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Why Governors Are Exerting More Control Over Schools

A struggle for power over Ohio’s schools is the latest example of a growing trend of governors asserting more control over K-12 school policy in their states.

Earlier this year, the Republican-led Ohio state legislature passed a two-year budget that included a provision converting the Ohio Department of Education, led by a superintendent chosen by the State Board of Education, into the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, led by a director appointed by the governor.

The budget also asserts more state control in day-to-day teaching in an effort to shift Ohio schools to research-backed reading instruction. It includes a requirement that schools adopt a state-approved reading program by the next school year and a ban on the use of the three-cueing method in literacy instruction.

The move changing how education is overseen in The Buckeye State strips the 19-member State Board of Education—of which 11 members are elected and eight are appointed by the governor—of its powers to choose the state superintendent, set academic standards, and set frameworks for school curricula, limiting the board to decisions on teacher disciplinary and licensure cases and disputes over school district boundaries.

The transition has spawned a lawsuit from members of the board, which claims the move violates the Ohio Constitution on a number of grounds, and has led to general unease over the future of Ohio schools.

But the state isn’t the first to make a move of this kind. For decades, there’s been a gradual trend of governors and state lawmakers shifting power from elected state schools chiefs to state superintendents appointed by governors and state boards of education. And especially over the past few years, lawmakers and state leaders have taken more aggressive action on state education policy, enacting laws that limit what teachers can talk about in the classroom, greatly expand school choice, and require that schools notify parents when their children seek to use pronouns or names that don’t align with their sex assigned at birth.

“In the contemporary era of really intense polarization and partisan polarization, it’s seductive for a governor to tap into something that’s got a lot of energy and enthusiasm from some voters,” like education, said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “But it’s also a high-risk proposition.”

Ohio’s education overhaul runs into legal challenges

In September, seven members of the state board of education sued the state of Ohio and Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, claiming the restructuring of the state education department and the removal of many of the state board’s responsibilities violated the Ohio Constitution.

The law was “a power grab by pretty far right interests in Ohio,” said Skye Perryman, president and CEO of Democracy Forward and the lawyer representing the board members in the lawsuit.

“It’s highly concerning, not just because of what it [proposes] to do to education in Ohio, but also because of what it means for democracy as a whole,” Perryman said. “You have an effort to really remove the voice of people, to remove the voice of parents, to remove the voice of communities affected by education governance in Ohio, to remove and deprive them of power and voice in a way that fundamentally violates the Ohio Constitution.”

A judge initially issued a temporary restraining order in response to the lawsuit, putting the education overhaul on hold, and later extended it. In an Oct. 2 news conference, while the restraining order was in effect, DeWine accused the plaintiffs of creating chaos in Ohio schools.

“We need to be about the kids’ business,” DeWine said. “We need to be about the business of the kids of the state of Ohio. This lawsuit is holding us up and slowing us down.”

Another judge on Oct. 20 allowed the overhaul to go forward while the lawsuit is still underway. DeWine has since appointed an interim director to lead the newly formed department.

Ohio is also facing a lawsuit over the reading instruction provisions in the budget bill.

Voters have gradually stopped electing state superintendents

Ohio is only the latest in a slowly growing list of states to change how their schools are governed.

At the start of the 20th century, around two-thirds of states elected their chief state school officers. By 2010 that number had dropped to less than 30 percent, said Henig, whose book The End of Exceptionalism in American Education explores shifts in power over schools. Many states, like Ohio, gave the power to choose a state school officer to state boards, while others gave that power to the governor.

Today, voters elect the state superintendent in 12 states, state boards of education appoint the state superintendent in 20, and governors choose the superintendent in 18, according to Ballotpedia, an election-tracking website.

Before Ohio passed its overhaul, Indiana, under Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, was the most recent state to change how it selected its state schools chief. Voters there elected a state superintendent for the last time in 2016. Following a 2017 law change, the state’s first secretary of education, gubernatorial appointee Katie Jenner, assumed office in January 2021.

“The general story is there’s been this long, slow shift in formal authority away from popular election and initially towards state boards of education, but more recently governors getting more directly involved,” Henig said.

The politics of the governor who appoints the state superintendent often indicates what kind of person they might choose, according to a recent paper from the ILO Group, an education strategy and policy firm. The firm analyzed the past two superintendents in each state and found that 20 state superintendents appointed by Democrats were former school district leaders compared with 11 appointed by Republicans. Republican governors were also more likely to choose people with political backgrounds than Democratic governors, the ILO Group found.

Some states began the transition away from elected state superintendents as early as the 1940s, so reasons for awarding governors more power over public education have varied based on historical context and the politics of the time, Henig said.

In the current moment, however, it’s become clear that Republican governors have found education to be a winning issue following the electoral success of high-profile governors like Glenn Youngkin in Virginia and Ron DeSantis in Florida, who have made conservative parents’ rights issues central to their platforms.

Education can be a political hot potato

Ohio is the latest state to make a structural change to its education system, but Republican leaders in other states have found other ways to exert more influence over education.

In Florida, DeSantis launched himself onto the national stage by signing laws that restrict teaching around gender identity, sexuality, and race, and limit schools’ ability to use students’ preferred pronouns or names.

In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order banning “indoctrination and critical race theory” in schools during her first days in office and later proposed a major education overhaul that included an expansion of private school choice.

In Texas, the state’s education agency, led by an appointee of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, enacted a takeover of the Houston school district.

And in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, another Republican, has signed an expansive private school choice program into law as well as a law enacting a slate of conservative priorities, including a ban on school books that describe sexual acts, a prohibition on instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation for younger students, and a requirement that schools notify parents if their children request to use different pronouns or names.

Education is “an issue that people really care about in many ways,” Perryman, the lawyer on the Ohio case, said. “So whenever we see extreme and far-right forces seeking to undermine democracy in these ways, it raises real concerns.”

But while education can be a winning issue, it can easily burn politicians, too, Henig said. For example, DeSantis’s education agenda hasn’t been enough to win him support over former President Donald Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primary.

“Public education can be a hot potato issue,” Henig said. “You can get your hands burned by being too closely involved.”

It’s too soon to tell the exact impact of Ohio’s education overhaul on the state’s schools. It’s also too soon to know the long-term impact of the current political environment on K-12 schools, although laws restricting teaching have caused chaos and confusion in many parts of the country.

But Henig thinks the politics of the past few years will eventually be “a blip” and won’t become the long-term norm.

“General-purpose politicians [will] realize that education isn’t a sure winner for them and succumb to the pressures, many of which are legitimate, to make their mark in other areas of domestic policy rather than stick their nose right in the middle of these swirling waters of culture wars,” he said.

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