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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Ohio GOP launches a power grab over public education. They're likely to succeed

Close up of a yellow school bus' extended stop sign.
Inside Creative House/Getty Images/iStockphoto
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iStockphoto
When the Ohio Senate went into lame-duck session this week, one of the first items on the agenda was to resurrect an idea that has failed in the past but will likely succeed this time.

Do you know what one-party control of government in Ohio really means?

It means this:

If the Republicans' veto-proof super-majority in the Ohio General Assembly sees any corner of state or local government that does not totally align with their view of the world, they will step in and crush it. They will steamroll over it and make it disappear.

The Ohio Senate, led by Senate President Matt Huffman, found a very important corner to obliterate this week — the Ohio Board of Education.

matt huffman
Andrew Welsh-Huggins
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AP
Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman in 2021.

When the Ohio Senate went into lame-duck session this week, one of the first items on the agenda was to resurrect an idea that has failed in the past but will likely succeed this time because of the overwhelming Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.

The idea is to strip the state board of education, where 11 of the 19 members are elected from districts, of nearly all of its authority and place it all in a new cabinet-level position called the Department of Education and Workforce.

And, of course, that would be a department in the cabinet of the recently re-elected Republican governor, Mike DeWine, who rarely has a public disagreement with the GOP legislative leadership over anything. And, even if he did, there is nothing DeWine could do about it. Republicans have a veto-proof majority in the legislature.

So why now? Why did it suddenly become priority number one for the legislature?

Does it have anything to do with the fact that, in the general election, candidates backed by the Ohio Democratic Party and Ohio's teachers' unions won all three open seats on the Ohio Board of Education, defeating all of the GOP-backed, conservative candidates?

You'd better believe it does.

"It's nothing but a power grab," said Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. "The state board of education is one place where differing opinions are discussed and the Republicans in the legislature don't like that."

Cropper is referring to issues like the teaching of critical race theory, a straw man GOP politicians love to prop up and knock down, and proposed changes to Title IX that would allow transgender women to play in women's sports.

Under Senate Bill 178, introduced by State Sen. Bill Reineke of Tiffin, would put such contentious issues out of the purview of the Ohio Board of Education, along with all other matters of curriculum.

If the bill passes — and there is no reason to believe it won't — the state Board of Education's only duties will be to choose the state school superintendent, supervise teacher licensing, hear cases about staff misconduct, and make decisions on school property transfers.

The rest of the time, school board members would presumably be twiddling their thumbs or playing tic-tac-toe.

The Republicans in the legislature, thanks to their gerrymandering talents over the past 30 years, have had a super-majority for some time now. Long before the Nov. 8 election. This begs the question: Why didn't they do this before?

"When they try to do this a week after losing three seats on the Board of Education, my level of cynicism rises," said Liz Walters, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. "The governor already has enormous influence over public education in Ohio. Why does he need more? It's all political."

Efforts to reach Huffman through the Ohio Senate Majority Office went unanswered.

Reineke, the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 178, said in a hearing on the bill that the change has been needed for a long time.

"The evidence shows that there is a need for systemic change at the state level to our education to ensure accountability to taxpayers and for our kids," Reineke said.

Maybe so, maybe not.

They will cobble together a few public hearings before the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee during the lame duck session; a companion bill will sail through the Ohio House.

And even if they don't complete it by the time the lame duck session is over, they can do it over again in January when the new, slightly enhanced super-majority takes over.

Cropper said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop this train, given the power the GOP wields in the legislature.

"People are going to have to find ways to voice their beliefs," Cropper said. "We will push back against those that do not benefit children in public education."

And they will push back. Into a solid brick wall. Resistance is futile.

Being in love with power means never having to say you're sorry.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.