Ohio’s Top Education Priority: Fully Fund Expected Phase-In of the Fair School Funding Plan

In the two months since the Ohio Legislature began its current session, I have heard very little serious legislative discussion about the state’s most urgent pending education policy: fully funding the continued phase-in of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan. Fully funding the Fair School Funding Plan must be a top priority in the state budget, to be passed by June 30, 2023.

Right now in Ohio, however, lawmakers are considering several other bills which would significantly undermine public education. Legislators are debating two different kinds of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schooling—both of which would siphon urgently needed dollars from the public school foundation program. Our state senators and representatives are also discussing a vast reshaping of education governance by moving the primary functions of the elected state board of education under the political control of the governor. And the Ohio House has proposed a state income tax cut which would make the state’s 610 public school districts more reliant on local property taxes.

Some background — Two years ago in the state’s FY 2022-FY 2023 state budget, the Ohio Legislature launched a new Fair School Funding Plan. It was designed to be phased in over six years—three biennial budgets—to fund the state’s public schools adequately and distribute state dollars equitably to ensure that students in poor as well as wealthy communities can thrive academically. The new formula was designed to identify and pay for the per-pupil cost of essential services needed by our state’s typical student and to add categorical funding to support students with special needs.

Two years ago, however, the Legislature embedded the Fair School Funding Plan into the state budget without establishing the new school funding formula in a stand-alone law. In June of 2021, the Legislature did basically fund the first two years of the Fair Funding Plan. Now as part of developing a new budget to be passed in June, 2023, the Legislature needs to add funding for the second step of the phase-in. Right now, Ohio has the two year beginning of a Fair School Funding Plan, but no promise that the legislature will continue funding the full, six-year phase-in.  A worry is that powerful Senate President Matt Huffman has expressed skepticism about the need to continue phasing in the plan.

Some Expert Advice — David Sciarra, a highly respected school finance attorney, who is retiring this month after serving as the Executive Director of the Education Law Center for 26 years, just published a paper explaining in detail why a school funding formula like Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan is of urgent importance. Sciarra would be appalled that Ohio’s legislature seems instead to prioritize expansion of private school vouchers and a reduction in state income taxes—policies so expensive they would likely make the full phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan impossible.

For decades before they instituted the Fair School Funding Plan, Ohio’s lawmakers had neglected their responsibility to our state’s students. In failing to provide adequate resources for public schools, Ohio was not alone. Sciarra explains: “America’s public schools are among the most inequitably funded of any nation in the industrialized world. The trail of this inequity leads directly to the doorsteps of state capitols. By far the most important—and impactful—expressions of a state’s commitment to public education are the formulas for school funding enacted by legislators and the level and allocation of revenue through those formulas in annual or biannual state budgets.” Clearly Sciarra would charge our current legislature in Ohio not to interrupt the continued full phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan.

Sciarra would be impressed that, to ensure that the new formula would be cost-based, the designers of the Fair School Funding Plan conducted research on the actual expenses faced by school districts: “Most state funding formulas.. are not based on the actual cost of delivering the resources necessary to give all students the opportunity to achieve a constitutional education.” “In most states, the money available to schools to spend on teachers, support staff and other essential resources from year to year is dependent on antiquated policies that tie funding levels to local property taxes. The result is immense disparities in funding and resources that mirror vast differences in income and property wealth—and political clout—from one community to another.” “These inequitable finance regimes are enacted into law by state legislatures. And they have the power to correct them.”  That is precisely what the Ohio Legislature set out to do in 2021, when it began phasing in the Fair School Funding Plan.

Sciarra identifies a problem with many state education funding formulas—and also the one big flaw in the implementation so far of Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan. Two years ago, lawmakers neglected to conduct a promised study to evaluate the real cost of addressing the additional needs in school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty. Legislators also began the phase-in of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a much slower rate than their phase-in of the rest of the plan. The Legislature needs to address both serious problems. Sciarra explains:

“To be equitable, school systems must be supported by a state funding formula explicitly designed to achieve a core objective: providing the resources required to deliver a rich and comprehensive K-12 curriculum to all students, as well as the additional resources required to address the extra-academic and academically related needs generated by student poverty, English learner status, disability, homelessness, and other factors.  A ‘weighted’ student funding formula, however, must be built upon research determinations of the actual costs of essential educational resources, not by political and budgetary considerations.” Sciarra adds: “Where legislators have responded by targeting increased funding to high need, low wealth districts, research now convincingly demonstrates that the boost in spending yields measurable improvements in achievement levels and other key outcomes for students, especially in schools isolated by race and socioeconomics.”

Sciarra concludes that every one of the states’ constitutions defines the provision of equal educational opportunity as a primary responsibility of state government:

“Whatever role Congress and local school boards may play, state legislatures and governors are legally obligated to deliver the equal educational opportunity to every child under their respective constitutions. It is state law, policy, rules, and enforcement practices that either advance—or impede—a child’s access to a constitutional education… Young people must have the opportunity to fully pursue their intellectual, academic, and vocational aspirations. This requires access to a quality, content-rich curriculum, delivered by qualified teachers in schools led by strong instructional leaders, and a safe and inclusive environment with sufficient in-school supports to address students’ academic, social and health needs. And we know that providing a constitutional education demands equitable school funding for all students and greater levels of funding to enable schools to respond to the additional needs generated by concentrated poverty, disability, lack of language proficiency, homelessness, and other challenges faced by so many of our children.” (emphasis in the original)

Ohio’s top education priority this year must be for the legislature to fully fund the second step of the six-year phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan.  Legislators also need to correct the plan to better support school districts serving many of our state’s poorest children.

Ohio’s public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—serve 1.6 million students. Unlike privatized alternatives, public schools can balance the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students.


New Report: When Legislators Expand Vouchers, They Divert Dollars Desperately Needed in Public Schools

Politicians promoting publicly funded school vouchers to pay for private education tell us that increasing state spending on vouchers—whether old-fashioned private school tuition vouchers, tuition tax credit vouchers, or education savings account universal vouchers—won’t take money away from the public schools that serve the mass of American children. This is a case of pure political deception. Flat-out lying.

The Fiscal Consequences of Private School Vouchers, a new report from Public Funds, Public Schools—a project of the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center—addresses what it costs states to fund vouchers for private schooling and specifically what it costs the public schools themselves as states siphon out money for the vouchers.  Its authors are Samuel E. Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and his colleague Steven J. Koutsavlis.

