COLUMBUS, OH — MARCH 05: Christina Collins, former State Board of Education member and currently the head of Honesty for Education a pro-public schools organization that testifies in favor of fair school funding, March 5, 2024, outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

BY:  Ohio Capital Journal

Christina Collins’ journey to become an educator started when she helped her grandfather read his mail.

He had dropped out in middle school, and had trouble with reading and understanding words, even ones specifically written for him.

Collins’ dad and brother both struggled in school as well, and it was through their struggles that she saw “how hard it was for some people to be successful.”

“So, those moments all kind of led to, for me, believing that literacy is a key civil rights issue,” Collins told the Capital Journal. “I mean, the ability to participate in the world around you is to be a literate human being.”

The Gahanna native became a high school English teacher, and cherished the interactions she’d have with students, the kids who seemed to be doing fine and the kids who struggled or made trouble.

“I was always very driven about recognizing every student, and getting other people to recognize every student to help support every student,” Collins said.

To this day, she gets messages from students who have moved on to become educators themselves.

That new generation of teachers is facing a whole host of new challenges, from culture war battles to ever-changing education standards, and Collins sees the developments in education statewide and nationally as a departure from the true aims of the field.

“Our pendulum has swung way too far over to seeing kids as test scores,” she said. “We should be finding every kid’s talents and getting them going in the right direction.”

Joining the board

While Collins was an educator, she taught her classes, kept up with the curriculum and all the other everyday roles of a high school teacher.

But she realized that, for other teachers, those roles didn’t include staying up all night reading legislation.

“I thought that was just a thing all teachers did,” she said. “I thought ‘well this is part of education, everybody’s reading legislation.’”

When her colleagues dispelled that belief, she realized perhaps her next move might be toward honing the policy that came from the statehouse into local school districts.

She became an administrator with the purpose of “being a filter for the noise” coming out of Columbus via policy mandates and standard changes, from Race to the Top and performance evaluations to the third-grade reading guarantee.

“There was a time when I was in a district as curriculum director where in five years there were four different sets of graduation requirements,” Collins said.

Feeling the impact of constant and rapid changes coming from legislative bodies who included many non-educators compelled Collins to run for a spot on the Ohio State Board of Education. She took her spot on the board right as one of the biggest level-sets ever to happen to Ohio education unfolded: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic brought school closures, virtual learning, a scramble to decide whether testing made sense among uncertain learning environments, and a reckoning when it came to what kids really needed from their educational facilities.

Amid the stress of teachers learning new roles, and parents learning what it takes to be a teacher, Collins saw the era as a point of hope, as a needed reflection period for policymakers and districts alike.

“I saw it as a key moment where we could just blank-slate reset and think differently about our education system,” she said.

Surely, she thought, the adaptation that students had gone through in their methods of socialization and learning will lead to changes in the way education is conducted. Surely things like student hunger and poverty that were so starkly spotlighted amid a global pandemic would stay at the forefront of the minds of leadership as they move forward.

“My experience on the board, especially that first year, I was like ‘can we think differently, can we think about competency-based learning models, how can we meet their needs?’”

As a member of the board, she was part of many discussions when it came to coming out of the pandemic and the needs of the education system. But those discussions didn’t go the way she’d hoped.

“It was like the rush to return to normal was the sole focus, and that was coming straight from the statehouse,” she said.

She wasn’t naive to the fact that the state Board of Education, whose candidates appear on nonpartisan ballots, had its conservative and liberal members. But discussions during the pandemic were markedly bipartisan, with some “more known conservative members” hearing the ideas of education reform related to pandemic-era impacts and thinking “maybe we should think differently,” according to Collins.

“Coming out of the pandemic, this culture of kids has changed, and I don’t think that we’re focused on the right things to meet their needs,” she said.

But the pressure coming from legislators was becoming too great for the board to fight.

The tune coming to Collins and the rest of the board was the return of state testing and the return of “normal” in-person instruction, despite a years-long pivot to learning alternatives.

“At no point did (the state) slow down and address how we’re throwing (the students) all back together,” Collins said.

The legislature paused testing amid the pandemic, and policymakers sought to allow schools to move forward without reflection on the tests that were conducted, some through federal mandate, at least for a while. But as 2022 rolled around, the restart of testing became a discussion at the legislative level again, a decision Collins thinks should have been put on the back-burner a little longer.

“That was a moment where we should have delayed, there should have been a bit longer before that happened again,” she said.

Culture wars over change

When the pandemic seemed to be in the rearview mirror, the board’s work didn’t slow down, instead shifting to an area Collins wasn’t quite expecting: culture wars.

She hadn’t been fully caught off-guard when anti-racism resolutions brought white-hot debate to the board’s door, or when proposed Title IX language changes brought along talk of transgender rights in schools. Her seat on the board was barely warm when she started receiving emails accusing her of being anti-American and even socialist, all based purely on the fact that she was an educator, she said.

But she was surprised to see such push-back on a non-binding resolution that sought to recognize disparate educational outcomes among students of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds.

“I think I’m still a little shocked that in Ohio we’re at a point where we’ve had those kinds of culture war issues,” Collins said. “I don’t believe the majority of Ohioans want those issues to be at the forefront.”

 COLUMBUS, OH — MARCH 05: Christina Collins, former State Board of Education member and currently the head of Honesty for Ohio Education a pro-public schools organization that testifies in favor of fair school funding, March 5, 2024, outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original article.)

Having those issues, which Collins acknowledged weren’t necessarily within the board’s purview, become months-long debates with resolution approval, then reversal, meant other things that the board could have been doing within the education space weren’t seeing the light of day.

