Education Laws In Ohio Subject Of Repeal Campaign, Budget Skirmish

Challenging Ohio's Education Reform Law

Ohio senators have axed wording that strips public employees of most collective-bargaining rights and mandates merit pay for teachers from the state's upcoming spending plans in a move that may make it easier to repeal an already passed bill that enacts similar results.

The state Senate Republican caucus removed the language, which is similar to language already passed in a an earlier bill, from the upcoming two-year budget late Tuesday evening.

State Senate President Tom Niehaus (R-New Richmond) said he wanted to avoid conflict implementing programs that make use of federal Race to the Top funds, according to the Associated Press.

But the Democrats aren't as clear about the reasoning. "There is bipartisan support to remove the language that is duplicative of Senate Bill 5 in the budget," Senate minority leader Capri Cafaro (D-Hubbard) told The Huffington Post. "The Republicans opposed to Senate Bill 5 language probably submitted amendments to do that." The caucus may not have had enough votes with the language intact, Cafaro said.

It is unclear what the immediate ramifications of replicating the SB5 language would be, though some say it could hold up efforts to repeal the law. Still, opponents said they were pleased to see the language struck regardless of the reasons for doing so.

"My father is a firefighter. My mom is an EMT. My best friend from college is a teacher. This is really close to my heart," said Melissa Fazekas, spokesperson for We Are Ohio, a campaign to repeal SB5. "It takes away their rights to sit down at a table and discuss their issues with management."

She said the group has over 10,000 volunteers traveling from county to county to collect signatures. The group hopes to put a measure on this fall's ballot, which would require 231,139 validated signatures. By Fazekas' last count, We Are Ohio had reached 214,399 signatures, but said the group aims to collect between 450,000 and 500,000 signatures. Accruing enough signatures by deadline would stay the law until the referendum.

The duplicated language in the budget, she said, raised concerns about the effects of a referendum. "There's some question as to whether similar language to SB5 in another bill would affect the referendum," Fazekas said. "There are parts of the budget bill that are not subject to referendum. There hasn't been a clear decision on what it would mean."

Ohio's law came as similar laws passed in states from Wisconsin to Idaho as part of a national movement to hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students. Job security has traditionally been pegged to the number of years a teacher has spent in the classroom, but these laws seek to change that, tying pay and dismissals to students' scores on standardized tests.

Ohio is a particularly important state for education reform, as it won funds from U.S. Secretary of Education's federal Race to the Top competition, which promoted accountability-focused changes. "The Ohio Federation of Teachers has been one of the groups out front pushing for changes in the way that we run education to make it more effective for students," said spokesperson Lisa Zellner. "But with the governor coming in with drastic funding cuts and policies that eliminate jobs rather than supporting the profession and education, these changes will devastate education for students in Ohio."

The passage of SB5 in Ohio has led local teachers unions to try to secure existing contracts in a mad rush before the bill becomes effective, said David Dolphe, a clinical faculty member in the University of Dayton's department of educational leadership. "Associations are bargaining contracts in their districts to lock in whatever it was they had before the law kicks in," he said. "The notion behind that is that everybody feels like they need a little time to figure out what the ramifications are."

Cafaro said she and the Democratic caucus opposed the bill because SB5 "is not collective bargaining. It's collective begging." It allows the employer to implement the last offer made should an agreement not be reached.

Darold Johnson, legislative director for the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said that as of Wednesday afternoon, the governor was leaning on the senate to put the merit pay issue back into the budget, saying it would help with Race to the Top promises.

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