Abrams and Koutsavlis begin: “Over half the states and the District of Columbia have enacted some type of voucher program. This report explores how voucher programs and spending have evolved in seven states that have operated these programs long enough to reflect on their track records: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin… In each of these states, the number of vouchers distributed climbed sharply from 2008 to 2019… At the same time… these voucher states’ efforts to fund public schools—which serve a significant majority of students—have declined. The portion of state gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to funding primary and secondary public education in all of the states we reviewed decreased, despite the fact that public school enrollment generally increased over the same period.” (emphasis in the original)

The number of students taking publicly funded vouchers for private schooling has increased rapidly: “The number of students using vouchers in the fall of 2012 was 212,000.  By 2021, that number had topped 600,000. While that sum in a country with nearly 50 million students in public PK-12 schools is small, the trend is significant…. The programs are expensive to operate, with studies showing they typically cost more per student than public schools. And many of the nation’s public schools remain chronically underfunded although they serve the vast majority of the nation’s children.”

Although politicians who promote vouchers often say that educating students with vouchers is cheaper, Abrams and Koutsavlis show why this is a lie: “The claim that it costs less to educate students with private school vouchers than in public schools ignores numerous realities. Voucher programs shift key expenses to parents; often subsidize private tuition for families who would never have enrolled in public schools; do not dilute fixed costs for public education systems, and concentrate higher-need, more-costly-to-educate students in already underfunded public schools.”

And voucher programs send students to schools where their rights are not protected: “(D)ata show that voucher programs exacerbate racial segregation. Moreover, private schools accepting vouchers are not subject to many of the anti-discrimination laws that protect students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and other vulnerable groups, who may—sometimes unknowingly—give up their rights when they move to private schools.”  Further: “Private schools participating in voucher programs are generally not subject to the same regulatory standards as public schools.”

The report describes the fiscal consequences of voucher expansion in each of the seven states, for example in Florida: “No state comes close to Florida in the allocation of public funds to private schools.”  Florida has a number of voucher programs; the authors focus on the three largest: “We focus here on the first three voucher programs—the McKay, Gardiner and Tax Credit Scholarship Programs.  In 2019, these served approximately 151,000 students.  This total represented 5.4 percent of the state’s 2.8 million PK-12 students.  In fiscal year 2008, total spending in Florida for its initial tax credit and conventional voucher programs amounted to $241,219,945. By fiscal year 2019, total spending for these two programs and the Gardiner ESA program had reached $996,257,636, an annual growth rate of 13.8 percent. While Florida increased its spending on these three programs by 313 percent from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2019, the state decreased its per-pupil funding for public education over this time period by 12 percent… This decline in per-pupil funding in Florida cannot be attributed to economic duress.  It coincided with a 3.4 percent annual growth rate in GDP for the state from 2008 to 2019…. In terms of educational effort, measured as the percentage of state GDP allocated to PK-12 funding, this decline shows Florida to be retreating significantly in its commitment to public education at the same time it substantially increased its funding of private schooling.”

In every one of the seven states, the report examines the rapidly growing investment of tax revenues into vouchers and the concurrent drop in public school spending.  Abrams and Koutsavlis conclude: “The pattern of education spending in these seven voucher states is unmistakable. Private school voucher programs are initially proposed as limited in size and scope, then grow as existing programs are expanded, and/or additional voucher programs are established.”

But as the vouchers grow, legislators’ fiscal support for public education drops: “As states transfer millions of dollars to private hands, there are fewer available state resources for projects that serve the public good, from mass transit to public parks, libraries, and schools.” And yet, “Voucher programs, even with significant expansion during the last one to two decades, still serve only a small percentage of the nation’s children.”

Ohio House Imperils Public School Revenues with a Proposed State Tax Cut for the Rich

Funding for public education is under siege this year in the gerrymandered, supermajority Republican Ohio Legislature.  There has been considerable discussion of two primary threats: the danger that the Legislature will choose not to continue phasing in the second of three funding increases that define a new Fair School Funding Plan, and a large and expensive expansion of vouchers.

But a third potential peril for public schools emerged last week: an Ohio House plan to eliminate the state’s graduated income tax and replace it with a flat tax while eliminating a state reimbursement to school districts that reduces local property taxes.  All this to produce a tax cut for the state’s richest citizens.

The Continued Phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan?

In June of 2021, the Legislature funded the first two years of the Fair School Funding Plan as part of the two-year state budget.  Now, in 2023, in the Fiscal Year 2024-Fiscal Year 2025 state budget, the Legislature needs to add funding for the second step. The continued phase-in of the new school funding formula may be in jeopardy.

The plan was carefully designed to fund the state’s public schools adequately and to distribute state funding equitably once it is fully phased in.  It would ensure that students in poor as well as wealthy communities can thrive academically. Based on funding the per-pupil cost of essential services needed by our state’s typical student and adjusted to add categorical funds to support services for students with special needs, the new Fair School Funding Plan was designed to be phased in over six years—three biennial budgets.  While the Ohio Legislature embedded funding for the first two years of the plan in the state budget, our lawmakers failed to establish the new formula in a stand-alone law. It would be unfair, said Senate President Matt Huffman, to tie the hands of future legislatures because nobody can predict the economic constraints on future revenues. This year the Governor favors fully funding the second step in the phase-in of fairer school funding, but it is not clear whether the powerful Senate President prioritizes fully funding the next step of the plan.

The Legislature also needs to correct one flaw in the Fair School Funding Plan’s initial phase-in. Lawmakers neglected to conduct a promised cost study to evaluate the needs of school districts serving many children in poverty, and they began the phase-in of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a much slower rate than their phase-in of the rest of the plan. The Legislature should correct these serious problems.

Expansion of Vouchers?

While legislative debate about vouchers has not yet begun, bills to expand or launch expensive private school vouchers have been introduced in both legislative chambers.  The Governor has proposed expanding the already massive EdChoice voucher program, and the Senate will debate this expansion as Senate Bill 11.  The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock explains that right now under the current EdChoice program, “Families are eligible for EdChoice scholarships by either living in the boundaries of a low-performing school or by household income. Currently a family of four can qualify for state money if the household income is at or below $69,375, or 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines…” Under the proposed SB 11, “The limit would increase to 400% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which would be $111,000 for a family of four….”  Senator Huffman has bragged that the expansion would create an almost universal voucher program.

The House will consider a different kind of voucher: a Backpack Bill—an education savings account universal voucher—in what is to be introduced as House Bill 11.

