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Ohio Supreme Court hears oral arguments on bill that put schools in academic distress

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The Ohio Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday for a challenge to a state law that created the controversial Academic Distress Commissions (ADCs), which transfers authority over failing schools from the local school board to a state-appointed CEO.

Charles Oldfield represented the Youngstown Education Association, which brought the legal challenge. Youngstown, along with Lorain and East Cleveland school districts, have been taken over by an ADC after several years of poor performance on the Ohio Department of Education’s annual report card.

Oldfield argued that the bill itself and the means by which the bill was passed both violate the state’s Constitution.

Article 6, Section 3, grants electors in a city the authority to choose “the number of members and the organization of the district board of education,” which Oldfield argued implies that a school board in a city will have enough authority to influence policy. When an ADC has taken over schools under the current model, the board can make recommendations, but the CEO will make the final decision on whether to follow those recommendations.

The law being challenged also did not follow the three-reading rule mandated by the state’s Constitution before it passed, Oldfield argued. The Constitution requires that every bill be read three times on three separate days before it can be passed; the Court has ruled in the past that a bill must receive three additional hearings if an amendment creates a vital alteration.

House Bill 70, which created the ADCs, went from a 10 page bill about improving schools to a 67 page bill that created the commissions and created a number of regulations, but did not receive additional readings. Oldfield argued that lawmakers, along with the Ohio Department of Education, thwarted public debate by rushing the amendment through and that it substantially changed the meaning of the legislation to the extent that its main sponsors withdrew their support.

Some of the justices asked Oldfield whether this could lead to heavy court involvement in the legislative process. Oldfield said that it would not, because the precedent is already in the books.

Benjamin Flowers, who defended the state of Ohio’s position, argued that the Ohio Constitution doesn’t expressly grant any authority to the local school boards, but in Article 6, Section 2, does give the General Assembly the authority over regulating school boards. He said that the home rule clause in the Constitution expressly gives authority to local governments and that if the legislators wanted to do the same for school boards, they would have expressly done so.

Additionally, Flowers argued that the legislative process was constitutional because the amendment did not change the substance of the bill, which was to improve struggling school districts. He said that the precedent provides no page limits for an amendment and that the court has upheld bills that introduced even larger amendments without additional readings. He said that court involvement in the bill would politicize the courts and be an attempt to tell egislators how to do their jobs.