Ohio Supreme Court OKs Law Allowing School Takeovers

The court’s majority found that amendments to the bill did not change its common purpose of improving underperforming schools.

The Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus, home of the Ohio Supreme Court. (Photo via Sixflashphoto/Wikipedia Commons)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — A divided Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a controversial education reform law that allows the state to appoint CEOs for failing school districts, even as the practice has been halted because of a lack of improvement.

The court also ruled 5-2 that the law was passed legally, despite a 67-page amendment that was tacked onto the bill the night before it was voted on by the Ohio Legislature.

Also known as the Youngstown Plan, House Bill 70 was introduced in February 2015 and allowed “school districts and community schools to create community learning centers at schools where academic performance is low.”

What started out as a 10-page bill, however, ballooned in size to 77 pages when amendments regarding so-called “education distress commissions” were added on the day the bill was passed.

The amendments required districts that received three consecutive “F” grades on their state education report cards to submit to the authority of a distress commission that would be headed by a CEO with “complete operational, managerial, and instructional control” of the school district.

Former Republican Governor John Kasich signed the bill into law in October 2015, and commissions were eventually established in the school districts of Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland.

The Youngstown City School District’s Board of Education sued the state, arguing the law’s passage violated the Ohio Constitution because legislators were not allowed the required three viewings of the bill in its final form.

That argument was rejected at each level of the Ohio court system, including in Wednesday’s decision by the justices of the state’s high court.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote the majority opinion and said the amendments to HB 70 did not alter the “common purpose” of the bill, which would have required additional viewings by state lawmakers.

“The versions of H.B. 70 as introduced and as enacted,” O’Connor said, “had a common purpose of seeking to improve underperforming schools, even though there are differences in the tools through which each version pursued that goal.”

Justice Michael Donnelly dissented from the majority, scolding his colleagues for accepting the passage of the bill.

“Today, a majority of the court discards the three-consideration rule set forth in the Constitution and accepts in its place the far less bothersome rule of one-and-done,” he wrote. “In an egregious display of constitutional grade inflation, the majority gives passing marks to an act that was not considered three times by either house.”

Courthouse News spoke with Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, or OEA, about the decision and the way forward for Ohio’s public educators.

“We’re really disappointed that the Supreme Court went along with a rushed legislative process that allowed a secretly negotiated state takeover proposal to be passed and signed into law in a single day,” the head of the teachers’ union said.

DiMauro lamented the lack of hearings and public input prior the passage of the law in 2015, and said the OEA had grave concerns about the commissions as soon as they were put in place.

“From the beginning,” he said, “this was an approach to school improvement that was all about punishment rather than support.

He continued, “And when you have a high poverty community with low test scores that are connected to that poverty and you punish the district by taking away the voice the people have through their elected school boards … it’s just a bad approach to school improvement.”

The lack of results has been recognized across the state. Last July, a moratorium went into effect to prevent the establishment of any new distress commissions, a move DiMauro said was “absolutely” an admission by the state that its new law wasn’t working.

“There’s a recognition that the current law is broken,” he said. “There just hasn’t been agreement yet on what needs to replace it.”

To that end, DiMauro said the repeal of HB 70 has garnered bipartisan support in the legislature, and Republican Governor Mike DeWine has stated publicly that a new approach is needed to improve the state’s struggling school districts.

House Bill 154, the sole purpose of which is to “dissolve and replace academic distress commissions,” was passed by the Ohio House of Representatives last year and is currently in committee in the state Senate.

DiMauro sounded hopeful that HB 154 might eventually be signed into law and revert control of school districts back to local boards, but admitted that the Covid-19 outbreak has tabled the issue for the immediate future.

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