The Newest  Threat: A Proposed Tax Cut for the Wealthy at the Expense of the Public Schools

A third dangerous threat for Ohio’s 610 public school districts (and very likely a challenge to the full phase-in of funding of the Fair School Funding Plan) would be the passage of Ohio House Bill 1, the substitution of a flat tax for Ohio’s current graduated income tax. The Ohio House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing on House Bill 1 on February 28th, and the tangled, scary details of what’s in this bill are finally becoming clearer.

The Statehouse News Bureau‘s Karen Kasler reports: “Lawmakers got their first look at a bill that could create a flat state income tax and make major property tax changes—while potentially costing schools and local governments more than a billion dollars.  House Bill 1… is the top priority of House Speaker Jason Stephens. Local governments and school districts are estimated to lose $1.2 billion annually to pay for the 2.75% flat tax and the property tax changes in House Bill 1….”

The Ohio House says it will pay for its proposed statewide tax cut by eliminating a state reimbursement to municipalities and school districts called the 10 percent rollback. The Plain Dealer’s Jeremy Pelzer explains: “Ohio House Republicans’ high-priority bill to flatten the state income tax…  would mean a slight tax cut for the middle class but much bigger savings for wealthier taxpayers… HB1 would make up for the lost income-tax revenue by ending $1.2 billion per year in state property tax rollbacks. That is state money given to local governments, such as school districts, cities, libraries….” Since 1972, the state has paid directly to school districts and other local government bodies an amount equal to 10% of property taxes owed for residential and agricultural properties. This reduces the amount owed by the taxpayers by that amount and currently results in annual direct state payments to local governments of $1.2 billion of which $800,000 is paid to local school districts.

Howard Fleeter, Ohio’s school funding guru at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, published two short papers last week to explicate the details of the proposed new flat tax in HB 1.  In the first of these publications, Fleeter explains: “Because the 10% rollback means that the state pays roughly 10% of each residential and agricultural taxpayer’s (local) property taxes, elimination of the rollback will automatically increase every residential and agricultural taxpayer’s property taxes by the amount of their rollback.”

However, given the Ohio Legislature’s aversion to anything that would appear to be a tax increase, HB1 includes another tax policy gimmick.  Property taxes are currently assessed based on 35% of market value.  HB 1 would reduce this to 31.5% (a 10% reduction), thereby lowering the taxable value of each property by 10% and effectively offsetting for taxpayers most of the impact of the elimination of the tax rollback.  The legislation’s intent is clearly to shift the cost of paying for the income tax reduction from property taxpayers to local governments.  Local school districts would lose $800 million annually.

But the meaning of HB 1 is far more complicated and, in fact, not a bit clear without further analysis from experts on Ohio law.  The most serious question is how HB 1 would intersect with the long-standing  residential and agricultural property tax reduction law, House Bill 920, which was embedded into the Ohio Constitution in 1980. Fleeter explains further: “(T)he impact of HB 1 is clouded by the presence of the property tax limitation commonly known in Ohio as HB 920.  In 1976… following very rapid inflation in home prices, Ohio enacted HB 920, one of the most stringent property tax limitations in the country. The goal of House Bill 920 was to insulate homeowners from the effects of inflationary increases in their property. House Bill 920 aspired to accomplish this goal by introducing ‘tax reduction factors,’ which were reductions in voted property tax rates designed to adjust the tax rate downward when property increased in value after property reappraisal… These adjusted tax rates are referred to as ‘effective millage rates.'” Parents walking the streets promoting local property tax operating levies for their school districts have memorized how to explain the need for yet another school levy: “House Bill 920 means that past levies will always produce the same revenue for our school district as on the day each levy passed. To enable our school district to keep up with inflation, we have to pass another levy.”

In a second publication, Fleeter examines two possible results for school districts and for agricultural and residential property owners of the potential intersection of a new House Bill 1 with the old House Bill 920.  Both scenarios will ultimately make school districts more reliant on local property taxes.

  1. If “HB 920 does not apply… schools and local governments will lose local revenue… compromising their ability to provide local services.” The full cost of the revenue loss will fall on the school districts and local governments, forcing them to ask voters to approve additional property tax levies to preserve existing levels of service.
  2. If it is determined that HB 920 will in fact adjust the effective millage upward to assure that school districts’ and local governments’ revenues from residential and agricultural property taxes remain at the same level as on the date of levy passage, there will be no revenue loss to schools and local governments. However, as Fleeter explains, “property taxpayers will experience an (automatic) increase in taxes that will be roughly the same as that which would have occurred as a result of the elimination of the 10% rollback and which the reduction in the assessment percentage is trying to forestall.”

In essence, either way, the Legislature would be replacing Ohio’s graduated income tax with a flat tax and paying for the resulting loss of state revenue with higher local property taxes. There is considerable irony in this proposal.  In Ohio, twenty-six years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court declared the state’s school funding unconstitutional due to “overreliance on local property taxes,” a condition which has left Ohio’s property-poor school districts desperate for resources while their wealthy, exurban neighbors can fund their schools with ease. That condition remains and will only be exacerbated if HB 1 should be enacted by the legislature this year.

The language of HB 920 is included in the Ohio Constitution.  It is not clear at this time when a determination will be made on how HB 920 would impact the changes proposed in HB 1.

What Will We Lose if Public Schools Are Privatized?

In our gerrymandered statehouses, school voucher bills of various sorts are being fast tracked. Koch money, dark money, so-called think tanks in the State Policy Network, and big advocacy organizations like Bradley, Heritage and Goldwater are behind all this activity which we—mere parents and teachers, and citizens—can’t seem to beat.

It all feels pretty hopeless, even though researchers show us that kids don’t generally really thrive when they take a voucher to escape their public schools.  And it feels more hopeless because even the most rudimentary arithmetic tells us that if the legislature subtracts a whole lot of money for vouchers from the state education budget, there’s going to be a lot less money left for the public schools which serve 50 million of our children and adolescents.

Why, despite that the battle seems overwhelming, must we be relentless in our advocacy?  What do we have to lose if our states divert massive funds out of our public schools to new or expanded voucher programs?

Today, although much of our politics is driven by anger and language that divides us and pits us against one another, the principles of democracy itself require that we protect our public schools.  Here are philosophers, constitutional experts and historians who remind us why universally accessible and publicly accountable education is essential.

