If Ohio had an all-elected state board of education as it did about 20 years ago, the current state superintendent probably wouldn’t have his job, and the school board president likely would have gotten the boot.
The reason is, the independent representative school board created by voters 60 years ago this month no longer exists.
In 1995, the legislature added eight more chairs to the 11 elected seats at the table, to be filled by the governor, and for all practical purposes, took the board out of the hands of voters and made Ohio one of only three states to have a hybrid membership.
The reason for the change: The elected 11 had endorsed a lawsuit called Nathan DeRolph vs. State of Ohio, alleging that the legislature and governor were not adequately funding public education. The governor and legislature were unhappy and changed the membership.
Now, the education of 1.8 million children is in the hands of a board that swings as far left or right as the ruling party wants it to go.
That change assured that in February this year, board president Debe Terhar, a tea party activist, held her post when she came under fire for a controversial Facebook post of Adolf Hitler regarding gun regulation. The majority of the elected board members voted to oust her, but the appointed members overruled.
In March, the majority of elected members voted against hiring Gov. John Kasich’s chief education adviser, Richard Ross, as state superintendent. The appointed members put him over the top.
Today, the fact that two of 19 seats are empty — and have been for months — is of little concern because the majority represents the administration and has firm control.
The board looks like this:
• Eight of nine board committees are chaired by white men, although board gender is 9-8 male.
• Seven of nine committees are chaired by appointees, although appointed members are outnumbered 10-7.
• Of the seven appointees seated today, all are white and one is female.
• The only African-American member, elected from Dayton, intends to resign by the end of the year to take a seat in city government. African-Americans account for 13 percent of Ohio’s population.
• With the resignation of the Dayton representative, there is only one remaining member who lives in an urban district. Her vote represents about 6 percent of the 17 members, while urban districts account for about 25 percent of the Ohio student population.
• 12 Republicans account for 70 percent of the current board’s voting power, compared with 36 percent of the state electorate registered as Republican.
• Almost all appointees are significant Republican donors, organizers or fundraisers.
• About a third of the members attended private schools or sent their kids to private schools. About 10 percent of the state’s students attend private schools.
• Although the majority advocates for charter schools, which account for a little less than 10 percent of state enrollment, not one has a child in a charter school.
• Home schoolers, who strongly oppose government intrusion into their business and represent about 2 percent of the student population, unified last year to elect one member from rural Northeast Ohio. Their representative has never had a relationship with public education and identified her primary mission as assuring that home schooling is left alone.
A shift in purpose
It’s more difficult to quantify opinions of board members regarding the mission of education dollars, but it is clear that more than half the board represents a paradigm shift away from Ohio education as a system of traditional public school districts run by elected school boards.
The majority supports market-driven school choice, which in Ohio means transferring dollars from traditional public schools to charter and private schools. They want to hold traditional schools and teachers accountable for performance, but say parents have the right to choose charter or private schools that today are not held to the same academic and financial accountability.
What role does the state board play? Members write the detailed rules that put laws into action. They create academic standards and definitions, approve curriculum, establish test benchmarks, outline teacher evaluations and more.
It also stirs controversy with discussion of evolution, gun control, testing, socialism and student reading material, not to mention school choice and academic standards.
But for all that, a state school board seat is not a high-profile position. For the elected seats, voters often go to the booth with little knowledge of the candidates. A survey of school superintendents and board members of traditional local districts showed that many have never met their district representative — and some would be hard-pressed to say the name.
Jeff Langdon, superintendent in Deer Park schools near Cincinnati, said he has never spoken with the elected representative from his area, Debe Terhar, who is state board president.
But, he said, that’s not unusual.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the least because it’s … a political position. It’s not a position, in my opinion, that is there to truly look out for the well being of kids and public education in Ohio,” Langdon said. “I’d love to have more contact. But it’s simply not made available.”
If Terhar were to visit, the message Langdon would deliver: “Quit taking public tax dollars and giving it to vouchers and charter schools. Do everything in your power to stop that.”
In an effort to understand the collective and individual ideologies of the board, the Akron Beacon Journal and the NewsOutlet, a nonprofit reporting organization staffed by Youngstown State University and University of Akron journalism students, conducted extensive interviews with most members, probing beliefs, backgrounds, credentials, interests, actions and priorities concerning education for Ohio’s 1.8 million students and 190,000 educators.
Meet the board
Of 17 members, seven reside in either small towns or rural school districts. Eight live in affluent suburban school districts. Only two reside in one of the 55 districts classified as urban. Those districts account for 63 percent of Ohio’s minority students and 42 percent of all students living in poverty.
Former U.S. Rep. Mary Rose Oakar of Cleveland is one. She was educated in religious schools.
The other is Jeffrey J. Mims Jr., the lone African-American and a resident of the Dayton school district. He announced his intent to resign in January after winning election to the Dayton City Commission on Nov. 5.
While most board votes are cast in unison, there is a clear divide between the majority, which supports competitive, consumer-driven school choice programs, and six, all elected, who advocate for traditional public schools where roughly 85 percent of Ohio’s children learn.
“We’ve had 15 years of choice. I was a co-sponsor of the original charter school law when I was in the state legislature,” said elected board member Bryan C. Williams, an Akron-area lobbyist who served his first term on the state school board as a Kasich appointee. “Anything that says you live here, you go to school here ... That’s no choice. So we’ve been moving away from that for a long time and I think the gradual nature of that is wise and necessary.”
