- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - An education policy change that opponents said would let school districts eliminate art, gym and other classes cleared its first hurdle Tuesday at the state school board over some continuing objections.

At issue was a rule governing districts’ minimum staffing requirements for elementary art, music and physical education teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses, social workers and visiting teachers.

The board voted 14-5 to approve language eliminating the mandate that schools must have five of eight of those positions per 1,000 students, after it changed an earlier proposal to retain certain protections for specialized teachers in place.

Opponents had feared the wording change would allow elementary schools to do away with those classes and support staff, and one board member tried and failed to get the guarantees reinserted.

Board member Ann Jacobs said she had received “hundreds and hundreds” of emails on the subject and was representing her constituents in fighting for the so-called “5 of 8” rule to remain a mandate. Other backers of the rule said setting such requirements in law ensure that even poor urban districts hire music, art and gym teachers - not just rich suburban districts.

But panel member Cathye Flory said opposition was based largely on false or incomplete information. She said the new language wouldn’t prevent anyone from giving the best to Ohio children.

Board member C. Todd Jones, an at-large member from New Albany, said time has shown that giving local districts more autonomy is better than the alternative: proscribing staffing levels.

“Part of the reason that we don’t do that is that it is recognized that this would not be an effective means to achieve education,” he said. “It’s focusing on the adults and the inputs, not the children and the outputs.”

The board also rejected an effort by board member Mary Rose Oakar, of Cleveland, to beef up the language to bring a higher profile in hiring decisions to certain positions, including arts and music teachers and school nurses.

Most board members agreed the wording changes undercut work they’d been doing on a compromise over the past year.

The Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the new wording beat what was originally proposed but expressed disappointment that the “5 of 8” ratios were removed from state operating standards.

OEA President Becky Higgins said in a statement that an added provision calling for developing a new method of reporting the number of school nurses, librarians, social workers and other positions on local report cards is welcome.

“We hope local districts will get the message that licensed professionals in all of these areas are essential to support the needs of the whole child and that the state Legislature will follow suit by ensuring all districts have the resources necessary to meet those needs,” she said.

The changes were part of an across-the-board overhaul of Ohio’s education operating standards. That heads next to a rigorous rule review, which also includes public participation, before returning to the state board around March for a final vote.

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