Breaking with other Ohio K-12 superintendents, the leaders of a half-dozen Ohio career and technology centers last week offered support for a bill that would give the governor more direct control over the Ohio Department of Education.

The bill to merge the Education Department with higher education and workforce development is a priority for the House speaker, and is strongly backed by Gov. John Kasich — but by few education groups. Some privately wonder if there is some political back-scratching going on.

As the career technical superintendents told one committee why they supported the merger in House Bill 512 — a bill the Buckeye Association of School Administrators opposes — in the hearing room next door, technical centers were benefiting from an unusual legislative move.

That same morning, House Bill 166 was amended — or, more accurately, rewritten — giving technical centers perks they’d been seeking for more than a year.

The revised House Bill 166 categorizes technical centers as higher education institutions, allowing adults to qualify for the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, and giving the schools access to some state grant programs.

Both bills are sponsored by the same lawmaker: Rep. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, a member of House leadership.

Reineke and Will Vorys, lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Career Technical Superintendents, each said the timing was coincidence and the bills have no connection.

Reineke said he’s been working on career-tech issues for four years.

"We’re trying to help them help these adults get scholarships or grants so they can get retrained for the workplace. There’s absolutely nothing combining the two (bills)," Reineke said, adding he was offended anyone would suggest otherwise. "Career tech is one of my passions because we need these jobs so badly."

Outside of Reineke and Kasich administration officials, most of the testimony in favor of the merger bill over two weeks came from career centers: Pickaway-Ross, Tri-County, Delaware Area, Scioto County, Apollo (Allen County), Penta (Wood County), and Grant (Clermont County).

Meanwhile, traditional public education advocates — teachers, superintendents, school boards — along with home-school parents have testified against the proposal. Charter school supporters are divided, with the Fordham Institute supporting it and the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education opposed.

While career-tech superintendents have testified in favor of the merger, Jay Smith, director of legislative services of the Ohio School Boards Association, said he knows of no career-tech board that has passed a resolution supporting it. He said he’s talked to members who back his group’s opposition.

Before last week, House Bill 166 was considered dead legislation — its workforce development pieces passed as part of other bills.

But Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington, chairman of the House Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee, said he was approached recently by Reineke and Vorys asking to swap out House Bill 166 for new language.

Duffey said he was told the issue was non-controversial.

"Sometimes you should know better when people tell you that something is not controversial," he said.

Duffey said he shared the new proposal with groups including community colleges and the Inter-University Council, and they raised concerns.

"We have a lot of questions on the ramifications," said Tom Walsh, vice-president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

Technical centers fall under the Department of Higher Education but are not post-secondary institutions. Changing that would open up funding for new initiatives and show acceptance on the same level as community and technical colleges, said Bill Bussey, director of the Technical Center Division of the Ohio Association of Career Technical Superintendents.

Walsh said the bill raises questions about process, accreditation, reporting and tuition caps.

"It’s a pretty big, substantive change to define a whole new entity as public institutions of higher education," he said. "No one ever talked to us about this. It’s just raised a lot of questions about what’s their goal and what is the impact."

Duffey and others also are questioning the impact of broadening access to the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, the state’s only need-based financial aid.

"If you add 1,000 students to an ecosystem, then it changes the award amount to all the other students," he said.

Reineke said it all relates to his goals. "We’re just trying to retrain people for the workforce."

But passage of House Bill 166 is in doubt.

"Right now, I don’t think it has a very strong likelihood of getting out of committee," Duffey said.

Jim Siegel is a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch.