An abrupt controversy has erupted in Ohio after a member of the state’s board of education moved to eliminate an unfunded mandate requiring schools to have certain amounts of supplementary staff.
Currently, an Ohio state regulation requires schools to hire specialist staff in eight categories: Art teachers, music teachers, physical education instructors, librarians, counselors, nurses, social workers and visiting teachers. Schools must have at least five of these eight positions filled for every 1,000 students they have, leading it to be dubbed the “five of eight” rule.
Now, a proposal by Ohio Board of Education member Debe Terhar would eliminate that staffing requirement, allowing schools to hire as few specialists as they like without state control. That proposal has many educators, not the least the specialists themselves, up in arms.
The clash is unusual in that it emerged largely without warning on Sunday night as educators became aware the proposal would be put forward. News spread quickly on social media even before reaching the local press, which led to numerous distortions of what was being attempted. Progressive education blogger Diane Ravitch, among others, sounded the alarm by writing Sunday night that Ohio was voting to “eliminate” such specialist positions from public schools this week. In fact, the final vote isn’t until December, and the proposal by itself wouldn’t fire a single employee. Flawed description or not, word quickly spread and many educators were at a public meeting of the state Board on Tuesday to testify against the proposed change.
Terhar defended her proposal at the meeting, saying it would increase local control of education.
“We have to get away from the idea that, only if Columbus tell us what to do, it will get done. I don’t believe that for a minute,” Terhar said, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “[Parents and school boards] need to figure out what the priorities are for their district, their kids. It’s up to them to do that.”
Board vice chairman Tom Gunlock agreed, expressing support for the measure prior to the hearing.
“For years, people have been telling me about all these unfunded mandates and that we’re telling them what to do. They keep telling me they know more about what their kids need that we do, and I agree with them,” said Gunlock, also speaking with the Plain Dealer.
Opponents, however, say the rule’s elimination will simply create an opportunity to gut supplementary programs.
The Ohio Education Association, the state’s leading teachers union, has moved quickly to condemn the vote, arguing that the rule change would disproportionately affect poorer schools.
“Maintaining the 5 of 8 rule demonstrates that the State Board of Education is committed to equal educational opportunity for all of Ohio’s students,” the OEA said in a statement. “If the 5 of 8 rule were eliminated from the Operating Standards, children from low-wealth communities — those who need these services the most — would be the most likely to be deprived of the support they need for a well-rounded education.”
The OEA also said the rule fixes a problem that does not currently exist, as the current rule already is designed to offer flexibility for local districts.
“Ideally, every school student in Ohio would have access to all eight programs and services but previous State Boards wanted to allow for some flexibility. The current rule also … acknowledge[s] that smaller districts may not have the same ability as larger districts to hire personnel in all of these specialized service areas,” the OEA said.
The core of the problem, several speakers at the Board meeting said, is one of commitment. If there is no requirement that school’s sustain secondary ventures such as libraries or PE, they argued, there will be less pressure on the state to help fund such features, and it will be easier for schools to make cuts there, especially with increasing pressure to perform on standardized tests.
“It makes it easier for them when they need to make a cut, to make the cuts there,” said educator Mindy McFann at the meeting.
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