Higher education bills added to Ohio Senate’s version of the state’s operating budget

A massive higher education overhaul is one step closer to happening as the Ohio Senate voted to pass their budget Thursday. 

Numerous bills, including Senate Bill 83, were added to the Senate’s version of the budget during Wednesday’s Senate Finance Committee meeting and the budget passed during Thursday’s Senate Session by a 24-7 party line vote (two Republican Senators weren’t present). The bill now heads to conference committee and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has to sign the two-year state budget by June 30. 

Among other things, SB 83 would ban university staff and employees from striking, college students would be forced to take certain American history courses, professor tenure would be based around “bias,” and mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training would be prohibited, with only specific exemptions. 

It would also reduce Board of Trustees terms from nine years down to six and require Ohio universities interested in starting new programs with China to get approval from the Chancellor of Higher Education and the Attorney General. 

Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, introduced SB 83 earlier this year and said during the Senate Session it will be “a proper course correction.”

“It enhances free speech,” he said. “It provides greater academic freedom by not preventing those who have differing opinions from presenting those opinions and discussing them in the academic environment.”

He said banning striking will ensure students won’t be “used as pawns in the negotiation process.”

“When they pay tuition up front and their fees as well … that is a contract that exists between the student and the institution,” Cirino said. “Nothing should interpret the fulfillment of that contract.”

SB 83 has received lots of pushback from students and university faculty.

Higher education bills added to Ohio Senate’s version of the state’s operating budget
COLUMBUS, Ohio — JUNE 14: (left to right) Students Mel Searle from the University of Cincinnati, Kayli Rego, Brielle Shorter and Brittany Glenn from Ohio State prepare for a protest led by the Ohio Student Association in opposition to Senate Bill 83, June 14, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

More than 500 people submitted opponent testimony to SB 83 during a marathon Senate Workforce and Higher Education meeting in April. 

Dozens of college students protested SB 83 Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee Meeting by marching through the halls of the Statehouse chanting “Labor rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” and “Out of the dorms, into the streets, 83 won’t get past me.”

State Sen. Bill DeMora, D-Columbus, called putting bills like SB 83 in the budget “unconstitutional logrolling.”

“It’s obvious why these are in the budget because these bills were not making any progress in the other chamber,”he said. “By cramming all these pieces of legislation into it that haven’t been fully debated as part of our budget is showing bad faith to both the citizens of Ohio and to ourselves.”

The Senate passed SB 83 in mid-May by a 21-10 vote, but SB 83 has only had sponsor testimony so far in the House Higher Education Committee.

Sen. Kent Smith, D-Euclid, criticized putting SB 83 in the budget during Wednesday’s Senate Finance Committee Meeting.

“It’s bad for education,” he said. “It’s bad for Ohio. The anti-strike provision makes it the worst attack on collective bargaining.” 

Senate Bill 117 

Senate Bill 117 was also included in the Senate’s budget — which would create the Salmon P. Chase Center for Civics, Culture, and Society at Ohio State University’s College of Public Affairs and the Institute of American Constitutional Thought and Leadership at the University of Toledo’s College of Law. 

It would give UT $1 million in fiscal year 2024 and $2 million in fiscal year 2025 for the Institute, and Ohio State $5 million in fiscal years 2024 and 2025 for the Center. 

Senate Majority Floor Leader Rob McColley, R-Napoleon. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Cirino and Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, introduced the bill that would create these “intellectual diversity” centers. SB 117 was recently voted out of committee, but has not yet gone before the full Senate for consideration. Nearly a dozen students and faculty at both institutions have spoken out against the bill during opponent testimony. 

“There is nothing in SB 117 that requires there to be thought on any one side of the argument,” McColley said. “None whatsoever. It doesn’t mention one viewpoint or the other that’s required. It’s straight down the middle.”

State Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, praised SB 117.

“Any college or university should be a place where there’s academic freedom and free speech,” Roegner said. “I’m delighted that we are doing this. I believe in short order, those two institutions will be oversubscribed.”

DeMora, however, called putting these bills in the budget “sticking the middle fingers to students,” and is wary of the phrase “intellectual diversity.”

“Of course by diversity, they mean the equivalent of Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones will be taught with the same series of actual thinkers like Descarte and Locke,” he said.

Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) 

State Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

The Senate’s budget appropriates $200 million for both fiscal years to the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG), which gives grant money to Ohio residents who have the highest level of financial need as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The Senate’s budget increases the income eligibility threshold for an OCOG award from $2,190 or less to $3,750 or less. 

“We are trying to reach more students who need that support,” Cirino said. 

Under the Senate’s budget, students receiving an OCOG award at state institutions of higher education would receive $3,200 in fiscal year 2024 and $4,000 in fiscal year 2025. Students at private nonprofit institutions would receive $4,700 in fiscal year 2024 and $5,000 in fiscal year 2025. Students at a private for-profit career college would receive $1,850 in fiscal year 2024 and $2,000 in fiscal year 2025.

Other provisions in the Senate’s budget 

The Senate’s budget takes away the voting rights of Ohio State University’s two student trustees and bars them from attending Board of Trustees executive sessions. 

“Now we decided they are not important,” DeMora said. “They shouldn’t have a vote.”

The Senate’s budget allows students to decline a university-mandated vaccine on the basis of “medical contraindications and reasons of conscience, including religious convictions,” according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission

The Senate’s budget also kept a provision that would make sure educator training programs align with science of reading, which is based on decades of research that shows how the human brain learns to read. It incorporates phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. 

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