Well-Intentioned Ohio School Finance Plan Must Be Revised to Eliminate Savage Inequalities

After a decade of tax cuts brought by Governor John Kasich and a supermajority Republican Ohio Legislature,  Ohio—still dominated in the House, Senate and Governor’s mansion by Republicans—is considering a new school funding formula intended to address what have been glaring problems for the state’s public schools. The new plan is bipartisan. We all owe enormous thanks to Representatives Robert Cupp and John Patterson for their leadership.

Currently, only 107 (18 percent) of the state’s 610 school districts are receiving their calculated formula level of school funding from the state—an amount that supposedly represents what the state should contribute based on each school district’s capacity to raise local revenue. All the rest—503 school districts—are operating on guaranteed or capped funding.  We have reached a point—years and years after the last funding formula adjustment, where nobody can really explain how the state is dividing up its contribution through the formula.

The proposed Fair School Funding Plan is designed to consider each school district’s capacity to raise local revenue—with factors reflecting the district’s property tax base and the aggregate income of the residents.  And, we’ve been told, the new formula will distribute school funding based on the cost of what it takes to educate children—what experts identify as the cost of teachers, support staff, school operations, and school administration.

It is not yet possible to see how all this has been figured out, because the calculations and the numbers that were plugged into the calculations haven’t yet been released.  The new funding plan does get more school districts back inside a formula designed to address the number of children who live in the district, however, and supposedly to address the needs of those children. Of the state’s 610 school districts, only 100 will remain on a guarantee; 510 school districts will be back on the formula.

Conceptually all this seems positive. Except that when the computer runs of the funding for all of the state’s 610 school districts were released, something outrageous showed up.  Among those 100 Guarantee districts, which will receive the same state funding as they are receiving this year, are the state’s very poorest urban school districts, including Youngstown, Lorain, East Cleveland (said to be the nation’s fourth-poorest community), Dayton, Toledo, Lima, and Cleveland.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel highlights the evidence that Ohio’s proposed plan fails to address a key element in any state state school funding formula—equity: “The 52 districts with student poverty rates of at least 60% would get an average funding increase of $280 per pupil over two years…. Meanwhile, the 61 districts with poverty rates of less than 15 percent would get an average $392 per pupil… (T)he formula sends 15% of new funding to the wealthiest suburban districts, compared to 5% to major urban districts and 9% to the poorest rural districts.”

In a follow-up report, Siegel describes Jennifer Hogue of the Ohio School Boards Association explaining the new plan’s implications for the schools in Ohio’s racially segregated communities: “Hogue noted that of the 71 districts getting no new money next year, 19 are among the poorest in the state, and nearly 70 percent of the students in these districts are minorities.” Hogue adds: “We have very real concerns about how this proposal will impact students in poverty particularly those attending urban districts across the state.”

Currently, Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are identified by the state as in “Academic Distress,” a category that has put them under state takeover. Dayton is expected to join them next year. Cleveland is also under another form of state takeover based on its test scores.  At the same time as Ohio has been allowing its school funding formula to fade into dysfunction, the state has aggressively pursued punitive, high-stakes, test-based accountability.  Ohio grades its school districts (A–F) on a state report card and publishes the results. The branding has exacerbated suburban out-migration in the state’s metropolitan areas—encouraging more affluent families to choose A-rated exurbs and adding to economic segregation. Ohio awards EdChoice vouchers for private and religious school tuition to students in its F-rated schools, and it enables charter schools to open in those same school districts. And, finally, Ohio takes over the governance of the so-called “failing” school districts. In Youngstown and Lorain, both under state takeover for three years, the state appointed governance has not made a difference in test scores.

As one considers what the new formula’s numbers mean by visualizing what’s been happening in the state, one should consider that the state report cards and all the punishments have negatively branded urban districts and inner ring suburbs and encouraged families with means to move to growing exurbs around the state’s several big cities. The new formula awards funding based on a per-pupil count of students in any district, and it is the outer suburbs of Ohio’s cities which are growing.  The Dispatch‘s Siegel explains how all this is reflected in the proposed new school funding formula: “The top 10% of districts in enrollment growth over the past three years are getting about $300 more new money per pupil than the bottom 10%.”

The situation is very difficult in school districts like East Cleveland and Youngstown and sections of Cleveland and Dayton.  Here, parts of entire neighborhoods were devastated by the foreclosure crisis a decade ago. But the families who were forced to move out or double up did not methodically abandon entire sections of the city to make it easy for school districts to close schools and save costs. The children who remain in those neighborhoods have enormous needs, and these school districts must cope with the additional challenges of concentrated economic segregation and deepening poverty. The proposed school funding planners clearly have not grasped the economic devastation across Ohio’s cities.

