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Education leaders wary of Strickland plan

Sunday, February 10, 2008

In his State of the State speech, Strickland called the department ‘unwieldy’ and proposed taking control away from its board of elected and appointed members.

COLUMBUS (AP) — Some education leaders say Gov. Ted Strickland’s plan to expand his control over education policy by creating a Cabinet-level education director would politicize Ohio’s public schools.

State Superintendent Susan Zelman, whose role could be greatly diminished under Strickland’s plan, said it would undermine the independence, transparency and continuity of public education.

“Do you want to take a public agency and take it away from the public or do you want to give it to the governor, with gubernatorial control? We have to ask ourselves what is best for Ohio children,” Zelman said.

The Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, hasn’t taken a position but has concerns, spokeswoman Michele Prater said.

“Change could occur more quickly with accountability directly tied to the governor, but on the other hand controlled public education by the governor’s office could create [a] policy pendulum,” Prater said.

Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1953 to create a state board of education that would take some of the politics out of public education, Prater said.

Zelman, appointed by Republican Gov. Bob Taft in 1999, said she remains committed to her job, despite the view of Strickland, a Democrat.

“I love my work, I love this state and I’m confident this will all work out,” Zelman said. “I’m not going to stop until Ohio is seen as the best state in the United States in terms of offering a world-class education.”

Strickland called the department “unwieldy” in his State of the State speech Wednesday and proposed taking control away from its board of elected and appointed members.

“The most important duty of the state should not be overseen by an unwieldy department with splintered accountability,” Strickland said.

Zelman, who attended the speech in the House chamber, rushed away quickly after the event without speaking to reporters. State Board of Education President Jennifer Sheets said she was surprised by Strickland’s proposal.

“I have had a fairly good professional and personal relationship with the governor, who was my congressman,” she said. “I’m disappointed he didn’t see a need to contact me ahead of time.”

Strickland’s plan would put the department under the control of a director of education who would be appointed by the governor and serve in his Cabinet. The role of the state superintendent and the State Board of Education would be determined by the director. Ohio now has a mix of 11 governor-appointed and eight elected board members with a schools chief appointed by the board.

Zelman said she disagrees with the governor’s proposal, but doesn’t take it personally.

“I was very surprised,” she said, adding that an aide showed her portions of the speech the night before Strickland’s address. She said she and the governor have not spoken since the speech.

Sheets said she sent Strickland a letter Friday, outlining her concerns about the proposal.

“We need collaboration and cooperation, but he doesn’t necessarily have to be in control,” she said.