We can start with philosopher John Dewey, who defined public education not as a commodity to be chosen by each individual family or any particular faith community, but instead as the institution that defines our society’s obligation for the common good: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, 1899, p. 1)

Political philosopher Benjamin Barber’s defines precisely how only the public schools can protect each child’s and each family’s rights: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

In The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court and the Battle for the American Mind, constitutional scholar Justin Driver traces the centrality of public education as the site of more debate in the U.S. Supreme Court than any other institution. Why? Driver explains that conflicts about our society’s  most basic principles play out in the setting of our public schools: “The first reason that schools should be deemed our most significant theaters of constitutional conflict is owed to the sheer magnitude of public elementary and secondary education. Today more than fifty million students attend public schools in the United States, and in order to function they require a few million adults to serve as teachers, administrators, and support staff… Second, the school’s great significance in our constitutional order stems from the fact that cases arising in this setting offer an excellent prism for examining the preceding one hundred years of American history, as the cultural anxieties that pervade the larger society often flash where law and education converge… Third… cases arising from the schooling context involve many of the most doctrinally consequential, hotly contested constitutional questions that the Supreme Court has ever addressed—including lawsuits related to sex, race, crime, safety, liberty, equality, religion, and patriotism… The final reason that the public school should be viewed as the preeminent site of constitutional interpretation is that the Supreme Court itself has repeatedly, and convincingly highlighted the importance of that venue for shaping attitudes toward the nation’s governing documents. (The Schoolhouse Gate, pp. 9-12)

Walter Feinberg, a philosopher of education, reminds us that our pluralistic society requires students to understand and respect the rights of their peers who represent different cultures. The only schools that can foster such respect are schools that bring together students students from across the barriers posed by economics, race, ethnicity and religion: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories.’” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, p. 232) (emphasis in the original)

Constitutional historian and law professor, Derek Black further explicates the school privatization debate as a threat to a set of values historically embodied in public education, and he asks us to become more articulate in defining these principles: “Increasingly missing, if not entirely absent, is any discussion of education’s purpose and values—reinforcing democracy and preparing citizens to participate in it. What they (privatizers) miss is that charters and vouchers, for instance, involved an entirely different set of premises about education—and for that matter an entirely different set of premises about government… (A)t its core, the choice movement is not really about improved educational opportunity. It is about ideology—an ideology that is not about democracy and public education values as we know them…. So what is that ideology? First they think of education as a commodity…  Bad purchases, false advertising, and defective products are just part of the process of moving toward better results over time. The market, they say, will sort it all out in the end… Yet what those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education. As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement… The radical individualist-libertarian movement is stoking the dissatisfaction of a relatively diffuse and diverse group of individuals to push its own agenda… These fundamental challenges to public education force us to ask whether public education can survive once again, and if it does not, will democracy be irreparably damaged?”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 233-244)

We can return briefly to Benjamin Barber, who punctures the ideologues’ argument that vouchers denote freedom for parents: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

Like Derek Black, Bill Mathis, former managing director of the National Education Policy Center, considers the role of public schools through our nation’s history: “When the destruction of civil war had to be mended, they put down their weapons and built a school. When technological change made their jobs obsolete and they had to learn new skills, they went to their common school. When new sciences changed their knowledge of the universe, they taught them in their school. When the values of democracy required learning about the Constitution, laws, and humanity, they turned to the schools. Today the message remains clear and constant. If we are to fulfill and preserve the promises of our Constitution and our communities, we must ennoble our public schools. We must cherish them for all of our children, for the welfare of society and for the sustenance of democracy.” (“In Times of Crisis, Why We Need Public Schools,” in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 9)

As we push back against the campaign to privatize our public schools, it is essential to consider and speak up about what’s important about our nation’s widespread system of schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public. While we must work to keep improving our public schools to ensure greater equality of opportunity, they remain the optimal educational institution for the investment of our efforts and tax dollars.  Public schools can balance the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students.  School privatization cannot move our society closer to those goals.

Why Public School Supporters Must Not Give Up the Fight Against School Vouchers

An enormous body of research demonstrates that publicly funded private school voucher schemes divert essential funding from public schools and also ultimately undermine the education of the children who take vouchers.  To the state legislators driving the ideologically designed bills being fast tracked today, however, the evidence doesn’t seem to matter. Here are all the reasons those of us who prize our public schools should push back against the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools.

In a new piece for The Nation, the authors of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain: “(S)chool voucher plans are a raw deal not just for public schools and the students who attend them but also for taxpayers. Programs like the one jammed through by the Republican legislature in Iowa… stand to immediately transfer massive amounts of cash directly from state treasuries to the families that least need it. While proponents, like Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, sold the plan as a way to give choices to poor and middle-class families, the program will chiefly subsidize the parents who already send their kids to private schools. The cost of that subsidy is significant—an estimated $340 million each year once the plan is fully phased in—and will be borne by the 500,000 students who attend the state’s underfunded public schools.  And it’s not just in Iowa that Republicans are pulling off this reverse Robin Hood maneuver. In Arizona, where lawmakers recently made all students eligible for school vouchers, 75 percent of the students who applied for the new subsidy never attended public school…  While earlier voucher programs, like the one adopted in Milwaukee more than 30 years ago, were limited to families enrolled in public schools, and came with strict income qualifications, the plans being adopted now dispense with any such limits….”  The real goal is always a universal voucher open to all.”

In Ohio, the recently proposed Senate Bill 11 would vastly expand the state’s already enormous EdChoice voucher program. The Plain Dealer’s Jeremy Pelzer reports: “Right now, EdChoice scholarships are open to families who either live near a low-performing public school or have a household income at or below $69,375, or 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. DeWine’s budget plan would raise that financial limit to 400% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, or $111,000 for a family of four.  Such a change would make vouchers almost, though not completely, universal, which would create a major shift in what Ohio’s education looks like.”

As part of their justification of their proposed 2023, EdChoice voucher expansion, Ohio lawmakers are falling all over themselves to praise a new pro-voucher study conducted by two Ohio State University professors for the Thomas Fordham Institute, one of the state’s pro-privatization advocacy groups. Not surprisingly the new report, published on Fordham’s website, promises that expanding the state’s voucher program won’t hurt the state’s public schools that serve 1.7 million students.

