Come election day this November, Northeast Ohio voters will choose two state Board of Education members; one in district 11, which encompasses Cleveland and some surrounding towns; the other in district 5, to the south and east of the city. Education professionals, government officials, and even the candidates, concede the state school board commands little attention among voters. Yet many put education at the top of their lists of concerns. Opinions on just how important the state board is in the grand scheme of Ohio education vary. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.
Bill Rice- Franklin Walter has a high opinion of the Ohio Board of Education. Currently head of the National Academy for Superintendents at OSU, Walter served as Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction for 14 years beginning in 1956. The board was a young body at the start of his tenure. It was created by the legislature just three years earlier as a fully representative body - one member elected from each of the 19 congressional districts. Today the board consists of both elected and appointed members. Walter describes it as a policy-making, leadership and regulatory agency.
Franklin Walter- It has responsibility for teacher education, matters pertaining to proficiency testing, standards for elementary and secondary education. It deals with public and non-public schools through chartering, and a school cannot be authorized to operate in Ohio and be an accredited school without being accredited by the Board of Education.
BR- In addition to chartering and accrediting schools, the state board appoints the Superintendent of Public Instruction, who oversees the state Department of Education. As for being a policy-making agency, that may be true when it comes to setting administrative policies. But most major education decisions come from the legislature, which Walter says may or may not be influenced by the board.
FW- That varies from situation to situation, but the state board and the Department of Education have been an important source of information for the committees in the General Assembly, and during the years that I served as superintendent we worked very closely with the governor and legislative leaders regarding school issues.
BR- That trend continues today, Walter says, but the state school board maintains a mostly advisory role when it comes to Ohio¹s hot education issues, such as public school funding, proficiency testing and vouchers. And the legislature doesn't always heed the board's advice, which, according to some, casts the board's relevance into question. Richard DeColibus is head of the Cleveland Teachers' Union.
Richard DeColibus- I think for the most part they simply issue recommendations, and some of them are good recommendations and, but the ones that aren't politically acceptable just get ignored. They're pretty useless from my point of view. I really have to question why we have a state board of education, because the way they're currently organized it's not making any difference that I can tell.
BR- State Senator CJ Prentiss of Cleveland, a former school board member, says her feelings are mixed. As a Senator, she values the input from school board members. But she said as a board member herself, she was frustrated.
CJ Prentiss- We would work for months, maybe years on developing what we really thought were issues or programs that would benefit children. But at the end of the day that had to be legislated. So it was one of my frustrations and the reason I ran for state representative at that time.
BR- But Prentiss believes board members can be vital to educating and gathering input from constituents in their districts. That's kind of tough though, she says, because districts are so large - there are only eleven throughout the state.
Prentiss, like Richard Decolibus, laments the addition in 1995 of governor-appointed members to the board.
CP- That was clearly a shift in paradigm. The state Board of Education and Department of Education was, when i was on the board, independent of the governors' office. Voinovich, when he was governor, pushed to begin the process of having a much more hands on involvement with the school board.
BR- Today eight Ohio Board of Education members are appointed, eleven elected. Members are limited to two four-year terms. Six district seats are up for election this year. In Cuyahoga County's 11th district, nine candidates are challenging incumbent Charles Byrne of Cleveland Heights. In district five, which covers Ashtabula, Lake, Medina, and Wayne counties, and part of Cuyahoga County, Jeffrey L. Dean of Chagrin Falls is at the end of his second term. Five candidates are vying to replace him. Campaigns tend to be low profile because they're typically not very well-financed. A good bet for information on the candidates and the issues is your local League of Women Voters chapter. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN®, 90.3 FM.