Others argue that expanded choice is inefficient, reduces accountability and financially impairs traditional public schools.
“I am a big advocate of the public school systems, which unfortunately the board isn’t anymore,” Ann Jacobs, an elected member of the board’s Republican majority, said in an interview.
Jacobs, the daughter of a longtime board member, is joined in her advocacy of traditional schools by Mims, Oakar, Democratic political fundraiser Stephanie Dodd of Hebron, union-backed Michael Collins of Westerville; and retired 31-year Akron schoolteacher Deborah Cain of Lake Township in Stark County.
The remainder of the four elected and seven appointed members are Republicans who generally favor limited government, local control and have many ties to the governor.
All but one board member provided some time for an interview.
C. Todd Jones, appointed by Kasich, did not respond to multiple requests from the NewsOutlet. He is a lobbyist for the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities of Ohio, which competes for K-12 and higher education dollars and lobbies state government for favorable rules and laws.
He did respond, however, when the Beacon Journal told him that there were questions regarding a potential conflict of interest between his role as a lobbyist and state school board member.
Jones explained his reluctance to talk to students by saying that while he has “hundreds of opinions on matters of educational policy, I am not interested in giving interviews to explore the variety of topics that are not related to matters before the board or subject of current public policy debate. They are no more important to my work on the board than are my preferences for neckwear, television shows, or fermented beverages.”
The students did, however, work from a list of questions that related to many matters before the board: Accountability, funding, Common Core standards, the missions of traditional, charter, private and home schooling, the challenges facing urban schools and the role of parents.
Only two other states — Louisiana and Nevada — have hybrid boards, according to the National Association of School Boards of Education. Voters elect all members in eight states while politicians appoint all members in 37 states. Two states — Minnesota and Wisconsin — have no state school boards. In Washington, the state school board is elected or appointed by local school boards, private schools and the governor.
Filling the appointed seats with like-minded people streamlines the governor’s agenda, currently focused on changing public education through competition, choice and tough new performance standards.
“The preponderance of the board supports the governor,” Williams said. “That helps. That gets a possible conflict out of the way.”
The board hired Richard Ross from the key education advisory position in Kasich’s administration to become the state superintendent. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland proposed even more power: He wanted the superintendent to be an appointed cabinet position. With the legislature controlled by the opposing party, that idea went nowhere.
School board members serve four-year, staggered terms. For those who run for the elected seats, the position is nonpartisan, meaning there is no political affiliation next to the name on the ballot.
Still, politics saturate the board, with 13 Republicans, three Democrats and one nonpartisan member. All appointees are Republican.
Five years ago when Democrat Strickland was governor, the board was equally lopsided in favor of Democrats, although only a third of the electorate is registered Democrat.
The president of the board is an elected member, Debe Terhar. She is an early member of the Tea Party of Hamilton County and president of the Hamilton County Republican Women’s Club. Her children attended private school.
The vice president is Thomas Gunlock, a former director of four Dayton charter schools and whose construction-business family has a history of supporting the Republican Party.
Terhar, the wife of Ohio Rep. Louis Terhar, a Republican, made headlines twice this year. In the aftermath of a Connecticut school shooting that left 26 dead and President Barack Obama’s call for changes in gun laws, Terhar shared a picture of Hitler, with a quote that tyrants take control of countries first by taking the guns.
In September, Terhar again piqued public interest by suggesting the state reconsider the inclusion of a novel by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, on a high school reading list. The narrative includes a graphic description of a girl who was raped.
Mark Smith, the Ohio Christian University president, defended Terhar’s objection. “I see an underlying socialist-communist agenda ... that is anti what this nation is about,” the Columbus Dispatch reported.
In the interviews, some board members suggested that there are issues such as climate change, religious beliefs, American history, economic principles and sex that should be limited or perhaps not discussed at all in schools.
Appointed board member Tess Elshoff, a mother of five in public schools, said she sees no appropriate time for discussion of sexuality in school.
On climate change, in the context of science, she said: “I don’t feel that should be taught at this point because there are too many unanswered questions on facts.”
Elected member Oakar, who has no children, said that her experiences in urban schools suggest there is a need for discussion of sex.
“They just had a panel in Cleveland of young mothers who were 13 and 14 years old saying what it’s like to have a little baby … what it’s like after her boyfriend left her,” Oakar said. “I mean, please. I think they have to know the ramifications of, ya know, what happens with the sexual contact.”
Elected member Sarah Fowler, who was schooled at home, said that discussion of sex is not appropriate in schools.
“I think that the subject of sexuality is best left up to the child’s parents because they can best discern their maturity and readiness for that discussion,” Fowler said.
Today, the fight is over Common Core, a national movement to measure student performance globally by unifying standards, or benchmarks. The more rigorous standards, adopted by the state school board in 2010 when Strickland was governor, would likely fail if put to a board vote again, many members said.
Member Bryan Williams of Fairlawn expressed his concern: “I’m very concerned about what I see as the attempted federalization of education that I see taking place, primarily through the Common Core.”
Beacon Journal staff writer Doug Livingston can be contacted at 330-996-3792, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributing to this story were reporters from the NewsOutlet, a consortium of journalism programs at the University of Akron and Youngstown State University. Participating organizations are the Akron Beacon Journal, the Vindicator of Youngstown, Rubber City Radio and WYSU-FM radio.