The best description I can find of today’s challenge for Ohio is part of a book published in 2010 by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research: Organizing Schools for Improvement.  In this book Anthony Bryk, a sociologist, confirms what many people continue to deny: deep and concentrated neighborhood poverty makes it hard for children to thrive at school.  Bryk and his colleagues studied schools in the city of Chicago and identified a group of schools they identify as “truly disadvantaged”: “In Chicago, extreme poverty combines with racial isolation.”  In the 46 truly disadvantaged schools they identify: 100 percent of the students are African American; 96 percent of the children are low income; male unemployment is 64 percent, and median family income is $9,480.  “Specifically, one-fourth of children in foster care in Chicago were concentrated within 27 elementary schools, which represent only 5 percent of the system.” Bryk and his colleagues conclude: “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused, and so on.  Classroom activity can understandably get diverted toward responding to these manifest personal needs.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 164-173)

While no school funding plan is perfect and while the success of any plan depends on the continued commitment of a legislature to fund it adequately over time, one strategy that has been successful has been targeting of funding to the school districts with the most overwhelming needs.  In New Jersey, for example, the remedy in the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke targeted additional funding to thirty-one of the state’s poorest school districts.  These “Abbott” districts received extra funding, guaranteed pre-Kindergarten for all students, and social services.

In Ohio, on the other hand, politics seems to dictate that any added services be spread—at least to some degree—to all school districts.  For example, a month ago—wanting to support schools with what research shows are needed services by many families, Ohio’s new Governor Mike DeWine proposed a biennial budget that—on top of the new, proposed school funding formula—includes money to help schools provide wraparound social and medical services.  In his personal blog, former legislator Steve Dyer, explains:  “(I)n the 2019-2020 school year, DeWine provides $250 million more for poverty based aid in the form of wraparound services.  Then in the 2020-2021 budget, he adds another $50 million.  So at the end of the day, districts will have an additional $300 million two years from now to spend n these wraparound services.”

In Ohio, however, unlike New Jersey, politics ensures that everybody gets a little of the funding pie, even if that makes the pieces smaller for the school districts that more desperately need the funding.  As as Rich Exner explains for the Plain Dealer, Governor DeWine’s proposed program for wraparound social and medical services would include some funding for all 610 school districts: “(E)ach Ohio school district would receive a minimum of $25,000 the first year and $30,000 in year two… (M)oney would be distributed on a sliding scale, based on the percentage of children in poverty in each district.”  One wonders whether wealthy outer suburbs like Dublin, Hudson, and Solon really need to have dentists and physicians visit their schools regularly to provide services for the children.

It is difficult to know what will happen politically to Ohio’s recently proposed Cupp-Patterson school funding formula. The biggest problem, as the Dispatch‘s Siegel points out, may be the overall price tag: “Lawmakers would need an extra $1.1 billion over two years to fund the plan, which would be phased in over four years.”

Another challenge will be political biases that blame the state’s poorest Black and Brown communities for the economic problems which have derived from the collapse of manufacturing and the foreclosure crisis among other serious structural problems that have afflicted the state. In the Dispatch, Siegel quotes Jim Betts commenting on the fact that the new funding proposal awards nothing to the state’s school districts that have been taken over by the state for their so-called “academic distress.”  Betts, who led Ohio’s rich districts’ school funding advocacy coalition, the Alliance for Adequate School Funding, during the period of the DeRolph litigation, falls back on the old argument from Hoover Institution economist Eric Hanushek: that money really doesn’t matter in school funding.  Betts’ comment also reflects a racist bias that is widespread across Ohio and across the nation: “Just because a district is poor does not necessarily mean that it needs more money, because that (raises) the question: How much is enough? Is another $2,000 (per pupil) going to help East Cleveland? Probably not.”

In a 2013 blog post, Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker confronted Betts’ idea that money doesn’t matter: “I too often hear pundits spew the vacuous mantra – it doesn’t matter how much money  you have – it matters more how you spend it. But if you don’t have it, you can’t spend it. And, if everyone around you has far more than you, their spending behavior may just price you out of the market for the goods and services you need to provide (quality teachers being critically important, and locally competitive wages being necessary to recruit and retain quality teachers). How much money you have matters. How much money you have relative to others matters in the fluid, dynamic and very much relative world of school finance (and economics more broadly). Equitable and adequate funding matters.”

It has been a long time since I heard someone consider school funding from the point of view of Jonathan Kozol, whose words—in Trump’s America—seem even farther from our political realities today than they did in 1991 when, as he stared at the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Kozol wrote the concluding words in Savage Inequalities: “Standing here by the Ohio River, watching it drift west into the edge of the horizon, picturing it as it flows onward to the place three hundred miles from here where it will pour into the Mississippi, one is struck by the sheer beauty of this country, of its goodness and unrealized goodness, of the limitless potential that it holds to render life rewarding and the spirit clean.  Surely there is enough for everyone within this country.  It is a tragedy that these good things are not more widely shared. All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America.  Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly. (Savage Inequalities, p. 233)

Meryl Johnson, who represents District 11 on the Ohio State Board of Education, will interview Diane Ravitch on Johnson’s weekly radio show, It’s About Justice (WRUW 91.1 FM) next Saturday, April 13, 2019 at from 1:00 PM until 2:00 PM.  The program will be live-streamed at  https://wruw.org/.
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