The headline on Jim Siegel’s Columbus Dispatch article on March 19 proclaimed, “DeWine budget sets stage for Ohio House’s sweeping school funding revamp.” For those of us who know the urgent needs of Ohio’s 610 school districts after years of tax cuts under John Kasich and a state legislature for whom tax cutting still remains the dogma, the news raised our hopes for some relief—especially for the state’s poorest school districts.
But the school funding revamp didn’t happen.
Everything broke down when it became clear that the plan needed revising and there wasn’t really time, despite the good intentions of a bipartisan coalition behind what became known as the Cupp-Patterson Plan. It is not expected that the Ohio Senate will revise school funding or otherwise increase basic support for Ohio’s school districts when the budget process moves to that chamber.
Governor DeWine’s earlier budget proposal included an additional $550 million over the biennium to be distributed to school districts to support wraparound services for children living in poverty. It was supposed to be a sort of place holder to which the new school funding plan would be added. While the governor’s added $550 million investment is a good idea in a state where there is devastating Appalachian rural poverty and where there are more than a dozen school districts where urban poverty is concentrated, DeWine’s $550 million was never intended to serve as the only school funding increase in Ohio’s biennial education budget.
Then in the last week of March came the rollout of the new Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan. The mere release of the plan was groundbreaking, because the plan identified, measured, and explained an alarming decade-long school finance problem, a problem nobody had previously brought to the attention of the legislature or the public.
Representative Bob Cupp has worked diligently for school funding reform since the early 1990s when I first met him during his visit to our school district to learn about the school funding challenges in greater Cleveland and particularly its racially diverse Eastern suburbs. Cupp has, over the years, stood out as an Ohio Republican who embraces the state’s public responsibility to provide opportunity for each of its children through a sound education. Joining Cupp to lead the current drive for school finance reform has been a Democrat, John Patterson.
A large task force of public school leaders—superintendents and school treasurers—have worked with Representatives Cupp and Patterson over more than a year to analyze what the task force finally identified as a crisis: 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—82 percent— have had their state funding frozen for several years because the state has lacked the money to contribute what any decent school funding formula would provide.
For over two decades, a problem for Ohio’s public schools is that state school funding has been merely a budgetary residual. After the legislature and governor decided on the level of taxation needed to fund government services and created a revenue pie for state government, the budgetary process was pretty much about the size of the various pieces. Budgetary debates have not been directly related to the actual need for infrastructure, Medicaid services, colleges and universities, criminal justice and K-12 public education. Instead the discussion typically involves who gets bigger and smaller pieces of budgetary pies that tax cuts have made smaller and smaller through the years.
The Cupp-Patterson plan instead measures the resources necessary for schools to function well in terms of class size, support staff and other expenses like transportation and broadband connectivity. Then the plan corrects what ought to be the state’s contribution to its 610 school districts based on their local capacity to raise revenue—their local property taxing capacity as well as their aggregate family income that makes it possible for their residents to pass local school levies.
The Cupp-Patterson Plan did not make it into the House Budget.
The Cupp-Patterson Plan did not make it into the 2020 Ohio House education budget, passed on May 9. And its absence from the House Budget pretty much guarantees that it won’t make it into the Senate’s budget or an eventual House-Senate conference committee compromise.
After computer runs for the new school funding plan demonstrated that the new plan left many school districts serving the state’s poorest children with zero funding increases for next year, well-intentioned people worked to adjust the factors but were unable to do so quickly enough. In a Columbus Dispatch podcast, Why Is School Funding Still Broken?, Howard Fleeter, an expert on Ohio school finance, suggested that Ohio’s urban districts with deep and concentrated family poverty very likely need an added poverty adjustment of at least 30 percent more funding per-pupil than other school districts.
What is included for K-12 public education in the Ohio House Budget, passed on May 9?
The Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel explain that the House Budget adds “another $675 million… (for) K-12 education, directing much of the money to districts with higher poverty concentrations to help them pay for services such as mental health counseling and after-school programs.” That means that the House added $125 million to Governor DeWine’s proposed $550 million funding increase for wraparound social and medical services to help the state’s school districts serving a large number of poor children. That is all to the good. But remember that DeWine’s plan was never intended to constitute the body of the state’s public education budgetary increase for public schools. The House Budget, as passed, means that 82 percent of the state’s school districts will remain capped or on hold-harmless guarantee. They will receive the very same state allocation they were awarded last year, and the year before that, and in many cases several years before that.
Two tiny additional items in the House Budget do address another deplorable problem in Ohio public education policy. For many years, the state has embraced punitive accountability for its struggling school districts. Ohio uses aggregate standardized test scores to rate and rank school districts and individual schools on report cards that grade them, “A” through “F.” Under a bill fast-tracked through the legislature in the summer of 2015, the state takes over any district earning an “F” for three years running, and appoints an Academic Distress Commission, which hires a CEO to take over. The elected school board continues to exist but has no real power; the union contract is abrogated. The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain, taken over four years ago, have not improved their standardized test scores (the flawed yardstick Ohio uses to judge and rank its school districts). Both districts are experiencing a leadership crisis under their state-appointed CEOs. East Cleveland, the poorest school district in Ohio, is currently in the process of being taken over. Ten additional school districts are slated for state takeover in the next couple of years: Ashtabula, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, Euclid, Lima, Mansfield, North College Hill, Painsville. and Toledo. (This blog recently explored the serious problems with Ohio state school district takeovers.)
Several bills currently in the Legislature would repeal HB 70, the state takeover law. On May 1, the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach reported that HB 154 gained enough bi-partisan support to pass the Ohio House by an astounding bipartisan margin of 83-12. The House has emphasized its consensus that the state takeover law must be repealed by adding language to that effect in the House Budget. The Dispatch‘s Candisky and Siegel report briefly that the House Budget, “Eliminates the state school takeover process for chronically struggling school districts, replacing it with requirements for local planning and adjustments.”
The House Budget also includes language which would make the state report cards fairer and more consistent. Candisky and Siegel add that the House Budget, “Alters the state report card, changing how districts receive an overall grade. This would allow a few dozen districts to get higher grades.” Ohio ought to stop the punitive branding of its school districts with letter grades, especially as the state punishes school districts without increasing their funding, but if the state is going to grade schools and school districts, at least the methodology ought to be fair.
One again, the House Budget reduces the size of the overall state revenue pie for the next biennium.
The Ohio House has sent to the Senate a budget that laudably adds some money to support school districts serving poor children with wraparound social and medical services, but as the Cupp-Patterson Plan documents, the budget will leave 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—82 percent—massively underfunded. These districts will continue receiving state funds that are capped or held-harmless under guarantee. For a decade, Governor John Kasich and a super-majority Republican Legislature made the overall state revenue pie smaller by cutting income taxes. They also eliminated the estate tax and local school districts’ capacity to tax commercial inventories.
While on the revenue side this year, the Ohio House must be commended for reducing a controversial state business income-tax loophole, the state persists again this year with an overall income tax cut when the money ought to be invested in education and other urgent public needs. Candisky and Siegel explain that the House budget: “Eliminates the state income tax on up to $22,250 of income and reduces remaining tax brackets by 6.6 percent.” The House Budget, “Also scales back the tax exemptions currently enjoyed by pass-through business owners, rolling the deduction back from $250.000 to $100,000. Overall, tax changes net a $108 million tax reduction per year.”
One again through tax cuts, the Ohio House has passed a budget which leaves the state without enough revenue to pay for essential public services.