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Kasich Accuses State School Board Of Playing Politics, Board President Says It's A Bigger Issue

Ohio Department of Education

Ohio Gov. John Kasich recently said the state’s school board is too focused on politics. That comment was in response to a request from seven school board members for an outside investigation into Ohio’s charter schools. The board also wants an impartial investigation into whether State Superintendent Richard Ross was involved in the scrubbing of failing grades at some charters. School Choice Director David Hansen has already resigned over the issue.

WYSO’s Ariel Van Cleave sat down with State School Board President Tom Gunlock. He says politics aren’t necessarily the board’s main problem.

Gunlock: The state school board was formed as a constitutional amendment back in 1953. The whole idea of it was so that we could get politics out of education policy. And I think it worked that way for a considerable period of time. And then about the time Gov. Taft became governor, he wanted more involvement in education policy. And as we've gone forward governors have wanted more and more involvement, and on top of that the general assembly has wanted more and more involvement. So, over time, the Department of Education now has three bosses: the governor, they have 132 members of the General Assembly between the House and the Senate, and 19 board members that serve on the state board of education.

Van Cleave: Have there been kinks in the system because of the fact that there are so many people?

Gunlock: Yeah, and I can point out a couple things. Back a few years ago, the General Assembly said 'We don't necessarily like the OGT, or the Ohio Graduation Test, anymore. So why don't you come up with a new set of criteria for graduation?' So we did. And they didn't particularly like it, so they decided to write their own. The other one, sometimes if you read the law, the General Assembly state 'the state board of education will do the following.' At other times, they say 'the department of education shall do the following.' Well, what happens then is the state board is no longer in charge or the overseer of the department because the General Assembly, for some reason has decided, that the department would be better to do things than the state board. This latest incident I think with the community schools was a prime example of that failure because it says in the law that the department shall do, instead of the state board of education doing. And I'm not saying that caused this problem, because it didn't. This was just somebody going off doing something they shouldn't have been doing. It wouldn't have fixed this. So it's just another example of what can happen.

Van Cleave: What can the state school board do in this case with David Hansen that just recently came up? The school choice director admitted to not including failing grades for some schools. Now the board has a role in going through emails, so why don't you tell us about that.

Gunlock: I mean, obviously Mr. Hansen made a mistake. He paid a terrible price. Right now, there's 59,325 emails that the department is going through; reading each and every one of them to make sure there was nobody else at the department, or outside the department, who was involved in this. We'll make sure from a criminal standpoint as well as from a practical standpoint that nobody at the department was involved, and this was just him by himself. So far, I've been told that all the emails that they've looked at, nobody else seems to be involved in it. The superintendent has told me that he plans to find three people that will look at whatever the sponsor evaluation thing looks like when it's finally done; because we're going to have do start all over again. And then he's going to hire an outside firm to come in and look at the department and make sure we're doing best practices. My whole goal here is that this never happen again. But I want to make sure everybody understands that when people go outside and do something they shouldn't be doing, it's hard, no matter what procedures you have in place, things can happen. And no excuse for it, but like I said, he did pay a terrible price for it.

Van Cleave: So with this David Hansen situation, we were talking about how the board was creating initially to keep it out of politics, to make it about policy. As time has marched on, you've got governors who want to insert themselves a little bit more. And they're elected officials who are part of a political party. Then you have lawmakers who also want to insert themselves. Do you think that the way that this is structured now is working?

Gunlock: No. (laughs) I think that's pretty blunt. Right now the department has three bosses. The Constitution gives the state board one job, and that's to hire and fire the superintendent. And I tell ya, it doesn't take 19 people to hire and fire a superintendent. If it takes more than five, then we've got some serious problems in those five. This can't go on because nobody can have three bosses and expect to be successful. It can't work. So, here's my philosophy: two of the three need to get out of education policy. I don't care who the two out of three are, but you can't continue doing what we're doing and say 'oh, this works.' This is an organizational nightmare.