A Republican-backed overhaul of Ohio’s public education system can continue operating as a lawsuit claiming it violates the state constitution makes its way through the courts, a county magistrate ruled Friday.
Indefinitely stalling the conversion of the Ohio Department of Education to the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, which would shift educational oversight from a mostly citizen-elected state school board to the governor, would cause broader harm than letting it be implemented, Magistrate Jennifer Hunt, of the Franklin Common Pleas Court, said in a decision obtained by The Associated Press.
A county judge signed off on Hunt’s ruling later Friday afternoon, allowing it to officially go forward.
The overhaul comes as GOP-led states in recent years have increasingly focused on education oversight, seeking to push back against what they see as a liberal tide in public education classrooms, libraries and sports fields. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has said the change will revamp a failing, disorganized system, but opponents fear giving more control to the governor’s office would result in partisan oversight over schools, not more accountability.
The lawsuit filed in September by parents and the Toledo School Board alleges that the new system Republican lawmakers created violates the Ohio Constitution on multiple grounds, including stripping the state board of most of its powers, which include setting academic standards and school curriculums.
The plaintiffs argue that disregards the intention of a 1953 state constitutional amendment that mandated the creation of the state board in order to give people more say than their governor in children’s education.
Hunt agreed the plaintiffs have grounds to sue but denied their request for a preliminary injunction to keep the new department from running while the courts hear the case.
In previous hearings, the plaintiffs argued they would be harmed by the new department’s shift in leadership from the school board to a governor-appointed director, citing reduced transparency under the new department and fear that they would no longer have the ears of individuals who can actually do something about concerns for their children’s education.
Hunt ruled the new department has systems in place to provide transparency, such as mandated stakeholder outreach, and school board members are still able to voice their constituents’ concerns to the new director even if they can’t directly act on them.
The plaintiffs also failed to prove that no third party would be harmed by the injunction, Hunt said. She agreed with DeWine’s administration that to block the new department from operating would cause “confusion, unrest and chaos for Ohio’s educational system.”
“I am thrilled that the restraining order has been dissolved and we can focus on the important work of moving forward to help our kids,” DeWine said in a statement Friday. He also announced that Jessica Voltolini, the former chief of staff of the previous state Education Department, will serve as the interim director of the new department while the search for a permanent director continues.
Legal counsel for the plaintiffs said in a statement that they still have grounds to sue and “remain confident that democracy and the Ohio constitution will ultimately prevail.”
A trial assignment hearing is scheduled for next September.