By Doug Livingston
and Lee Murray
Special to the Beacon Journal
Sarah Fowler is a home-schooled former egg farmer from rural Ashtabula County and has had no formal relationship with organized, publicly funded education.
She ran her own small business selling eggs for 12 years and worked on her family’s farm. One of seven children, she continues to work for the family business doing graphic design, sales, marketing and bookkeeping.”
At age 25, she is the youngest member on the state board. She represents the multi-county District 7, which includes Trumbull County. Mahoning and Columbiana counties are in District 8.
Home-schooled graduates are unusual in Ohio’s education landscape. As children, they accounted for an estimated 2 percent of the student population. Christian home-schooling families in particular are fervent supporters of limited government, and through state and national organizations can jell into a strong force to aggressively resist government oversight.
Fowler reflected those beliefs in a recent interview.
“Well, we live in a society or a government structure where the Constitution limits the role of the government,” she said. “And where the Constitution limits the role of the government, family structure starts. And so in each of these jurisdictions whether it be home school, private school, Christian school or public school ... the role of the state ends where that of the family begins.”
It was through the home-schooled network, Ohioans for Educational Freedom, that Fowler said she learned of the opening on the state board and decided to run.
She said she wanted to speak for “the oft forgotten stakeholders of the parents,” and she also knew that home-schooling regulations were due for a review by the state. She wanted to assure a home-schooling voice.
Her campaign, a grass-roots effort spearheaded by immediate family, drew financial support from small rural organizations and businesses, such as cheese manufacturers and garden supply stores. These small contributions, along with many small donations from private individuals, stacked up to a successful race against a lawyer and a chemist.
She won by a landslide and started her two-year term in January.
Fowler guards her opinions on education reform and choice, instead often quoting the Constitution and research from such organizations as the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based research organization that favors school choice and opposes implementation of the Common Core academic standards.
She answers a variety of questions on accountability, religion, human sexuality and curriculum by saying local school boards, not the state or federal government, should make the bulk of decisions. And whenever possible, parents should shape their children’s education.
In her 10 months on the board, she’s voted in opposition to the majority more often than any other member. She views the state’s role in providing education as limited.
“Obviously the state has an obligation to provide a basic education. That is a constitutional requirement. That is typically done through the public school,” she said. “I would say a basic education is learning to read, write and do basic arithmetic, because you can learn everything else after you know those basic principles on your own if you have to.”
Education accountability, she said, should be driven by the parents, not state education standards. She said she favors a market-driven approach.
During her campaign, she said: “Parents have the God-given right and responsibility to direct their child’s education.” In an interview, she elaborated.
“Really the state doesn’t have a lot of responsibility in the other three options, [home schooling, charters and private schools] because the parents are the ones who have to choose what is the best education for their child. The state does not have a huge role in any of the other options, except perhaps charter because that’s also a government-run option.”
She’s been lauded by the most conservative state lawmakers as the champion opponent of Common Core, a nationally aligned curriculum adopted by the state board in 2010, designed to raise education achievement in the United States. Opponents view it as an invasion of privacy by government. Publicly, she is reserved in her comments about sexuality and religion, saying her opinion is irrelevant because those issues are decided on a local level.
“The local school board actually makes decisions regarding specific content,” Fowler said, adding that those issues are “best left up to the local school board.”
However, amongst friendly organizations she is more open. She was quoted by the Education Action Group Foundation that there are gay-rights and Marxist agendas at work in the public schools, and she cited unions for that.
She wants to assure “things are taught accurately and in the proper context. A lot of people are not aware of a lot of things that are being taught.”
She also is quoted by the EAG assaying that in “most public schools,” history lessons omit the founding of the nation and begin with the Civil War. “The history curriculum has been changed, and it’s no longer taught accurately. It’s been rewritten to suit an agenda.”
Mary Zappitelli, superintendent of Geneva schools in Ashtabula County, said she has corresponded with Fowler frequently since they first met at an education retreat.
“Last May, I took Sarah Fowler on a tour of my district,” Zappitelli said. “We discussed many concerns including funding and school security.” She has also attended one of our bi-weekly county superintendent meetings.”
From conversations with public districts, Fowler said she has concluded that “the ongoing issues seem to be the continual changing requirements from the state level and balancing budgets and such.”
Doug Livingston is a Beacon Journal staff writer. Lee Murray is a reporter for the NewsOutlet. TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron and media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).