Will Ohio Senate Undermine Fair School Funding Plan By Burying Changes in Fine Print of the State Budget?

The Ohio House of Representatives is, thankfully, being persistent in trying to pass a new, adequate, and equitable public school funding formula. Ohio educators and parents will remember that on December 2 of last year, the Ohio House passed the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan by an overwhelming margin of 87-9, but the bill died at the end of the 133th legislative session, after the Ohio Senate Finance Committee refused to bring the plan to a vote.

On February 3, 2021, the Fair School Funding Plan was reintroduced in the 134th General Assembly as HB 1. On Tuesday, the plan was embedded in the House’s FY 2022-2023 proposed Ohio budget bill (House Bill 110).

The plan has been thoroughly vetted.  It was developed over several years by a large group of experts and stakeholders and then further improved to emphasize equity by additional experts during a year of revisions before the House considered the plan during 2020.

Why is revision of our state’s school funding plan so urgently important?  From the time of the founding of our nation, public education and the franchise have been understood as two central institutions at the heart of American democracy. Through Reconstruction and the fight for equality and civil rights in the mid-20th century, our society has made strides toward ensuring an educated citizenry and protecting the rights of all children, but we have never fully lived up to the promise of educational justice for all. For generations there has been resistance to funding the public schools that serve America’s poorest children in our cities and rural areas.

At the Ohio House Finance Committee’s final, December 2, 2020 hearing on on the proposed Fair School Funding Plan (before the House passed the plan last year), Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter presented testimony explaining that due to a long collapse in school funding, Ohio’s school funding formula has ceased to work: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.  In FY12 and FY13, Ohio employed the ‘Bridge’ formula which was not really a formula at all, instead basing funding on FY11 levels. From FY14 through FY19, Ohio did have a school funding formula; however, this formula suffered from several significant deficiencies. First the base cost was not based on any adequacy methodology, instead just utilizing per pupil amounts selected by the legislature. This approach is the very embodiment of ‘residual budgeting’ which was explicitly ruled unconstitutional in the March 1997 DeRolph ruling.”  Although the term “residual budgeting” sounds technical and complicated, what Fleeter means is that from FY 14 to FY 19, without considering such costs as teachers’ salaries, or technology, or transportation, or building maintenance, the Legislature simply set per-pupil state funding based on now much “residual” money the Legislature had left in the budget after funding all the other expenses of state government.

Today Ohio is one of the states that spends less per pupil on public schools that serve  poor and minority children. In an appendix to a September 4, 2019 report, Howard Fleeter explained: “Over the past decade, Ohio has systematically reduced funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children:

  • “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

Ohio’s constitution protects the right to free public education for all children. Like the school funding court cases in many states, DeRolph v. Ohio established that the Ohio Constitution protects adequate public school funding, equitably distributed. Ohio has for decades shirked this responsibility by overly relying on funding public schools with local property taxes, which are inherently unequal and perpetuate systemic patterns of lack of access and opportunity. This practice was declared unconstitutional in the DeRolph decision more than two decades ago but has not been rectified.

Further, Ohio’s constitution protects public funding for public schools, but it does not protect funding for school privatization in charter schools and through tuition vouchers for private schools. Despite that our state constitution does not provide for funding school privatization, Ohio has rapidly increased funding for private school tuition vouchers and charter schools while public school funding has languished. Yesterday, in his daily message, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding,  Bill Phillis profiled the current annul loss of public school funding to charter schools and vouchers in one large Ohio school district: “According to March 1 payment of SFPR Summary Worksheet Reports (ODE), one of Ohio’s school districts is receiving $367,753,129.99 in total Foundation Formula Funding, including additional aid from the state. The voucher deduction is $38,441,985.75 and the charter deduction is $169,483,488.26—a total of $208 million; hence, only 43% of the district’s state funds apply to the students being educated in the district.”

It is perfectly clear that Ohio urgently needs a new school funding formula. While it is encouraging that the Fair School Funding Plan has now been introduced as part of the state budget, I would have preferred that the plan had been fully considered as part of HB 1, a stand alone bill with extensive and transparent hearings. The Ohio Senate refused to consider this bill only four months ago, and there is every reason to believe the Senate leadership will try to slip more funding for charters and vouchers into the budget and less money for public schools. Further, the proposed budget includes an  unnecessary two percent tax cut—more of the same after years of tax cuts under former governor, John Kasich.

The framers of the Ohio Constitution understood public education as the center of the social contract; they believed that public schools epitomize our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens in a democratic experiment. They did not view education as part of a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect individual choice for each family. Tiny amendments—designed to expand charter schools and vouchers and inserted by Ohio state senators at the last minute into the fine print of previous budget bills—have relentlessly increased the Ohio Legislature’s investment in school privatization at the expense of the state’s public schools.

In the next two-and-a-half months, educators and public school advocates must vigilantly track adjustments and changes the Ohio Senate may attempt to make in the Fair School Funding Plan as the budget moves toward approval by the end of June.

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