The Ohio Senate passed an overhaul of the state Department of Education and Board of Education on Wednesday with heavy criticism for what bill supporters say has been years of dysfunction.
The measure passed 22-7, and now moves on for House consideration.
Senate President Matt Huffman came down from the dais just to support the measure, which renames the education department to include a workforce element and pares down the roles of the state board of education. It was just passed out of committee the day before, against objections from education advocates.
Huffman called out the Ohio Department of Education for what he called a lack of accountability.
“Most of us don’t have contact with the people at the Ohio Department of Education, and there’s a good reason for that: They don’t work for us, they work for the state Board of Education,” Huffman said in a Wednesday floor speech.
In particular, Huffman said there is a certain “malevolence” within the education department when it comes to school choice and EdChoice private school voucher program processes.
He believes that discord won’t happen if the department leadership is moved within the executive branch’s purview.
“If this is a cabinet-level position, under the governor … there is going to be a response to this body and the members of the House, the elected representatives of the people,” Huffman said. “Because governors have an incentive to respond to the legislature.”
Democrats stood in opposition not to changes to the state’s education system, but how the changes are being made.
State Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, a member of the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee from which the bill originated, said school governance has been debated “almost the whole time that I’ve been a member of the General Assembly.”
Is change needed? He says yes.
“I believe we need to review and revise our education governance structure, but we need an intensive and extensive review, giving all stakeholders adequate opportunity to consider proposals and to give input,” Sykes told his fellow Senate members.
Responding to criticism that the bill is happening too fast for a proper review, state Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, said the bill was crafted over “months” and attempts to make changes have happened multiple times over the years, including the institution of academic distress commissions. Many of the problems, such as decreases in reading comprehension test scores and a lack of an official state superintendent for public instruction, have been years in the making.
Without immediate action, students will continue to lose learning time and Ohio’s workforce will not be prepared for the new opportunities coming from places like Intel.
“If kids aren’t literate, they’re not going to be able to do those jobs,” Brenner said.
Two Republicans, state Sens. Kristina Roegner and Niraj Antani, voted against the measure, but did not make comments during the session.
State Representatives will need to move fast to get the measure passed by the end of the year, which also marks the end of the 134th General Assembly. If it doesn’t pass, the effort starts over at the beginning of the year.
House Speaker Bob Cupp said he has yet to look at the bill or discuss it with House colleagues, according to Huffman.
“We talked generally about it and I expressed the fact that I’m in favor of it and Governor (Mike) DeWine expressed that also,” Huffman said after the Senate vote.
The Senate president said he does think there is support for it already in the House, but if it doesn’t pass, that won’t spell the end of the matter.
“I’d like to move that this year and if, for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen in the House, it’ll be coming right back in February,” Huffman said after the Senate vote.
After the vote, groups on either side of the education debate spoke out on the measure.
Public school education coalition Honesty for Ohio Education panned the fast-tracked vote.
“Instead of collaborating with policymakers, the Department of Education, educators, administrators, and communities to build a sustainable solution that would address these very complicated issues, lawmakers are prioritizing a solution that creates more problems than it solves,” said coalition director Cynthia Peeples.
The Buckeye Institute, a think tank that supported the bill in committee, said passage of the bill was an opportunity for Ohio.
“By reforming the State Board of Education and the Ohio Department of Education, Senate Bill 178 will better align education with the needs of employers and help overcome historic learning loss in the wake of the pandemic,” said Greg Lawson, research fellow for the institute.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Education declined to comment on the statements made Wednesday in the Senate or on the bill itself.