“All of that was happening at the same time, which I think is how we lost that potential for change,” she said.

A bigger change was headed for the board, that would remove many of its responsibilities, and cause a shift that would eventually convince Collins to move on.

A bill had been floating in the Ohio legislature for more than a year. The more than 2,000-page policy would not only change the name of the Ohio Department of Education to the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, but it would restructure the department to have two leaders under the umbrella of the governor’s cabinet, one for education and another for workforce.

The ODEW would still include the State Board of Education, but board members would be mainly focused on teacher licensure, educator disciplinary actions and district territory disputes.

State Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, an ex-officio member of the board of education, was not the main sponsor of the bill, but pushed hard for it as chairman of the Ohio Senate Education Committee.

Arguments were made that the board was ineffectual and inefficient. Collins sees no reason to place blame for the way the board has worked, but from her perspective, the board filters legislative measures to the local districts as another cog in a wheel that needs improvement.

“The board’s seeming inability to get things done – which I don’t believe, but the rhetoric around it – I think that’s a reflection of what our local districts are dealing with because they are struggling to implement all of the things,” Collins said.

During committee hearings on the bill, members of the state board, including Collins, submitted testimony against the changes, saying putting the leaders under the governor’s cabinet would decrease the level of accountability they could have to districts and voters.

Collins brought up the many mandates under which the board had guided local districts, and the source of any and all of those mandates.

“These were all legislated efforts, but you’re still saying our schools are failing,” she wrote in her testimony. “I ask, who holds this (General) Assembly accountable when the unending educational initiatives it doles out do not work?”

The overhaul of the ODE did not play out in the first General Assembly in which it was introduced, but shortly after a new General Assembly came to work, the push for Senate Bill 1 and the changes to the department were introduced again.

Teachers unions, board of education members and advocacy groups alike all came out in opposition to the bill, representing hours of testimony in committee. Supporters of the bill included the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

The bill passed the Senate last March, but it wasn’t until it was inserted into the state budget in the summer of 2023 that it saw full passage.

Collins was one of a number of board members who signed a letter asking Gov. Mike DeWine to line-item veto the changes to the state board’s roles in the budget document.

“From my experience being on the board, I think the way that (SB 1) was shoved through and how it was shoved through and when it was shoved through was a little bit unbelievable,” Collins told the Capital Journal. “Something that had essentially stalled in process was added (to the budget) and pushed through the way it was, and then that quickly it was (passed).”

Honesty for Ohio Education

As the board faced drastic legislative changes and a significant reduction in the authority it held, Collins started to wonder if being a member would help her make the most change, something she says she looks for in any career move she makes.

Armed with a superintendent’s license, she debated going back into schools. Ultimately, the departure of Honesty for Ohio Education’s executive director at the end of 2023, and the fact that she’d just had a baby that November made Collins reflect on all the aspects of education and the changes needed.

“It’s a scary time as a parent, it’s a scary time for education,” she said. “I’m worried about my own kids, I’m worried about everyone else’s kids.”

As a staunch supporter of public education, the changes being made on a state level with the transformation of the ODEW and the implementation of near-universal private school vouchers made her nervous about the future of her chosen field.

But like the times with her grandfather years ago, the connection between education and civic duty floated to the top of her mind.

“On a grander scale, I’m really, really, really worried that we’re losing our democracy, and for me education and democracy are in this reciprocal relationship,” Collins said.

Honesty for Ohio Education started in 2021 as a reaction to “critical race theory” bills that sought to keep children from learning the connection between race and American history, with claims that the bills would protect children from feeling guilt for history.

The group started small, but as they began testifying against CRT bills, among others, the group’s numbers grew, and now the coalition “has outgrown itself” from its nascent days, according to Collins.

“That’s a response to the attacks on education, it’s the attacks on LGBTQ+ kids, it’s the attacks on multi-racial education, it’s the attacks on honest history,” she said. “All of that … has created this avalanche with Honesty where we’re at this influx, where we have to decide how we step into adulthood, essentially.”

But as the coalition makes its next moves, Collins said it plans to stay focused on things like state curriculum, fights against book bans and how schools can work better, even for the 10% of students outside of the public school system.

“It’s not just public education … it’s about the kids everywhere in any educational environment who deserve to be safe and have honest and diverse, inclusive education,” Collins told the Capital Journal.

The coalition focuses on content in schools, but Collins said the ability for school districts to succeed certainly comes down to how well they’re funded and supported by state and local sources.

Public education is a “common good” for Collins, and that means the 90% of Ohio children in public education should be taken care of in the way the Ohio Constitution dictates. For public education unions, advocacy groups and for Collins, that includes full implementation of the Fair School Funding Plan.

That reform of the state’s public school funding model emphasizes a formula based around the needs of individual school districts, to allow schools who have more need than others to build up their performance.

The plan as it is now began it’s push through the legislature in August 2020 but negotiations and the hesitance of legislative leaders like Senate President Matt Huffman to push out the entire $10 billion per year plan in one shot led to a six-year phase-in. The plan is currently up to about 66% implementation.

Meanwhile, however, the General Assembly fully funded what amounts to a near-universal private school voucher program in the last budget cycle, allowing students in what are considered under-performing public school districts to leave and take state-funded scholarships with them to nearby private schools if their household income is up to 450% of the federal poverty level, or $135,000 for a family of four.

“When we pass universal voucher bills that give more money to students when they leave the school than a lot of the schools receive for that student, that’s a sign of the value that at least our legislature places on public education kids,” Collins said.

Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.


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