Top officials of Gov. John Kasich’s administration stepped up Tuesday to support a bill that would give the governor direct control over the Ohio Department of Education, but some legislators are skeptical.
“If 65 percent of our elementary students will have jobs that don’t exist today, and 47 percent of our current jobs are at risk due to technology, we must transcend the status quo,” the administration’s Ryan Burgess told a House committee. “We cannot afford to squander this opportunity to re-engineer Ohio’s operating platform for continuous learning.”
Burgess is director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation. Under House Bill 512, it would be merged with the departments of education and higher education to create a new agency in the governor’s cabinet.
Burgess and John Carey, who heads the Department of Higher Education, testified in support of the bill, which Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, has said is priority legislation for the House this spring.
The bill would merge three agencies, although only the Department of Education is not already under the governor’s direct control. About 80 percent of the responsibilities of the department and state Board of Education would go to the new agency.
Supporters say prime goals of the bill are to improve accountability and streamline agencies to develop a more advanced workforce prepared for future jobs.
But Rep. Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent, said she thinks there are ways to improve collaboration without creating a “mega-agency.”
“I am concerned about losing focus on the areas that, I think, are pretty different that we’re talking about combining into one,” she said. “My sense is no other state approaches education structure in this way.”
Rep. Bernadine Kennedy Kent, D-Columbus, has pressed witnesses about whether the merger would reduce standardized testing “that does not really test what businesses are requesting.”
The new merged agency would enhance communication, Burgess said.
“By embedding (my) office in this new agency, that is going to provide a better portal for businesses to communicate their concerns,” he said. “Today, it’s a little more fragmented.”
Some local-level education officials, including those from the Youngstown and Chillicothe areas, also testified in favor of the bill.
Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, questioned how the merger would affect changes at local school districts.
Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, noted that when the state merged agencies to create the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services in 2000, Ohio spent a “boatload” on technology compatibility.
“It was not quite the seamless transition to a happier world that we all envisioned,” he said.
Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said there has long been concern about Ohio’s “cumbersome” education governing structure.
“With a board, a department, multiple committees, the governor — lots of people have their hands in education policy,” she said. “The department has multiple masters, and anytime you have multiple masters, it’s going to make things unnecessarily complicated.”
The system needs improvement, Lehner said, but she’s not sold on handing control over to the governor.
“There has not been any serious discussion,” she added. “This bill was drafted without consultation of about anyone I can see.”
State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria was among those not consulted. He has not taken a public position on the proposal, but he sent a letter Tuesday to Kasich stressing that if better collaboration is the goal, more can be done now.
DeMaria noted that Kasich already has in place the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board, whose goal is to recommend ways to prepare Ohioans for future jobs.
But DeMaria isn’t on it.
“Unfortunately, the Department of Education, the single largest financial and educational contributor to workforce development in the state, does not have a seat on the (board),” DeMaria wrote, asking Kasich to appoint him.