As House Republicans kicked off hearings Tuesday for a bill aimed at dismantling much of the Ohio Department of Education, questions remain about the exact problems it seeks to address.
Rep. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, laid out a litany of goals and statistics highlighting the need to improve an education system where just 43 percent of working-age adults in Ohio have post-secondary degrees, but an estimated 64 percent of Ohio jobs will need such degrees by 2020.
For some, it's a question of whether the Department of Education is doing enough to help students attain skills needed for tomorrow's jobs — or if those in power have enough control over the process.
"Poor accountability, politics, and mission fog are three flaws that lead to an outcome where policies set by the General Assembly and governor are second-guessed and operational performance is poor, which leads to substandard educational outcomes for our students," Reineke told a House committee.
Under House Bill 512, the state departments of Education and Higher Education would merge with the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation, creating a new cabinet-level agency led by a governor’s appointee.
The bill is largely aimed at the Ohio Department of Education — the only one of the three agencies not under the governor’s direct control. The state superintendent is appointed by the state Board of Education.
In mid-2016 state Auditor Dave Yost called it "among the worst, if not the worst-run state agency in state government." Some Republicans have been critical of how it has calculated report card scores and how it dealt with the politically influential Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which recently closed.
Gov. John Kasich has said he wants control over the department.
Reineke said no layoffs are anticipated, and cost savings would be minimal.
"Higher education in all its forms ... can no longer be managed separately from primary and secondary schools," he said.
Supporters say the new Ohio Department of Learning and Achievement would streamline education decisions, and place more accountability on the governor. Critics are calling it a power grab.
"There's no excuse for taking control from Ohio voters and giving it to yourself — especially when it comes to our children's education," Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, wrote in a tweet. He is running to be the next governor.
The Ohio Constitution requires that a state Board of Education exist and that it appoint the state superintendent. However, their duties are set in state law and can be changed by lawmakers.
The bill would not change the makeup of the state Board of Education — 11 elected members and eight appointed by the governor. But its rule-making power would be siphoned off, making it more of a quasi-judicial board on par with other, more minor state boards and commissions.
The state Board of Education would retain some responsibilities, including issuing teacher licenses and disciplinary action. However, the new Department of Learning would adopt all rules and qualifications related to those licenses.
The board would oversee appeals of charter sponsor denials, but the new Department of Learning would be responsible for initially granting a request to change sponsors.
The bill also would give the state superintendent power to directly authorize new charter schools though the Office of Ohio School Sponsorship, but that office moves to the new Department of Learning.
Rep. Bill Blessing, R-Cincinnati, chairman of the committee, said the consolidation would allow the agencies to discuss issues more closely, but he is, for now, remaining neutral.
"I’m waiting to see what concerns pop up," he said.
Traditional public education groups oppose the bill.
Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, said it’s too early to say if he supports the merger.
"I’m fascinated by the discussion, because I think it will help us uncover some of the issues people are frustrated with and see if restructuring actually helps," he said.
Jim Siegel is a reporter with The Columbus Dispatch.