Jan 30, 2023 - News

Ohio's education culture war

Illustration of red and blue broken pencils.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Many educators are navigating the raging culture war in local suburban schools without clear state guidance or laws.

Why it matters: A majority of school leaders surveyed nationwide say heated political discourse is interfering with their ability to teach, per a report released last week.

  • The lightning-rod topics are largely focused around how LGBTQ+ students and students of color are treated in schools and represented in the curriculum.

Catch up quick: In three weeks, five local districts have faced controversy.

Meanwhile, conservative group Accuracy in Media secretly filmed Bexley, Groveport Madison and Upper Arlington administrators to allege they're "determined to advance the principles of critical race theory even if it becomes illegal."

  • In press statements sent to Axios, two districts said two people posing as parents of prospective students manipulated the conversations.

What's happening: Districts' efforts to become more inclusive and equitable are causing rifts in traditional power structures, Ohio State associate professor of educational policy Ann Allen tells Axios.

  • A larger conservative political movement rooted in fear is reigniting the local "parents' rights" firestorm, along with pandemic anxiety, Allen says.

What they're saying: Districts are left in a no-win situation if the community can't find a middle ground, Ohio School Boards Association CEO Rick Lewis tells Axios.

  • "The best-case scenario is you disappoint a fraction of your community and the worst case is you alienate them ā€¦ and that's when school boards get labeled as either 'woke' or 'ultra-conservative.'"

Zoom in: Given Ohio's emphasis on home rule, school boards are largely left to make their own decisions absent any state laws, Patrick Corbett, executive director at school policy consulting firm Neola Inc., tells Axios.

  • A recent Dispatch review found that just three of nearly 20 Franklin County districts, for example, had gender identity policies.
  • More districts are seeking help on DEI policies, but Ohio's recent guidance "hasn't been clear-cut or consistent," Corbett says.

Flashback: After approving an anti-racism resolution in 2020, Ohio Board of Education members rescinded it in 2021 and replaced it with one condemning teachings that "seek to divide."

Reality check: Most parents are actually OK with their students' schools and what they're teaching, per a nationwide poll by NPR and Ipsos from April 2022.

What we're watching: Ohio Republicans are prioritizing reforms to the state's education system this term, with the first Senate bill introduced seeking to strip power away from the publicly-elected state board.

  • If successful, a new director appointed by the governor would become responsible for setting curriculum and academic standards.
  • Unsuccessful bills during last term sought to ban "divisive teachings" and outlaw transgender students from competing in women's sports ā€” proposals that may be reintroduced this year.
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