Last week, The National Education Policy Center, whose affiliated academic experts review research reports conducted for think tanks to promote their pet policies, asked Joshua Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University to review Fordham’s report on the impact of Ohio vouchers.  Cowen summarizes his critique of Fordham’s report: “(W)hile the report is broadly methodologically sound for the narrow questions it poses, the questions it asks are out-of-date with respect to current concerns raised by voucher critics, which focus on substantially decreased student achievement among students using vouchers. The report also relies on more permissive standards for statistical inference than peer-reviewed articles would typically allow. Moreover, the report’s Foreword, written by Fordham staff, frames it as an effort to provide new data for privatization advocates rather than respond to legitimate concerns raised by voucher critics.  The Foreword dismisses criticisms as ‘Chicken Little’ and ‘sky-is-falling’ histrionics….”

Cowen explains: “The report’s findings narrowly provide the rationale for its conclusions. Two important caveats to that support are: first, that the initial finding— (public school) enrollment declines of approximately 10-15 percent per district—drives the other three findings, which are simply the result of which and how many students left public schools. And second, that the finding of neutral revenue impact rests entirely—and the report acknowledges this—on the fact that the voucher program itself has no direct impact on the ability for local districts to raise revenue (say, through tax referenda or attraction of a wealthier tax base).”  That last point is prescient, because the 25-year-old DeRolph school funding decision declared Ohio’s long-standing overreliance on local property taxes for funding schools to be unconstitutional.

Cowen further criticizes the report’s conclusion that the EdChoice voucher program has improved overall public school achievement: “Average district achievement improved not because district performance grew but because lower scoring students left the districts—a fact that the authors acknowledge on page 21.” Cowen adds: “(T)he report uncovers a problematic finding that district exits among economically disadvantaged students—especially those scoring lower on exams—are driving upticks in average district achievement. These are precisely the children who are served poorly by voucher programs, and they do not stay long when they enter a voucher school. Rather, low-income, low-scoring voucher enrollment is a revolving door in and out of private schools. What the report implies is that public district achievement went up because particularly low-scoring students every year were cycling into the voucher program. That is not a good thing, given what we know about how well they do once they get to non-public schools.” (emphasis in the original)

Another obvious problem with Fordham’s new study is its allegation that the current EdChoice program has not contributed to racial segregation. Steve Dyer, a public schools advocate, blogger, and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, challenges that particular conclusion in Fordham’s report: “The study compares the racial makeup of voucher students with the statewide racial makeup of Ohio students.” Dyer points out that racial segregation is a district-by-district condition; the state’s overall racial makeup is quite irrelevant to what may be happening within each of the state’s 610 school districts. Dyer explains: “There are 95 districts that lose 10 students or more to EdChoice. In 76 of those districts, accounting for 87% of all vouchers given through the program, a higher percentage of white students take vouchers than… (the percentage of white students) in that district. The average difference between (the percentage of) white students taking vouchers and (the percentage of) white students in those 76 districts was 76.2%. That means that in the districts where 87% of voucher students come from, voucher recipients are 76.2% more likely to be white than their public school counterparts.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Two hundred Ohio school districts have now joined the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit, which seeks to have Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program declared unconstitutional. Dyer confirms the lawsuit’s claim that EdChoice vouchers exacerbate racial segregation.

Acknowledging today’s well-funded, ideologically driven attempt across the states to drive the school voucher legislation through Republican state legislatures, last week Joshua Cowen enumerated what current research demonstrates about serious damage wrought by the widespread expansion of vouchers across the states: “First, vouchers mostly fund children already in private school… Second… Although a few tiny studies from the late 1990s and early 2000s showed small gains in test scores for voucher users, since 2013, the record is dismal… Third… the typical private school in line for a voucher handout isn’t one of the elite private schools…. The typical voucher school is what I refer to as a sub-prime provider…. The fourth pattern is related: kids flee those sub-prime schools… Fifth comes the issue of transparency and oversight… If we’re going to use taxpayer funds on these private ventures, we need to know what the academic results are… Finally… Imagine you simply knew that written into the legislation for voucher programs is the explicit right of private schools to turn down any child they wanted to reject so long as something about that child varied from the school’s so-called ‘creed.'”  Cowen adds: “And then there is the simple fact that groups like the Bradley Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the Kochs (are) all major players in voucher research and advocacy.”

David DeMatthews, professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas and David S. Knight, professor of school finance at the University of Washington remind supporters of public schooling that their advocacy is more important than ever during the wave of new voucher legislation across the states: “Americans from all backgrounds have fought to gain access to public schools, including freed slaves, immigrants, and people with disabilities. These struggles have led to a free universal public education system that propels each child into our democracy, communities and economy… Vouchers jeopardize all of this because they transfer money from public schools to individual parents through grants, savings accounts or scholarships to pay private school tuition. It is a system where self-interest replaces the common good, culminating in separate education systems for children living on the same street in the same community.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Other Scholars Respond as Ron DeSantis Whitewashs African American Studies

In a powerful NY Times column, the director of the Harvard University Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. places Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at the center the resurgent welling up of racism in America.

Dr. Gates explains that DeSantis’s intervention in the adoption of a College Board AP Curriculum in African American Studies, “falls squarely in line with a long tradition of bitter, politically suspect battles over the interpretation of three seminal periods in the history of American racial relations:  the Civil War;  the 12 years following the war, known as Reconstruction;  and Reconstruction’s brutal rollback, characterized by its adherents as the former Confederacy’s ‘Redemption,’ which saw the imposition of Jim Crow segregation, the reimposition of white supremacy and their justification through a masterfully executed propaganda effort.”

DeSantis’s attempts to eliminate “diversity, equity, and inclusion” from Florida’s colleges and universities and his efforts to intimidate the College Board to revise its proposed Advanced Placement class in African American Studies according to the racist demands made by himself and his staff are blatant examples of DeSantis’s appeal to white supremacy as a political strategy.

It is telling that after negotiations with DeSantis’s staff, the College Board removed the word “systemic” as a descriptor for racism in America. The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson explains what happened to the word “systemic” as the College Board developed its new curriculum for an AP African American Studies class: “The College Board, which oversees the AP program denies that it diluted the African American studies course in response to complaints from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) or his allies. But a senior College Board official now acknowledges the organization was mindful of how ‘systemic’ and certain other words in the modern lexicon of race in America would receive intense scrutiny in some places. ‘All of those terms were going to be challenging,’ said Jason Manoharan, vice president for AP program development.”

To say that racism is systemic is a way to point out that racism is more serious and more pervasively detrimental than mere personal prejudice. For example, in The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein documents a history of systemic housing discrimination—insurance redlining and the denial of FHA loans, for example—policies which have historically reduced housing opportunity for African American families. And constitutional scholar and education historian Derek Black points out that school funding is systemically unequal: “Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools.”

