Cory Roush

Dissonance and tension plus reflection and resolution equal intellectual growth

A radical way to mix up Ohio's State Board of Education.

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The Columbus Dispatch reported this morning that Governor John Kasich demands some kind of change to the current structure of the State Board of Education in Ohio. (They didn't actually say he demanded it, but Kasich has shown he’s got the grace of a raging bull in a china shop.)

Let’s start with a disclaimer: I've never been comfortable with the idea of a school board, at the local or state level, that is wholly elected by the public and doesn’t necessarily need any background in education-related matters. It’s an example of how our nation has never agreed on what outcomes we expect our education system to produce — we stick the experts who know how children learn into a building and then make them answer to a group of people who may or may not have even walked into a school building since the time they walked across the stage to get their diploma.

And don't even get me started on the school boards whose members enroll their own children in private schools or other districts.

And maybe my personal distaste for everything Kasich has done since becoming governor clouds my judgment in this area, but I don't really like the idea of a governor being able to appoint ALL the members of the state board, either.

This is the first time I can remember Kasich sharing any concrete thoughts about how the board should be structured; he’s always said he wants to take the politics out of the process, but I fail to see how a partisan politician can be trusted to not draft up a team of entirely like-minded individuals.

It’s also odd that this story is coming out in the wake of the charter school data-scrubbing controversy that has plagued the Ohio Department of Education for the last few months. The members of the board calling for an independent investigation into what happened? All elected, not appointed. Interesting…

Either way, there was always something wrong with the role and structure of the state board. The current members themselves know it, including the elected member from Westerville, Mike Collins, who told the Dispatch:

It used to be things were suggested by the administration, and the board weighed in with recommendations. We don't have that kind of input anymore, nor are we asked for it. We've become much more of a rule-making body.

Another board member, Ron Rudduck, points out in the same article that school funding, graduation requirements, and student testing procedures, are all decided upon by the legislature. Even the board’s president, Tom Gunlock, is fed up:

“‘Conflict’, he said, ‘seems to stem from the governor, legislators and board members all trying to direct policy.’”

Gunlock and Rudduck are both Republicans, Collins is a Democrat, and only Gunlock is one of Kasich’s appointees. If there’s one thing these three can agree on it, it’s that education policy in the state of Ohio is in a tug of war between the governor and the legislature, with the board standing along the side cheering for whichever side they like more.

So let’s pretend that we've got an opportunity to change the way the board is structured. And let’s also pretend that someone asked me what I would propose to fix it.

Step 1: Put the board on a diet.

There are 19 members of the State Board of Education. Talk about “death by committee”. Let’s bring that down to 11 — large enough to represent a variety of populations and interests, an odd number to break any ties, and small enough that everyone can fit in the same room without bringing in any folding chairs.

Not an actual meeting of the State Board of Education, but you get my point. (via Star Wars Wiki)

Not an actual meeting of the State Board of Education, but you get my point. (via Star Wars Wiki)

11 members — but who are they, and how do they get on the board?

Step 2: Find the top performing districts’ leaders.

Whether it be the superintendent or a lowly teacher leader, let’s actually put someone on the board with some experience in how a school actually operates. Maybe debates over issues like the infamous “5 of 8 rule” should include people who realize that the role of a school nurse, art teacher, or librarian is incredibly vital to student success. So vital, in fact, that the rule should have never existed in the first place, because districts should have never been given an opportunity to pick which of the eight positions were worth hiring someone for.

But again, if the board is composed of people whose background is in business or industry, they're used to moving people and their jobs around in a spreadsheet to do what is best for the bottom line, not for the consumer.

So identify the districts that seem to be doing well and pick from their leadership. Don't worry that these people may not have the time to commit to the role of a board member — we already admitted that there isn't much for them to do. And maybe when the legislature or a governor wants to try out a new initiative or reform, they'll take the time to run it past the board because, you know, they might actually have some worthwhile input.

Afraid that limiting the board to districts that are performing highly will perpetuate a system of inequality between schools? Let me introduce a variation of Step 2: take the 11 districts that we are already divided up into for the purpose of electing board members, and instead have each district’s superintendents come together and choose someone to represent them at the state level.

Step 3: Give the governor what he wants…

“I frankly think the whole thing should be changed. I don’t like the structure of it. I don't like the infighting … a governor should be able to pick their own head of the Department of Education,” Kasich told the Dispatch. So let’s give him what we already give the President of the United States; let the governor choose a State Superintendent.

Step 4: … but put a stop to the tug-of-war.

This is where I will admit that I have the least to say about how the system should be reformed. On one hand, authority and governing power is being fought over at all levels of government in every branch and all departments. On the other hand, Board President Gunlock is correct; any real inefficiency that the board suffers from is a result of having unclear rules of authority. Where does education policy begin? Who is responsible for writing it? What role does the State Superintendent play? Who gets to decide that it’s ready to be placed in front of the governor?

I'll leave people with a legal mind and experience with the current process that creates education policy in Ohio to answer those questions. But imagine a process wherein policy is crafted by a mixture of representatives, school leaders, and the politicians vying for a success story to use when seeking a higher office.

Radical, I know.

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