Mary Sweetwood
TheNewsOutlet.org

Name: Mark Alan Smith.

Appointed, at large: Appointed in January 2013 by Gov. John Kasich. Term ends Dec. 31, 2016. School board committees: Urban Education; Accountability; Executive.

Age: 47.

Residence: Circleville.

Political affiliation: Republican.

Occupation: President, Ohio Christian University.

Education: Public high school; bachelor’s degree in religious education; master’s degree in curriculum and instruction/higher education teaching; doctorate in higher education administration.

Family: Married, two school-age children in private school.

Other boards, affiliations: Board member, Columbus 2020, Ohio Regional Economic Development Board and the Eleos Technologies corporate board; chairman of the board, Association for Biblical Higher Education; board member, Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education; Treasurer, Pickaway County Community Foundation.

Mark A. Smith, an appointed member of the state school board, didn’t become a college president overnight. His journey began in rural Appalachia, “where only the tough survive.”

“My family did not come from royalty,” he said. “My extended family members and friends had their fights, used moonshine and lived for the moment. However, the course of history was changed when Grandma met Jesus Christ.”

Thus begins Smith’s journey — one that leads to his appointment to an at-large seat on the Ohio state school board in January by Gov. John Kasich.

Along the way, Smith has become an educational entrepreneur and political activist who has taken the position that institutional education is at war with faith, freedom and families.

Smith initially declined to be interviewed for this project, but after most other board members agreed, he met with a reporter for an abbreviated session. Much of the information gathered about him came from other sources.

In politics, Smith has donated $17,650 to election campaigns since 2006. All went to Republicans with the exception of $2,000 for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat. Smith regularly attends Brown’s annual conference of college and university presidents in Washington, D.C.

Smith has served on the economic advisory team for former U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, R-Beaver Creek, and campaigned for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, appearing twice on Fox News to discuss the political race on behalf of evangelical Christians.

He is president of the Ohio chapter of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a faith-based political education organization that promotes private enterprise, limited government, education reform and “sanctity and dignity of life, family and marriage.” The Ohio chapter of the national organization has held many of its meetings at Ohio Christian University.

The college also is home to the weekly Faith & Liberty talk show, which has included as guests Ralph Reed, head of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, Grover Norquist, who secured no-tax pledges from many members of Congress, and several Ohio Republican House members.

Ohio Christian University has grown under Smith’s leadership with new construction, expansion into online classes and tapping into K-12 public money by offering college classes to high school students, known as postsecondary education.

During Smith’s tenure, enrollment has grown from 380 to nearly 3,670 students in 2012, with 600 in the traditional undergraduate program and the majority of students enrolled in newly established programs: adult and online, graduate and the postsecondary Trailblazer Academy.

Ohio Christian University revenues have more than doubled in four years, from $10.7 million in fiscal 2009 to $27.8 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012, according to nonprofit filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

When asked why he wanted to be on the state school board, Smith responded: “To help children learn. To help children lead.”

The goal of publicly funded education, he said, should be, “to help students perform at highest levels of learning.”

His college has its own teacher education program, which emphasizes active engagement of students rather than passive learning, within a Christian worldview. He sits on the state board accountability committee, which is setting learning goals for students that also will be used to evaluate teachers and the colleges from which they come.

Ohio Christian also has partnered with a Circleville private Christian school to provide a two-year degree program for students who attend through the postsecondary education program.

Upon his appointment to the state school board, Smith told the Circleville Herald that he plans to use his experience in creating educational opportunities.

While he likes the changes that have been made in public education, he said more change is needed.

“I am concerned about low-performing rural and urban schools. I am concerned about removing barriers to education,” he said. To address these challenges, he encourages: “Mentoring programs, leadership programs, and local and community ownership.”

He chairs the board’s Urban Education Committee, and attributes impediments to academic success in those school districts to “low expectations and lack of community ownership according to research.”

“How do we improve learning for the students and make learning once again an excellent opportunity for growth and enjoyable for our students?” he said. “How do we move them forward in their knowledge but also in their ability to apply that material and use it in a highly-advanced technology age?”

As president of a college with online academic classes for high school and college classes, Smith also is interested in ways that technology can be used to save money for the state’s educational system.

“That’s one of the huge opportunities in our state, to learn how to be entrepreneurial and connect business, jobs and economic growth with education,” he said. “Those are the things I want to work with. I look forward to being part of the team.”

Values also are a driving force for Smith.

“We are in the battle for the mind of America,” Smith said in a December 2011 fundraising video for his college.

At a June 2011 conference of the national Faith & Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C., he said: “I work in the education arena and one of the most obvious conflicts is in the battle for our mind. I have a growing concern that we do not understand the implications of this battle. And, ladies and gentlemen, I propose to you that unless we begin to understand and take up the fight for the minds of our children, our nation will go down to ruin. We must win this war.”

The war, he says, is being fought over an education system as it relates to values.

“Regulations are being passed to prepare an education agenda that is national in reform and that is ‘values free,’ ” Smith told the crowd at the Freedom & Faith event. “There is no ‘values free’ education. It does not exist. We at the Faith & Freedom Coalition must choose our values and we must promote our values because our values are the right values for a God-fearing country.”

“Over the last few years, my mind has been opened to the great influence of this social bastion of society that we call education. It wages war upon our faith, our freedom and our families,” Smith said at the June 2011 event.

As part of curbing regulation, Smith promotes choice in education for parents.

“Overregulation … has already created a failed education system. It’s time for personal choice. It’s time for community-led control of our schools … it’s time to have real choice in education so that parents can send their children to the schools of their choice. We must embrace school vouchers as a Faith & Freedom Coalition.”

His stance on homosexuality is reflected in a statement at the June 2011 Faith & Family conference.

“A California teachers union paid Gender Spectrum $1,500 to promote a gender identity course among our children. They used the clown fish, which can change its gender at any time, to teach our people, our children that gender identity was something we need to accept. Sorry, Nemo. I propose these are not the values that Faith & Freedom endorses.”

Another issue Smith has spoken on is socialism, most recently in defense of Debe Terhar, the president of the state school board, who at that group’s Sept. 10 meeting, said Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye should not be on the suggested reading list for Ohio high school students.

Such books are “quite divisive, and the benefit educationally is questionable at the least. I see an underlying socialist-communist agenda ... that is anti what this nation is about,” Smith said at the board meeting, according to a Columbus Dispatch report.

Answers to some other interview questions:

Q: What would you say are the strengths of each of the four forms of education in Ohio, and what does each need most to succeed?

Traditional public. A: Most traditional programs function well when there is good leadership. Expectations must be owned by each school, and each student must be encouraged to learn.

Charter. A: Some charter schools have developed excellent entrepreneurial approaches to learning. Again, leadership and goals are key.

Private. A: Many private schools are achieving at high levels with less resources due to leadership and expectations.

Home schooling. A: Home schooling is effective if there is adherence to a strong curriculum, effective teaching and follow-through. It is a viable option.

Q. What are your thoughts on a homosexual as a teacher or coach in any school receiving public dollars?

A. As with heterosexual or homosexual, the issue is that high moral conduct be observed with regard to children.

Q. What should be taught about:

Climate change. A: Science should be taught on research-based scientific knowledge.

History. A: How the world and history has developed.

Government. A: How the U.S. government functions and world government.

Economics. A: The U.S. economy was built through powerful entrepreneurship and embracing individual freedom.

Dustin Livesay contributed to this report.

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, the University of Akron and professional media outlets including WYSU-FM radio and the Vindicator in Youngstown, the Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio in Akron.