As the work of the state school board has become more demanding and complex, a reflection of the urgent need to enable Ohio students to compete in a global economy, this area has repeatedly failed to elect members up the challenging task.
The latest was Bryan Williams, who resigned from his district seat this week after it became clear that his other job, as a lobbyist for private interests, put him in conflict with state ethics laws covering elected officials.
Williams was appointed to a vacancy by Gov. John Kasich in 2011, then ran for a four-year term in 2012. In his letter of resignation, he said media reports had made him aware of the conflict.
Apparently, he never bothered to ask whether he had crossed the line. Or, worse, he did but went ahead.
At any rate, there was little in Williams’ career to suggest that the former state legislator, Summit County Board of Elections director and juvenile court administrator had developed a deep interest and firm grasp of education issues.
Elected from a gerrymandered suburban and rural district in Northeast Ohio, Williams adhered intently to the idea that competition would create better results, despite years of evidence that Ohio’s experiments with charter schools and vouchers have, to a large degree, failed to produce improvements.
Sadly, the Fairlawn Republican joins two other recent members of the state school board from this part of the state who were also unable to measure up to the job, either by pursuing wrong-headed policies or by failing to develop significant policies of their own.
Deborah Owens Fink served on the state school board from 1999 to 2006, when she was defeated by Tom Sawyer, long an education advocate as a state legislator and congressman.
Fink, a Bath Township Republican with ties to charter school magnate David Brennan, did have academic credentials, but the University of Akron professor of marketing tied the state board in knots by pushing to include creationist concepts in biology classes.
Besides taking time away from teaching science, Fink’s effort to inject intelligent design into the classroom would have flown in the face of decade upon decade of research verifying Charles Darwin’s findings.
Before that, there was Jean Bender. As the 1992 elections loomed, Bender, a Coventry Township Republican and former member of the Coventry school board, had been on the state school board for almost a decade.
While Bender showed strong interest in local schools, even to the point of sampling lunch menus after parents complained the food wasn’t tasty enough, she never developed well-informed policy positions on larger issues.
Instead, she developed a taste for the U.S. House, losing to Democrats John Seiberling (1984) and Tom Sawyer (1990).
It’s not hard to understand Bender’s lack of depth. Despite her long tenure on the state school board, local superintendents said they had almost no communication with her, and Bender even admitted she did not make it a practice to call on them.
She was defeated in 1992 by Oliver Ocasek, who had retired from a career in the Ohio Senate, much of it as a champion of education.
When taken as a whole, the record of this trio of Williams, Fink and Bender strongly calls into question the idea of electing members to the state school board, if not the idea of having a state board, elected or appointed, in the first place. The current board is a confusing hybrid, with some members elected and some appointed by the governor.
For all the focus these days on accountability in the classroom, such an administrative structure makes political accountability very difficult. The governor, legislature, state board and state department of education all play a role, in addition to the federal government and county and local school boards.
No wonder voters have trouble, especially when state board members are elected from oddly shaped districts that combine three Ohio Senate districts.
Consolidating school districts would be an improvement. So would eliminating the state school board.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.