A small wave of new, progressive board members were elected to the Ohio Board of Education this month, including two in northeast Ohio.
Democrats see this as a rejection of the right-wing extremist policy, which has been the focus of the state school board in recent months.
But debates over the board’s focus could become moot if the recently introduced Ohio Senate Bill 178, a Republican-led measure that would strip much of the board’s power and responsibility, is passed.
Teresa Fedor, a recently elected member of the state school board, a former school teacher and Democratic state representative, is nonetheless excited about Ohio’s education landscape and the impact the board can have.
“Republicans have failed flatly in providing quality education, equity and fair school funding for 25 years, they have done anything but that,” she said.
She was elected to District 2 of the State Board of Education earlier this month, which stretches from Lucas to Lorain County.
The State Board of Education constituencies that were in place for the November 2022 general election. [Ohio Secretary of State’s website / ]
Despite an impartial position, the board has become increasingly polarized in recent years, with a conservative-leaning majority voting to overturn a resolution denouncing racism in 2021. More recently, Conservative board member Brendan Shea introduced a hotly debated resolution opposing the Biden administration’s proposed Title IX protections for transgender students.
Fedor and two other members of the Democratic Party, who are backed by teachers’ unions, were elected in November. That means the Democrat-preferred candidates will have the majority of seats elected in January — seven out of 11 — though eight other members will be appointed by Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
Fedor said the election results show voters are making their concerns heard.
“Voters rejected the extremists and their extreme issues and I think that’s the main idea here,” she said.
Tom Jackson, a Solon resident who works at an insurance agency and serves on an advisory committee for Solon City Schools, is another Democratic Party-backed candidate elected this month. He will serve District 10, which includes Summit County, half of Cuyahoga County and part of Geauga County. He and Fedor reject the Shea resolution, saying they want to get back to more pressing matters.
“We should look at the learning loss from the pandemic,” Jackson said. “We should look for ways to solve the problem of aging infrastructure and teacher shortages.”
Republican-leaning board members like John Hagan say the board has been distracted from these important issues because of the Biden administration.
Hagan, a former GOP state legislator living in Marlboro Township in Stark County, was re-elected to the board this month. He represents District 9, which covers much of the northeastern part of the state from Ashtabula down to Stark County.
Hagan said he, too, wants to focus on getting back to basics, on issues like improving test scores and literacy. But he also supports Shea’s resolution, arguing that Biden’s proposed Title IX regulations will cause problems in schools, including unfair competition in college sports.
“Boys don’t belong in girls’ toilets,” he said. “Boys don’t belong with girls in girls’ changing rooms and showers. These are things that will not end well in most situations.”
The US Department of Education has not yet issued any guidance on how the agency might amend the provisions of Title IX regarding the eligibility of transgender students to participate on male or female track and field teams. Such a policy is expected.
Hagan said he “doesn’t necessarily trust the numbers” regarding high suicide rates and other negative impacts on transgender youth who are gender unacknowledged.” These negative impacts have been cited by researchers and in polls and studies.
“I would say that the fact that the suicide rate is high in this community is probably as much due to children being confused as it is not being acknowledged,” he said.
“So I think you’re looking at a group of people who are having some real issues in their lives, and they’re faltering because of that,” Hagan said. “So I don’t know if that person, if these alternative lifestyles weren’t presented to them on a regular basis, if they would end up there.”
Hagan argues that classrooms are too preoccupied with non-educational issues and says some teachers address “odd behaviors in the classroom.”
Fedor said she believes the Shea resolution is an example of “bullying” of LGBTQ students by the state education board. And Jackson argued that the resolution was evidence of “external influences” at play in Ohio, mirroring bills and other legislation being proposed in Florida, Texas and elsewhere in the United States.
Fedor said Republicans had failed for decades to provide adequate funding and support for public education, opting instead to create a “program” to funnel public funds through vouchers to public charter schools and private schools.
“This failed charter school experiment needs to stop,” she said. “We need to have the same quality oversight that we have with our traditional public schools.”
Jackson said he also wants to see more transparency from private schools and public charter schools that receive taxpayer money. Hagan, who said he started his career in the legislature at the same time as Fedor, said the State Council doesn’t have much leverage on that front.
“She (Fedor) left a body that had some power over it and came to the body that didn’t have that,” Hagan said of Fedor.
The State Board will become much less powerful if the Ohio House and Senate get through Senate Bill 178, the Republican-backed bill that would strip much of the school board’s powers.
Currently, the school board’s remit is limited, but still important, as it deals primarily with the development of educational policies and goals for Ohio’s public schools, approving or denying teacher accreditation, approving state standards and curriculum, and hiring or firing of the state’s superintendent, who oversees the Department of Education.
Republican Senator Bill Reineke, who sponsored the bill, said in testimony last week that Ohio’s Department of Education needs to be overhauled to tackle long-standing, low-testing diseases and boost staff development programs. That can’t be done, he said, without reorganizing oversight of the Ministry of Education.
His bill would shift the powers of the state board to a cabinet-level position in the office of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.
Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, a statewide teachers’ union, said it’s hard to believe the law was introduced just when board members who don’t share the legislature’s point of view are about to be sworn in.
“It seems like a power grab, you know, and it’s disappointing … especially since you’ve elected more people to the board who have really strong educational backgrounds,” DiMauro said.
DiMauro said he wasn’t sure there would be enough time for the bill to receive all of the debate and testimony that should be voted on before the end of the year, when the legislative session ends.
Referring to other worrisome issues, Fedor and Jackson said they want to help schools address teacher shortages and learning losses caused by the pandemic.
Hagan said he would like more focus on preparing students for the workforce.