An Ohio judge on Thursday temporarily blocked a new measure that would transfer the duties of the majority citizen-elected board of education and board-appointed state superintendent to a newly reconstituted Department of Education and Workforce overseen by the governor and the director he appoints. The restraining order comes after seven elected members of the Ohio Board of Education this week sued the state and Gov. Mike DeWine.
In Texas, nearly 60 districts are suing the Texas Education Agency over a performance accountability system overhaul that they said was implemented without adequate notice and will "arbitrarily lower performance ratings for many school districts and campuses even though their performance improved." The state can eventually take over districts that repeatedly score low.
Together, these legal challenges highlight ongoing debate over the role and reach of state education boards and state education departments that are subject to changing political winds.
While K-12 education has always been a political issue, district leaders have been dealing with increasing and often virulent polarization in recent years.
This polarization spans stakeholder groups, with divides persisting among community members, district superintendents and boards, and members of state boards and departments of education — all of whom contribute in different capacities to K-12 decision-making.
The discord is also present within a wide range of K-12 issues, from policies on COVID-19 vaccines and masking to curriculum materials, book bans, parental rights and more.
On multiple occasions, differences in political leanings have even contributed to boards' decisions to oust superintendents.
Texas' takeover of the Houston Independent School District is just one recent example highlighting contentious relationships — exacerbated by politics — between state education and local district leaders. In March, the state education agency replaced HISD's school board and superintendent, a move that the former elected board members claimed in a 2019 lawsuit took away voters' rights based on race and national origin.
Similarly, in the Ohio lawsuit, school board members — whose duties would be taken over by the newly named department overseen by the governor — said the recently passed measure "strips the Board and the Ohio Superintendent of their core powers" and would turn the board "into an empty shell."
In addition to lawsuits that illustrate the ongoing political strife in education, recent research has documented the situation as well.
A survey of nearly 700 high school principals released last year found that growing political conflict is harming efforts at respectful dialogue in schools and throwing up barriers in addressing misinformation. School leaders reported that harassment and demeaning rhetoric could interfere with education's mission to encourage a diverse democracy, according to the report from the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California Los Angeles and the Civic Engagement Research Group at the University of California Riverside.
A RAND Corp. report released in July showed superintendents were more than twice as likely to report frequent job-related stress than other working adults in spring 2023. As to the source of that stress, the survey found "the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling" to be the most common cause.