April 10, 2024; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio Governor Mike DeWine waves at the completion of his 2024 State of the State address in the Ohio House chambers at the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday afternoon.

BY:  Ohio Capital Journal

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine put children at the center of his 2024 State of the State address Wednesday afternoon. He took credit for recent policies to improve reading and offered a few new ideas, too — increase access to child care, improve education outcomes, and bolster health and vision care.

But perhaps most impactful for families, he argued schools need to limit access smartphones in classrooms.

“A number of Ohio schools have made the decision to eliminate smartphone use during the school day,” DeWine argued, “and I believe clearly that is the right decision.”

DeWine threw his support behind legislation sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, that would require districts to enact a policy minimizing access to phones in the classroom.

“I fully support this measure and encourage the General Assembly to take up this legislation and pass it quickly.”

DeWine also acknowledged the headwinds his administration has faced when it comes to kids and phones. A provision in Ohio’s budget would’ve required social media companies to get parental consent for users under 16. A federal judge has blocked that law, and DeWine urged lawmakers to use that ruling to come up with a replacement.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle seemed skeptical.

Safety and smoking

DeWine took aim at weed and tobacco through the lens of child safety. Delta-8 hemp is unregulated and too readily available, he said. Current marijuana law means kids will smell smoke “on their way to ball practice” or in public parks.

“That’s not what people voted for,” DeWine argued, “But make no mistake about it. That is what so current law allows and will continue to allow until we do something about it.”

After lawmakers overrode his veto of legislation preempting local flavored tobacco bans, DeWine pushed them to pass a new law.

“Now I understand the desire for uniformity statewide, I understand that, I do” he said. “And so I asked you to pass a uniform state law banning flavored vaping and flavored cigarettes, it will save lives.”

To address youth gun violence, DeWine touted highway patrol teams ready to “surge” into high crime areas if local officials ask.

In response to a Dispatch investigation, DeWine promised a new Juvenile Justice Working Group would soon release recommendations. He urged lawmakers to be ready to pass legislation in support of their suggestions. The governor also called on the General Assembly to make not wearing a seat belt a primary offense.

 COLUMBUS, Ohio — APRIL 06: Ohio Governor Mike DeWine with Principal Miracle Reynolds (left), and Interim Superintendent/CEO of Columbus City Schools, Dr. Angela Chapman, observe the implementation of the Science of Reading program in the third grade classroom taught by RobinThalgott, April 6, 2023, at Southwood Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original article.) 

From birth to Pre-K

DeWine argued the two biggest drivers of infant mortality in Ohio are babies born too early and not sleeping safely. He praised the state’s home visit program and announced an 11-county pilot program he’s calling “Family Connects.” Every new mom will be eligible for a home visit about three weeks after delivery.

“These visiting nurses can guide families to clinical or community supports,” DeWine said, “recognize when a mom and baby may need additional help as a result of exhaustion or trouble with breastfeeding; and remind or teach new moms about how a baby can sleep safely.”

The governor also proposed offering vouchers for child care. Families making up to 200% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the Childcare Choice Voucher. A private school voucher program is already in place for K-12 students. But that scholarship is far larger, applying to families making up 450% of the federal poverty line, with smaller vouchers available to those making more.

Linking school and health care

DeWine also proposed several initiatives to improve education, while also leveraging schools as a way to provide greater access to health care.

The governor argued Ohio’s approach to education must be “all of the above.” He touted recent investments in career tech centers and called on the General Assembly to “commit” to ensuring those facilities have enough space. “So that no child who wants career tech,” DeWine said, “is ever shut out of that because there is simply not enough room for them.”

DeWine also pushed lawmakers to revise existing high school graduation planning to include career planning as well. At the same time he urged universities to begin tracking how many graduates have a degree within six months and whether it’s related to their field of study.

Starting in kindergarten, Ohio students get vision screenings, but DeWine contends “the vast majority” who fail those screenings don’t get follow up care to see if they need glasses. DeWine announced a Children’s Vision Strike Force which will extend local vision programs statewide.

The governor also argued schools are a great way to connect students to primary care. He highlighted a clinic staffed by Nationwide Children’s Hospital at East High School in Columbus as a model. The governor didn’t propose new funding but said state agencies would work with schools and districts to see how existing dollars could be applied to the effort.

Another health effort DeWine is calling the Outcomes Acceleration for Kids Learning Network, or OAK, will work with Medicaid plans to emphasize asthma and sickle cell care so kids miss less school. The effort, as DeWine envisions it, will also prioritize regular checkups and follow-up care after a mental health crisis.

 Ohio House Speaker Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill). (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.) 


Once the governor was done speaking and the handshaking and backslapping had died down, legislative leaders retreated to smaller rooms and smaller lecterns. They thanked the governor for his ideas and emphasized “how much they agree on,” before politely rejecting much of what he suggested.

House Speaker Jason Stephens was pleased to hear DeWine talking about policies to help babies and young mothers. But rather than embrace the governor’s idea, Stephens pointed to existing legislation that would make several changes for early childhood development.

“(It) will work in concert with the governor’s goal is to serve a strong foundation for babies that are moms throughout the state by investing in their futures.”

Stephens sounded open to new restrictions on Delta-8 hemp, but for marijuana he argued state rules have already addressed the most problems while acknowledging “there will always be tweaking of the marijuana law as we move into the future.” The governor’s proposal about seat belts and a flavored tobacco ban, though? That’s a question of “personal responsibility” Stephens said.

As for whether the General Assembly has a role in limiting smartphones in school, he mustered a “maybe.”

“But you know, this is what’s great about Ohio,” Stephens said, “is our local school districts have the ability to make those types of decisions themselves and in my opinion, they have the responsibility.”

Across the aisle the reaction was similar.

Although Democratic House Minority Leader Allison Russo acknowledged, as a parent, smartphones in class are a concern, that doesn’t mean it’s the General Assembly’s concern.

“(I) look to our schools to be the real experts here,” Russo said. “I’m not sure that there is a one size fits all, for every district, every student, every setting.”

Russo praised the governor’s child care voucher proposal, but with a caveat.

“We have that money available to us,” she argued, “from direct funding from the Biden administration and the federal government, but we as a state have underspent and under-utilized in this space and we’re now making up for the damage.”

On the same topic, Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio questioned why the governor set eligibility at 200% of the federal poverty line.

“If the majority could raise the eligibility threshold for the wealthy with school vouchers to 450% of the federal poverty level,” she argued, “certainly we could qualify families with low and middle income and increase their eligibility for child care — we should do that.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.


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