Anderson reports: “The February 2022 version (of the College Board’s proposed curriculum) declared that students should learn how African American communities combat effects of ‘systemic marginalization.’ An April update paired ‘systemic’ with discrimination, oppression, inequality, disempowerment and racism. A December version said it was essential to know links between Black Panther activism and ‘systemic inequality that disproportionately affected African Americans.’ Then the word vanished. ‘Systemic,’ a crucial term for many scholars and civil rights advocates, appears nowhere in the official version released Feb. 1. This late deletion and others reflect the extraordinary political friction that often shadows efforts in the nation’s schools to teach about history, culture, and race.”

In his column last week, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. compares Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s efforts to whitewash history to the efforts of Mildred Lewis Rutherford, “a descendant of a long line of slave owners.” Rutherford published a pamphlet in 1920, “A Measuring Rod to Test Textbooks, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries,” to help educators ban any books “which do not accord full justice to the South.” She wanted students to learn that slavery itself “was an education that taught the negro self-control, obedience, and perseverance.”

Dr. Gates concludes: “Is it fair to see Governor DeSantis’s attempts to police the contents of the College Board’s AP curriculum in African American Studies in classrooms in Florida solely as little more than a contemporary version of Mildred Rutherford’s Lost Cause textbook campaign? No. But the governor would do well to consider the company that he is keeping… While most certainly not embracing her cause, Mr. DeSantis is complicitous in perpetuating her agenda.”

Dr. Gates is not the only scholar who has expressed outrage and concern about Governor DeSantis’s apparent determination to omit part of our history from his state’s public schools. Last week, in a letter to David Coleman, the CEO of the College Board, more than 1000 faculty “who teach, write, research and lead in the areas of African American and Black Studies” protested the changes made during this year to the new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.  Here is some of what these academics wrote:

“The College Board has now acknowledged that the Florida Department of Education… sought to influence the course not because of scholarly concerns or pedagogical standards but because that body was acting as a ‘political apparatus.’ The College Board’s admission that it removed the mention of concepts like ‘systemic marginalization’ and ‘intersectionality’ because they had become ‘politicized’ only serves to reward that same political apparatus… African American Studies is the study of the persistence of anti-Blackness and the connections between historical and contemporary efforts to resist structural racism… Finally, the censorship of foundational content was not limited to course concepts, themes and scholars alone. Course goals and learning outcomes were also revised to suggest that the course was not intended for students to assess ‘real world problems,’ ‘systemic marginalization,’ or to evaluate the ‘past, present, and future implications’ of major social movements…”

Can You Believe It? In Ohio, the Science of Reading Has Been Proposed as Part of the Governor’s Budget

The battle over the “science of reading” was formally launched a couple of weeks ago in Ohio as part of Governor Mike DeWine’s budget proposal. The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reports: “In introducing his two-year budget proposal late last month, DeWine planted his flag with the so-called ‘science of reading’ camp that requires students to break down words into parts and sound them out and incorporate phonics and vocabulary lessons. His budget proposal contains $162 million over the next two years to get the science of reading instructional approach into all of Ohio’s public schools.”

My biggest concern about the die-hard promoters of the “science of reading” is that they utterly neglect the role of experienced public school teachers. Lobbyists promote the idea that kids learn to read according to whatever reading program or curriculum their school district purchases. The politicians listen to the lobbyists instead of the teachers who have been trained to teach reading. It has become an ugly habit here in Ohio for our political leaders to disdain and blame teachers.

Both of my children experienced formal reading instruction in the first grade class of Marlene Karkoska in a public elementary school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Miss Karkoska did include phonics in her reading instruction, but she also included lots of fun.  And in that elementary school, the students spent a period in the school library every week when Carol Lee May, a certified school librarian, read them books and helped them choose books that fed their own curiosity and interests. As students got older, there were also all-school reading projects like the time everybody read and talked about Brian Jacques’ Redwall fantasy adventure series. As a mom, I got tired of hearing about the villains in these novels—rats, foxes, ferrets, weasels, and stoats—but the students loved the suspense. My son and his friends spent a lot of time speculating about how the books would work out in the end, and at the same time they confronted a relatively advanced vocabulary. There was some phonics in the reading curriculum, but the rest of all this reading activity was led by teachers who knew how to motivate students to read and read some more.

In Ohio there has been considerable lobbying going on about Governor DeWine’s proposed new reading curriculum. The Plain Dealer‘s Hancock describes political pressure from Dee Bagwell Haslam, who with her husband, Jimmy, runs the Haslam Sports Group, “which owns the Cleveland Browns and Columbus Crew soccer team.” The Haslams “have given DeWine and (Lieutenant Governor) Husted’s campaign over $115,000 since 2017….” Dee Bagwell Haslam also serves on the board of Jeb Bush’s education think tank, ExcelinEd, which promotes not only the Science of Reading curriculum but also the Third-Grade-Reading Guarantee, which mandates holding kids back in third grade if they have not scored “proficient” on the state’s third-grade achievement test.  Last year, after the Ohio House voted 82-10 to stop the requirement that students be held back and the State Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution to end the Third Grade Guarantee, the Ohio Senate neglected to take up the bill, which died at the end of the legislative session.

Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd is by no means the only lobby behind such policies. The Thomas Fordham Institute, a prominent lobbyist at the Ohio Legislature, also promotes the science of reading. On Tuesday of last week, one of Fordham’s policy analysts, Jessica Poiner predicted what she believes is the policy the legislature will pass and pay for with the money in DeWine’s budget for the science of reading. I suspect that Poiner understands DeWine’s reading plan because the Fordham Institute may be the author of the plan.

Poiner explains: “DeWine has a three-step plan. First, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) will be charged with creating a list of high-quality core curriculum and instructional materials in English language arts, as well as a list of evidence-based reading intervention programs, that are aligned with the science of reading. Second, public schools will be required to use the materials and programs that appear on this list—and only those on the list—starting in the 2024–25 school year. Unless schools apply to ODE for a waiver (which they are permitted to do on an individual student basis in certain circumstances), they are forbidden from using any curriculum, materials, or reading intervention programs that utilize the three-cueing approach, which encourages students to make predictions and use context clues to identify words. Third, DeWine has pledged to provide funding to each school to pay for curriculum based on the science of reading.” (Underlining is mine.)

Poiner adds that DeWine has put enough money in his budget to pay for professional development and training to ensure that teachers know how to use the method he is imposing and to buy the “materials and programs” based on the “science of reading” approach.

