Today’s state school board is not quite the same body it was 20 years ago.
Back then, there were 11 members, all elected. But that changed in the mid 1990s under then Republican Gov. George Voinovich. The move to add governor-appointed members followed a controversial court decision declaring the state’s model for funding education unconstitutional.
Many, including Voinovich, feared changing it would break the bank or send taxes soaring. But the board refused to back the state’s appeal of the decision. Republican Jamie Callender, who joined the Legislature a couple of years later, recalls what happened.
“Gov. Voinovich was frustrated because the general population held him responsible politically for education policy and yet he didn’t have any control over the Department of Education or the state’s board of education," Callender says.
Gaining some control
So in 1995, the Legislature, at Voinovich’s urging, decided to shake things up by creating governor-appointed board seats. Today, eight members are appointed; eleven are elected.
The state board is the controlling body of the Department of Education. Its sole constitutional power is to appoint the state superintendent, who in turn manages the department. But the Legislature, which actually decides education policy, has delegated considerable authority to the board, Callender says, and it has a lot of leeway in developing specific rules within the general law.
“When you’re talking about the passing rate for the third-grade reading guarantee, for example, that’s a lot of power," Callender says. "And if you’re the parent of a third-grade child, where that cut score is and what is contained on that test becomes vitally important to you, and it’s of great concern who is writing those rules.”
The same but different
Joan Platz has monitored the Board of Education for the League of Women Voters since 1989, and testified at hearings on behalf of the League. She says the board’s role is similar to that of other state agencies, but its public nature, the fact that members are elected office-holders, sets it apart.
“There are public meetings, people can come and talk to members of the state board, or even address the state board during their monthly meetings." Platz says. "So there’s a lot of ways for people to become involved in the rule-making process.”
Still some say the board’s independence was watered down with the introduction of appointed members, and that is it is too beholden to the governor. That is tempered somewhat because the appointments are staggered, a new governor cannot just sweep out previous appointees all at once and pick new ones.
But currently, all eight appointed members were chosen by Republican Gov. Kasich, and the superintendent is Kasich’s former education adviser. That bothers Steve Dyer, another former legislator. He is a Democrat who now works for Innovation Ohio, a left leaning policy group.
“It is an issue where if one governor is able to appoint eight members, they only need four of the remaining eleven to get their majority," Dyer says. "So the people of Ohio could vote seven to four, and the voice is drowned out by the appointed members.”
That's why Democrats are driving hard to get their candidates elected in the seven school board districts up for a vote this year. Hot button issues include implementation of the Common Core and school-choice options such as vouchers and charter schools.