A Cardinal Nation Series: The Fight Over Education in Ohio (Part 2)

A Cardinal Nation Exclusive: Ohio State Board of Education member Meryl Johnson talks about systemic racism in Ohio’s education system, how it affects educators and students, and what kids can do about it

Ohio State Board of Education member Meryl Johnson has been an decades-long advocate for education


Ohio State Board of Education member Meryl Johnson has been an decades-long advocate for education

Teresa Morek, Contributor

Two pieces of legislation have been proposed in Columbus that could have significant impacts on education in every school in the state. Battling their passage is Ohio State Board of Education member Meryl Johnson, who spoke to Cardinal Nation about her views on their importance.

House Bill 322 (applied to K-12 classrooms) states that it is not permitted for students to be taught that American history is rooted in systemic racism. Instead, teachers should teach that these events are “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the founding principles of the United States.” It also states that students must be taught “both/all sides” of historical events, which could include clear events of historical discrimination such as the Holocaust and Jim Crow laws.

House Bill 327 applies in a similar way to all state agencies and departments. It prohibits teaching that some people benefit from racism or sexism and restricts 25% to 100% of state funding from any school where teachers or employees may be in the process of being sued for violating the bill.

Meryl Johnson opposes both of these bills as an Ohio State Board of Education member. Johnson is a retired teacher with 40 years of teaching experience in the Cleveland Public Schools. A graduate of Glenville High School in the Cleveland District, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Kent State University and her Master of Education degree from Cleveland State University. She was elected to the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was re-elected in November 2020.

Ms. Johnson describes herself as an avid student advocate. During her years as a teacher, she helped students develop leadership skills by training them in mediation through the Winning Against Violent Environments (WAVE) Program, voter registration, letter writing to newspapers, and speaking at community forums. She also transported Student Council leaders to Columbus to lobby for fair school funding.

According to Mrs. Johnson, both proposed bills aim to silence attention to racist systemic values of our country and give way to conservative white-male superiority. Johnson argues that throughout history, information has been whitewashed and corrupted without repercussions. Johnson believes falsified history is still being revealed and spread in a way that damages the reputation of minorities and glorifies those in power.

Meryl Johnson member of the Ohio State Board of Education, representing District 1

Among Mrs. Johnson’s efforts are the SPEAK Initiative, a student organization focused around preventing House Bills 322 & 327 from being passed in Ohio. Cardinal Nation wanted to hear what message she would like to share with Mentor students and this initiative that students could join, and her views on how students would be impacted by this legislation if passed. What follows are her responses:

Cardinal Nation: What can you tell us about the state of education in Ohio today that today’s high school students need to be more aware of?

Meryl Johnson: For many years, there has been a movement throughout the country to dismantle/privatize our public education system. Charter schools and vouchers are funded through deductions from public school districts. This has been going on for a very long time. That movement to privatize public schools is growing.  When you look at the focus now on dishonesty in education which is beginning to drive parents away from our public schools, this is happening across the country. Ohio is no exception.

Cardinal Nation: Are there any specific issues that you would like to see resolved in Ohio’s education system?

Meryl Johnson: We need a permanent fair school funding system that does not rely on property taxes. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled four times that the way Ohio funds its schools is unconstitutional because of an over reliance on property taxes. It’s called the DeRolph case. Our budget was tweaked a little bit during the last two years so it tries to address the unconstitutional funding issues,  but much more needs to be done.

Cardinal Nation: What can you tell today’s students about HB 322 & 327 and how they would affect their daily lives in school?

Meryl Johnson: Two bills, HB 322 and 327, are pending in our legislation that would revoke teachers’ licenses for telling the truth about all sides of America’s history, including how systemic racism is a part of everything this country stands for. This is something that many people are fighting against because our students deserve to learn in a trusting environment where they know that their teachers are focusing on the truth.  And, not just schools will be impacted. For more information, go to honestyforohioeducation.info. (Editor’s note: since this interview, HB 616 has been introduced which includes part of these bills as well as restrictions on the discussion of gender identity issues in the classroom. See our story on it in Part 1 of our Cardinal Nation Series – The Fight Over Public Education in Ohio (Part 1).)

Cardinal Nation: What is your view on some of the other bills affecting education in states like Florida, Texas, and elsewhere? How concerned are you about any of those bills being repeated back here in Ohio?

Meryl Johnson: Most of these dangerous bills are coming from the same place.  The American Legislative Exchange Council (look up ‘ALEC exposed’) is responsible for a lot of the disastrous legislation that has occurred in this country. Also, the Heritage Foundation is another villain. That’s why you have almost identical bills slithering into every state. I am concerned about the bills that are already in Ohio and those that may be coming. I’m especially concerned about the dehumanization of the LBGTQ+ community in a lot of these bills. For example, in House Bill 327 under definitions, sex is defined as “biological sex.” Where my hope lies is in the good-hearted people who believe in human rights and public education and who believe in our students and who are willing to fight back.

Cardinal Nation: What is the SPEAK initiative and how can students get involved in it?

Meryl Johnson: The students in SPEAK were brought together to fight against HB 322 and 327. The group started when I reached out to some educators and asked them to send me some students who were passionate about fighting these bills. The thirteen students named themselves SPEAK (Students Promoting Equity and Knowledge) and even created a logo. The purpose is for them to educate others about the danger of these censorship bills through letters to the editor, through presentations at their school board meetings, through appearances in press conferences and webinars, and whatever other way they can use to spread the knowledge. You can start your own student group by reading the bills and deciding how you want to advocate against them. Feel free to call on me if you need help. 

Cardinal Nation: What is your opinion on the current level of testing in this state? Are our schools doing a good job? Why or why not?

Meryl Johnson: If you read the book The Testing Charade by Daniel Koretz, You will find that what he says is true. There is really nothing wrong with testing. It depends on how it’s being used. In Ohio, testing is used to evaluate the quality of our school districts. There is no way that evaluation can be valid as long as testing in Ohio measures wealth instead of intelligence.

Cardinal Nation: What message do you have for today’s high school students about the importance of finding one’s voice in public issues?

Meryl Johnson: Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to Congress, said “if you don’t have a seat at the table,  bring a folding chair.” Right now, the student voice is missing in one of the most important and scariest issues to hit the state of Ohio. If house bills 322 and 327 pass, the whitewashed history that students, especially students of color,  have been bored with  for so many years will be worse. These bills say you have to deal with controversial issues in an impartial way. How can you be impartial when you talk about slavery or the Holocaust or the Trail of Tears or the Civil Rights movement? Go to legislature.ohio.gov to read the bills for yourselves. These bills will make it impossible for students to learn how to think critically and how to be participants in making the country and the world better. We need student voices to speak out against these bills and to make sure that every student in Ohio is doing the same thing.

A Cardinal Nation Series: The Fight Over Public Education in Ohio (Part 3)

A Cardinal Nation Series: The Fight Over Public Education in Ohio (Part 4)