I worry when politicians start prescribing policy based on campaigns by advocates who seek to promote their own theories and also to sell the programs and textbooks and materials they produce. Tom Ultican, a California teacher-blogger commented in December about the problem with this kind of partnership: “The Science of Reading movement is another example of oligarch spending diminishing professionalism in education. The combination of arrogance and too much money in a few hands is a disaster. It is probably true that many students with issues learning to read are not being well served, but turning to products from private companies to save the day is a mistake.”

Academic researchers recognize that helping children read is far more complex than buying a particular curriculum or set of materials.  In a brief prepared for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Furman University’s Paul Thomas summarizes the decades-long battle over the teaching of reading, and responds: “Scholars and literacy educators have… conducted extensive research…. In contrast to much of the public debate and policymaking, these researchers have found reading instruction and learning to be complex…. Overall, this robust research base supports policies and approaches that acknowledge a range of individual student needs and that argue against ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescriptions…  Among literacy educators and scholars, then, important reading debates continue but… without any identified silver-bullet solutions. The public debate is different. Since 2018, the phrase ‘science of reading’ has been popularized as loosely defined shorthand for the broad and complex research base characterizing how children learn to read and how best to teach reading. Simplifying the issue for the public and for political readers, and failing to acknowledge the full complement of research findings, prominent members of the education media have used the term… often as pro-phonics versus no phonics. Various types of vendors have also found the shorthand term ‘science of reading’ highly useful in branding and marketing specific phonics-oriented reading and literacy programs.”

Thomas recommends that policymakers “end narrowly prescriptive non-research-based policies and programs such as grade retention based on reading performance, high-stakes reading testing at Grade 3, mandates and bans that require or prohibit specific instructional practices, (and) ‘a one-size-fits all’ approach to dyslexia and struggling readers.”

Last week, progressive educator Steve Nelson published a wonderful blog post on the latest battle in the reading wars: “(S)eparating whole language from phonics is pointless. Reading is both things… Poor children in the United States have far fewer books…. Then they go to schools, often hungry, with unwieldy class size…. One unsurprising study about superior literacy levels in Finland mentioned class sizes as small as 8-10 compared to 30-40 in many urban American schools.”

Nelson concludes: “And we have a phonics problem? In many ways, we are a failing society. Income, wealth and opportunity are increasingly inequitably distributed. Education is the secret to upward mobility, most politicians claim. Then they bash teachers, cut budgets, and support charter and voucher schemes that further exacerbate inequality. We don’t have a phonics problem. We have racism/poverty/equity problems and we won’t solve our literacy woes until we honestly address those issues.”

The Plain Dealer‘s Hancock quotes the President of the Ohio Education Association, Scott DiMauro in what seems the most sensible response to Governor DeWine’s fixation on the science of reading: “Things tend to be dramatically oversimplified for political purposes… I don’t know of any teachers who are 100% pro-phonics or anti-phonics, pro whole language or anti whole language… I think the evidence is there are a whole lot of components of reading instruction that are all important in order to help students, and we’ve got to trust teachers to use their expertise to identify the specific needs of the students they serve.”

Court Says Pennsylvania School Funding Is Unconstitutional. Will Pennsylvania Get a New Formula?

Last week, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer declared Pennsylvania’s method of funding public schools unconstitutional. It may take years before the state remedies what has, for decades, been appalling school finance inequity between the state’s wealthy and poorer school districts. Last week’s court decision should be a cause for celebration nonetheless. The court has finally demanded a response from members of the General Assembly, whose constitutional responsibility it is to protect the right to public education for all of Pennsylvania’s children.

In 2015, Emma Brown, then writing for the Washington Post, reported: “Pennsylvania schools are the nation’s most inequitable…. At Martin Luther King High, a hulking half-full school here (in Philadelphia), there aren’t enough textbooks to go around… At Lower Merion High, 20 miles away, in a suburb of stately stone homes, copy paper and textbooks are available but are rarely necessary. Each student has a school-provided laptop.”

In 2016, Kevin McCorry presented the stark educational reality in Erie: “How did Erie end up in this position? Like many conversations about school funding in Pennsylvania, the answer takes you back to Harrisburg—out of which there hasn’t been a student-weighted funding formula for most of the past twenty-five years. So even though Erie is one of the most impoverished districts in the state, and has one of the highest percentages of English language learners, the district currently receives less per-pupil funding from the state’s main pot of cash than about 200 other districts.”

In a reminder that last week’s decision is merely a first step toward addressing the state’s decades-long educational inequity, the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s editorial board traces the history of the case:  “Republicans in Harrisburg have long ignored education as an investment. More than a decade ago, then-Gov. Tom Corbett slashed education funding statewide by $1 billion and crippled Philadelphia’s schools. Doug Mastriano, last year’s Republican nominee for governor, wanted to eliminate property taxes and give parents vouchers for $9,000, which would have effectively cut (public) education funding by a third.  Voters ensured that disaster was averted.” “However, when real change will come remains unclear. After all, the lawsuit was first filed in 2014 and did not go to trial until November 2021. After three months of arguments, the ruling came a year later. The decision will likely be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That process could take another year or so. If the Supreme Court upholds the decision, it will be left to the General Assembly and Gov. Josh Shapiro to determine how to properly fund the schools, as the judge’s ruling did not prescribe a remedy.”

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit explains last week’s school funding decision: “In a 786-page ruling, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer wrote that the state had not adequately funded schools in poor communities, failing its constitutional obligation to educate young people. The spending was so unequal from district to district that it also violated the state’s equal protection clause, she said. ‘Educators credibly testified to lacking the very resources state officials have identified as essential to student achievement, some of which are as basic as safe and temperate facilities in which children can learn,’ Jubelirer wrote. ‘Students who reside in school districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes.'”

The plaintiffs in this case made a strong case that Pennsylvania’s school funding formula inequitably denies state support for the majority of the state’s school districts. The Inquirer‘s Maddie Hanna and Kristen Graham report: “Matthew Kelly, an assistant professor at Penn State, testified that 428 of Pennsylvania’s 500 districts are underfunded by a total of $4.6 billion, a calculation he updated from a study ordered by lawmakers and completed in 2007.”

