The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
A bill to rename and structure the Ohio Department of Education and change the roles of the State Board of Education may see an Ohio House vote by the end of the week.
Senate Bill 178 was introduced in the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee on Monday, the same day the body’s Rules and Reference Committee sent the bill to that committee.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, spoke to the bill on Monday, and a possible vote is already scheduled for the measure on Tuesday, meaning it could be on the House floor in their session on Wednesday.
Reineke told the committee there is a need for “systemic change” in the state’s education department, and that a focus on career tech will help businesses in the state get the employees they need to keep going.
Much of the bill’s 1,200 pages regard the renaming of the ODE to become the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, but according to Reineke, the “substantive structure” of the bill takes up less than 20 pages.
That said, some legislators on the committee had concerns about the bill’s aims, the impact of the education overhaul on federal programs and homeschooling, and how the department should balance education and career tech.
“The devil is in the details, so the detail is that it’s 1,200 pages,” said state Rep. Catherine Ingram, D-Cincinnati. “So, whether it’s on 20 or not, it’s still a lot to be absorbed into a new cabinet-level position that reports and is appointed by the governor.”
Reineke said the bill’s focus is stemming the “frustration” that he and others have in stigmatizing career tech and in what he sees as lack of access to the ODE.
“I’m not about to say how we should restructure all those programs, but I am ready to say that my school superintendent should be able to go to somebody and get a responsive answer,” Reineke said.
He also said there’s been misunderstandings about the pace at which the effort has been implemented in the legislature. Though SB 178 has only been around for a few months and hasn’t seen a committee hearing until recently, he introduced a similar bill five years ago.
“I believe that I started this personally about five years ago, and it seems like it’s going pretty slow to me from the standpoint of getting any kind of reaction to it,” Reineke said.
That bill, House Bill 512, saw five hearings and heard 81 pieces of testimony. A criticism of the current bill is a lack of time for stakeholders to throw in their two cents with the current General Assembly ending in two weeks.
Concerns came from both sides of the aisle Monday when the bill entered the House committee.
State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, said he heard from constituents worried about the fate of homeschool education under the bill.
“They are coming to me, as they did when you had HB 512, very scared, very nervous that the right to home-educate children in the state of Ohio is going to be taken away from them,” Koehler said.
Reineke denied any attempt to change homeschooling in the state.
“This is about the end result of the kids, and those structures work well,” he said.
State Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur, R-Ashtabula, took issue with criticisms and changes to the state board of education, of which she was a member before coming to the legislature.
“I find it somewhat disingenuous from people who are saying they can’t get a hold of someone, because they always managed to get a hold of me when I was an elected member,” Fowler Arthur said. “I think that’s the beauty of that.”
She also said an issue the board had when she was there, and among her constituencies, was focusing student education too specifically.
“We don’t want to pigeonhole students into a particular career,” Fowler Arthur said. “We want to expose them to lots of opportunities.”
Acknowledging that he is not an educator, Reineke insisted his bill is more about structuring education not to standardize, but to allow more opportunities.
“I’m not looking at growing an organization; I’m looking at making it more efficient and more structurally purposeful,” Reineke said.
Education advocates and teachers unions in the state urged the legislature to push the bill to the new General Assembly so that it could be vetted properly. As the bill entered the House, the conservative group Ohio Value Voters jumped in to oppose SB 178.
The group has stood in opposition to the state board of education most recently, as the board dragged its feet on a resolution condemning federal changes to anti-discrimination language that would include sexual orientation and gender identity in Title IX regulations.
“There is no arguing the fact that the leadership of the State Board of Education has failed in many areas,” OVV said in a statement, referencing the resolution.
But the group is against a “slam dunk” of the overhaul “without including adequate checks and balances before giving the Department of Education over to the governor,” who they say has “been silent on the performance” of the board and “has failed to support many educational and child protection bills.”
“The education of Ohio’s children is of the utmost importance and it’s critically important that Ohioans have the opportunity to thoroughly review the (1,200) pages of this bill,” OVV president John Stover said in a statement.
The House Primary and Secondary Education Committee is set to meet after Tuesday’s House session to hear all testimony on the bill, which then may receive amendments and could see a vote out of committee.
If the committee approves the measure, it will move on for a full House vote, which could happen at the body’s Wednesday session.