Natalia Fenton

Name: Deborah Cain.

District 8: First elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, her term ends Dec. 31, 2014. Includes Mahoning, Columbiana, Carroll, Jefferson, Harrison, Belmont, Noble, Monroe, Washington, Athens, Meigs and part of Stark and Vinton counties.

State school board committees: Urban Education; Appointments.

Age: 62.

Residence: Lake Township, Stark County.

Political affiliation: Democrat.

Occupation: Retired elementary and reading teacher, Akron Public Schools and county juvenile detention center.

Education: Graduated public schools; bachelor’s degree in elementary education; graduate studies.

Family: Married, no children

Other boards, affiliations: Former member, Lake Local School District Board of Education; National Association of State Boards of Education Board of Directors.

By Natalia Fenton


A little more than two years ago, Deborah Cain, an advocate for traditional public schools and opponent of for-profit charters, was president of the state school board because the majority of its members felt as she did.

Not any more.

She’s been a board member since 2007; was vice president for a time, president from 2009-11, and her term expires December 2014. She can’t seek reelection because of term limits.

The retired teacher who worked 31 years in an urban district now finds her concern about public dollars flowing to private enterprise to be a minority position since Gov. John Kasich has taken office and changed the board through appointments.

“When there were a lot of changes on the board in terms of different board members, I knew that I would not have a sufficient amount of votes to run again [for president],” she said.

With her ideas and philosophy in the minority, Cain, one of five Democrats among 16 on the board, has had to pick her battles. The one she says she will always fight is to support those in the traditional public school system over the for-profit operators.

“Ever since I have been a local board member, and now a member of the state board, I have always felt that when we give taxpayer money to charter schools or online schools — all of that money should go to the education of that child,” Cain said. “If I’m giving $5,700 dollars per child to a school, all of that money should go to the education of the child. But to deny the full amount of money to that individual child, to me, is not a good use of taxpayer money.”

For the most part, her goals are strikingly similar to most on the board: Responsible funding, a level playing field for Ohio’s students, increased accountability, and fully embracing Common Core curriculum that advocates basic competency in math and English.

It is the implementation of those ideas, however, that sets her apart.

“When the board adapts any new policies or standards, I very much believe we need to hear from the people out in the field, such as superintendents, principals, teachers,” Cain said. “We need to listen to those folks because they deal with what goes on in the districts and classrooms every day.”

She has been among the better political fundraisers, collecting $38,351 in two election cycles, with her largest contributors including the Ohio Federation of Teachers at $9,000, Ohio Education Association Fund for Children and Public Education, $8,500, and the Ohio Democratic Party, $9,474.

Although she is a strong supporter of traditional public schools, Cain said there is a place for other options, including charter schools — as long as there is accountability.

“There are some fine charters out there who have done well over the years,” she said. “There are some good private schools. And I have nothing against parents wanting to home-school their children.”

However, she is not an advocate of school vouchers to attend private schools.

And with the current system, she said there needs to be more accountability for how schools perform and how public money is spent.

“If you’re going to take your child to a charter school or a public school, you know how that school is doing,” she said. “You’ve got the test scores. You’ve got the attendance records. You have that information. With a private school that is using school vouchers, you don’t have that. Those are some of my concerns.”

She expresses concern about the mixing of beliefs and science.

“I would be opposed if we were going to change any of our science standards to push an opposing view,” she said. While there are members of the board who believe it is wrong to teach climate change as a fact, she said that, “No one has raised a view saying, ‘Let’s change our curriculum to say there is no global warming.’ If the issue hasn’t presented itself, we don’t need to make any changes right now.”

But, she said, “There’s a reason why the icebergs are melting. There’s a reason why the seas are rising,” she said. We can deny it, but I think we would be wrong in doing so. We have so much technology, and so many smart folks out there, that we should be able to start to find better ways to contain it and still have a very viable economy.”

Cain said learning depends on factors outside the classroom and not all students have the same opportunities. From her experience in Akron schools, she said she knows that classroom instruction isn’t enough. She advocates a partnership between the state and local levels to increase community involvement to help those students.

“We also need to connect with the community and [offer] what I call wrap-around services — if a child needs health care or vision care or glasses or dental care,” she said. “Where can we go to quickly engage those services? It will hurt the students’ education if they don’t have the proper health and other services that they need.”

In answer to other questions:

Q: In schools funded with public dollars, what do you think should be taught about religion?

A: That’s a good question. When I taught sixth grade, one of our chapters in the social studies book was about the four major religions. It just talked about it, and gave general details about each one and that was the extent. Also, as someone who taught in a junior high, where we were a magnet school for children who came from other countries, I got to see all different students and many of them came from different religious backgrounds. I very much believe that whatever your faith is your faith should be respected. But in terms of any avocation, if you wish to discuss further different religious ideas then those should take place after the school day, not during the school day.

Q: What should be changed about Ohio’s system of education?

A: We still do not have an equitable funding system. Things are better, but there’s just not a level playing field that we need in funding. All our districts are not able to obtain the same resources, such as technology. Not everyone can have an iPad in every classroom. What’s very difficult also is the different range of students that comes to us with different abilities. Also, they come to us sometimes academically, physically and socially — they’re behind. That is very much a challenge for districts and administrators and teachers. What do you do with that student who comes in so far behind and you need to catch them up in a very short time? 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 of Youngstown, The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio in Akron.