to pass a budget before the end of the fiscal year, the Ohio Senate folded in Senate Bill 1 days before forwarding the budget to the governor. SB 1, which had stalled in the legislature after passing the Senate in March, establishes a governor appointee and two deputy directors to oversee policy implementation, rulemaking, curricula evaluation and other tasks currently relegated to the board.
The state board would retain some authority – specifically, to administer educator licenses, oversee licensee disciplinary actions and approve land transfers. But those responsibilities are “perfunctory,” the complaint claims. By stripping the board of its integral duties, the legislature has made the board a “shell” of itself.
“When the Education Takeover Rider in HB 33 takes effect, the Board will continue to exist on paper as a legal entity, but it will functionally cease to exist in effect as a body responsible for education governance in the State of Ohio,” the complaint read.
Christina Collins, a state board member for the seventh district and plaintiff in the complaint, told NBC4 that the state overhaul of the Department of Education puts children’s education at risk.
“It is really important to take these steps before the transition is underway,” Collins said. “We need to stop this train that is already careening down the tracks before it goes any further.”
Elected members of the board represent regions across the state, some with vastly different educational needs, Collins said. Eleven of the board’s 19 members are beholden to the needs of their constituents, she said, making engagement with community members, families and teachers crucial to the functioning of the board.
But if most powers are transferred to a governor appointee, Collins said, the public will have far less ability to offer input when policies, curricula and standards are introduced. The department director would not be held to the same public meeting laws as the state board, meaning statewide decisions about K-12 education would happen behind closed doors.
The complaint also argues that the legislature erred when passing the budget itself, by not having three readings of the finalized proposal, on three separate days, before sending it to the governor. The lawsuit seeks a preliminary – and eventual permanent – block on the Department of Education overhaul, and for a judge to render the provision void. The changes to the department are slated to take effect Oct. 3.
Republican lawmakers had touted SB 1 as a solution to the “inherently flawed” governance structure Ohio has maintained since constitutionally establishing the state education board in 1953. The state board is inefficient in implementing policy, lawmakers have claimed, and Ohio’s children are struggling to succeed academically because of the board’s policy failures.
“We are in a situation where we need serious, fast change to improve our schools,” Sen. Andrew Brenner (R-Delaware) said during a March committee hearing on SB 1. “The system that is in place right now is a system that is designed to be slow and bureaucratic. We don’t have time for bureaucracies when you’ve got passage rates in the low single digits on proficiency, when kids, hundreds of thousands of them, are behind.”
Collins agreed that the state board of education is designed to move slowly – but she said that’s one of its strengths. Policy impacting millions of school-age children should be carefully considered, evaluated, and scrutinized in the public eye.
The transition of power from the state board to an executive cabinet position follows a pattern by the legislature – and legislatures across the country – to consolidate power and decrease public participation in the policymaking process, she said.
“This push to get rid of public voice and get rid of transparency – yeah, that will speed things up, but there’s no democracy involved in that,” Collins said. “That’s an authoritarian government, not a democratic one.”
The governor’s office does not normally comment on pending litigation, a spokesperson said.
Read the full complaint below.