The case for overhauling the Ohio State Board of Education

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In That State Up North, a debate is brewing over the state board of education. Several Michigan lawmakers recently introduced a resolution to abolish the board via voter approval in a statewide referendum. Proponents’ main argument is that the change would create greater clarity around which state-level authority is in charge of public schools.

There are also some rumblings in the Ohio Statehouse that something should be done about the State Board of Education (SBOE). We don’t know what legislators are thinking—no bill has been introduced—or their reasons for bringing the issue up. But it’s possible that some might be frustrated with the board’s foot-dragging on making important tweaks to charter sponsor evaluations or its championing of embarrassingly low expectations for Ohio’s graduates. Or maybe, like legislators in Michigan, Ohio lawmakers are simply hoping to reduce the number of cooks in the education policy kitchen.

Whatever the motivation, lawmakers would be right to consider changes to the SBOE. One radical option would be to dump it. But like Michigan, Ohio legislators would not only need to pass legislation to do this but also gain voter approval via statewide referendum. (The state constitution calls for the existence of SBOE and voters would need to approve an amendment to eliminate it.) Given these hurdles, abolishing SBOE is no easy lift. That being said, three other states—Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin—govern their K-12 schools without a state board of education, and many Ohioans (and school leaders) might welcome one less layer of bureaucracy.  

If Ohio lawmakers don’t try to scrap the SBOE, there are a number of other important statutory changes that could still bring significant reform to this institution. The following two would be a good place to start.

Reduce the size of the board

Ohio has a whopping nineteen-member board—eleven elected members and eight appointed by the governor. This is the second largest board of education in the nation; only Pennsylvania, with its twenty-one-member board, has a larger number, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. As the chart below shows, most states have a seven-, nine-, or eleven-member board of education (32 out 47 states).

Chart: Number of states by the size of their state boards of education

Source: National Association of State Boards of Education

In certain circumstances, boards the size of Ohio’s SBOE could make sense. For example, nonprofits might seek a large membership to develop wide connections in their communities or share fundraising responsibilities. Yet small, tight-knit boards might be the optimal approach when communication and decisiveness is required. An interesting analysis from the Wall Street Journal suggests that businesses might perform better under smaller boards. The theory is that those bodies are more responsive to opportunities and threats compared to large, lumbering boards where arriving at decisions could take significant time. While we may not want public decision-making bodies to move as quickly as businesses—thoughtful deliberation on policy tradeoffs is often necessary—they also shouldn’t be paralyzed by a need to reach consensus among an inordinate number of members.

Downsizing the SBOE to a manageable size—more in-line with other states—would be a step in the right direction. Clearly, the SBOE is not a fundraising body nor is its mission to generate grassroots support. Rather, its job is primarily decision making—most notably, setting standards for schools and students, and selecting a state superintendent. A smaller board should allow for a more free-flowing dialogue between its members, hopefully driving better decision making.

Move to an all-appointed board

As mentioned above, Ohio has a hybrid board with both elected and appointed members, a practice only three other states have adopted (Nevada, Washington, and Louisiana). Meanwhile, the large majority of states—thirty-seven of them—have appointed boards.[1] In most cases, the governor selects all of the members, though sometimes the legislature holds at least one appointment. Just seven states have boards entirely elected by popular vote.  

Why should Ohio move to a board entirely appointed by the governor? Let me offer two reasons:

First, it would send a clear message that the governor is fully responsible for selecting SBOE members and accountable for their decisions. This would be an improvement over the status quo in which the public may not know whether SBOE decisions should be attributed to their elected member or to the governor. But under an appointed board, Ohioans would know with certainty that votes for governor will affect the makeup of the board. And though the views of SBOE and a sitting governor may not align perfectly—e.g., there may be “holdover” appointees from a prior administration—Ohio voters would be able to express their displeasure at the general direction of the board through their gubernatorial choices. For instance, voters could withhold a vote for an incumbent governor based on the course that SBOE is taking.

Second, shifting to appointees would likely encourage more top-notch leaders to serve on SBOE. Given the antagonistic nature of elections, many people won’t want to put themselves through grueling political campaigns. But if tapped by a governor, Ohio’s most talented and respected leaders might consider serving in this role. For instance, The Ohio State University’s board of trustees—a board appointed by the governor—consists of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and civic leaders. Why not aim to build an SBOE of a similar caliber through an appointment process? 

Some will inevitably say that moving to an all-appointed board would diminish the people’s voice from education policy. It’s true that this would mean that some SBOE seats would no longer be filled via direct vote. However, there is little evidence that Ohio voters know much about their elected board member and actually hold him or her accountable through the ballot box. Further diluting the public voice is the influence of teachers’ unions whose interest is to win as many board seats as possible. As a result, SBOE elections might reflect more union priorities than those of the broader electorate. In contrast, if governors appointed the state board, they would be held accountable by a broader voting base that is apt to be better informed about their positions on education.

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The performance of SBOE is somewhere between mediocre and dysfunctional. Yet Ohioans shouldn’t have to accept anything less than excellence from this decision making body. To create the conditions for a better-functioning SBOE, state legislators should overhaul it by downsizing its membership and moving to all-appointed board. These structural changes should enable the board to act decisively, while also being held accountable to the governor and those who elect the state’s chief executive.

[1] In a few cases, an elected state superintendent is a member of an otherwise appointed board; in one case, two statewide elected officials serve on an otherwise appointed board. Since the vast majority of the board members are appointed, these instances are considered “appointed” boards.

NOTE: This article has been updated to identify Washington's state board of education as a hybrid.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.