The Schott Foundation for Public Education released a statement on Judge Jubelirer’s decision last week: “As we wrote in 2021, the education funding system in Pennsylvania is unfair both in collection and distribution. It’s unfair in the collection because of its heavy reliance on local property taxes: Not only does it mean that wealthier—and usually whiter—districts can more easily afford to raise funds for schools, but lower-income districts are forced to raise property taxes much higher to even begin to approach the kind of funding students get elsewhere.  It’s (also) unfair in disbursement because lower-income districts end up spending far less per pupil while state lawmakers refuse to properly close the spending gap with statewide funds.”

In her Washington Post report, Moriah Balingit emphasizes that Pennsylvania’s school funding formula shares a basic problem endemic across many states: “The state’s schools provide a striking example of how using property tax funding creates a system of haves and have-nots… Nationally, local property taxes account for nearly half of public school funding, creating inherent inequality between wealthy communities that are replete with high-value properties, and poor ones, where properties are worth less. State and federal funding is supposed to help level the playing field, but it is often insufficient to make up the difference.  And even if the funding were equal, advocates argue, students in poor communities often require more resources for things like special education teachers and English language learning. It is why, for example, the federal government allocates extra (Title I) dollars to schools that educate high concentrations of students in poverty.”

In Pennsylvania, Balingit describes one school district which epitomizes the kind of educational deprivation advocates hope last week’s court decision will address: “Greater Johnstown School District, located east of Pittsburgh, is the poorest school district in the state by median household income. The judge’s ruling pointed out that it could not afford to hire any social workers and has only two reading specialists for 1,200 students. ‘A high school teacher teaches French and Spanish simultaneously in one class period.'”

School Finance Experts Raise Concerns about Legislature’s Phase-In of Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan

Howard Fleeter and R. Gregory Browning recently conducted a new, preliminary study of the funding of Ohio’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) under the state’s Fair School Funding Plan. The new plan was passed two years ago as part of the FY 2022-2023 state budget to be phased in over six years—three biennial budget cycles. Although Fleeter and Browning’s new report describes what the the state calls a Fair School Funding Plan, they show why the fairness of the plan has already become corrupted.  Sadly the plan’s implementation is coming to epitomize the old, old joke about school finance: “School funding is like a Russian novel: it’s long, and it’s boring, and in the end, everybody gets killed.”

In the case of Ohio, according to Fleeter and Browning’s December 2022 report, the school districts that get hurt the most are the ones serving a lot of the state’s poorest children. For thirty years, economist Howard Fleeter has been Ohio’s school finance guru—the person who understands better than anyone else the arcane complexities of the state’s system for funding its 610 public school districts.  Last Thursday, the Ohio Capital Journal’s Susan Tebben provided a copy for the general public of Fleeter and Browning’s recent report, which she describes as “an effort to show the state legislature some of the needs of the state education system.”

Fleeter and Browning explain their purpose in the report’s first sentence: “to help Ohio educators and public policymakers gain a deeper understanding of the specific supplemental services being provided to Ohio public primary and secondary school students who come from economically disadvantaged circumstances. The report also includes a preliminary analysis of the costs associated with providing these services.”  In fact, the new report focuses on the funding for the services, not the services themselves.

How much more funding from federal, state, and local sources does a school district need if a large number of poor students are enrolled in its public schools? Fleeter and Browning accept findings from three 2004 and 2007 economic studies which “demonstrate that a 30% multiplier for districts with high concentrations of students in poverty is on the low end of the marginal cost shown by educational research.” In other words, a district serving a lot of poor children needs at least 30 percent more per pupil funds to provide the services those children need at school. Necessary services include: “district-provided preschool programming and primary grade reading intervention… supplemental supports such as after-school programming, summer school and high school credit recovery;… and health and wellness supports, including school counselors and nurses, school-based health clinics and in-house behavioral health services.”

Fleeter and Browning examine the needs of three representative Ohio school districts—one urban, one rural, and another suburban. They conclude that, “the districts, in large part, provided the same array of supplemental services to their respective populations of economically disadvantaged students… Ohio’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) program and the federal Title I program remain the pillars of funding for supplemental services for economically disadvantaged students. These sources have been in place for many years and are the only funding sources that are specifically and exclusively intended to finance these services on an ongoing basis.”

However, Fleeter and Browning report that the three school districts have also been using a significant amount of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to support services for children living in poverty.  ESSER funds were awarded by the federal government to mitigate the problems from the COVID-19 pandemic.  But there is a problem: ESSER funds were a one-time grant; they are not an ongoing funding source. “Clearly, for each district, DPIA and/or Title I funding would have to be dramatically increased to replace one-time ESSER federal stimulus related funding that is currently being used to help pay for roughly 30% of supplemental service in each of the three districts... And in each case (school) leaders… believe that the identified low-inome students’ needs were largely, if not entirely in existence prior to the 2020 beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they are needs that will be continuing past the pandemic and into the foreseeable future.” (emphasis in the original)

In the second paragraph of their report, Fleeter and Browning provide what they call the context for their concerns as we enter 2023, when the governor and the legislature are required to come up with a new FY 2024-2025 biennial budget. Early in the report we get the following hint about why this is all going to be like the long, sad Russian novel from the old joke:

“Ohio’s current school funding policies are rooted in the Ohio Fair School Funding Plan, which is being phased in over a six-year period beginning in FY 22. The plan is a new, inputs-based approach to funding primary and secondary education. It includes a new methodology for providing supplemental funding for the additional costs of providing needed educational services to economically disadvantaged students. This funding comes through the Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) component of the state’s school funding formula. Importantly, the phase-in of the new funding formula does not treat all components of the formula uniformly, as DPIA is phased in at a slower rate than the other funding components, nor does it provide a clearly articulated, evidence-based approach to funding DPIA. Lastly, there is no legal requirement that the new state funding formula be phased in fully in future years.”

Later in the report Fleeter and Browning detail some of the serious problems with the legislature’s calculation of the amount of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid and with the program’s implementation:

  • The state was supposed to provide an in-depth, cost-based study of the services needed to help very poor children thrive at school. But the state has neither funded such a study nor conducted it.
  • The Fair School Funding Plan is supposed to be cost-based, but the state came up with phasing in an additional $422 per pupil for Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid on the cheap—without considering what school districts actually must spend: “(T)he mathematics behind the $422 per pupil figure are based on a 30% increase over the prior $6,020 per pupil base cost amount for non-disadvantaged students.  Under Ohio’s new state aid formula, the state average base cost—which is intended to reflect the cost of educating the ‘typical student in the typical school district’ is $7,349.  30% of this figure is $2,205, a nearly $400 increase over the $1,806 per pupil from which the $422 per pupil base DPIA figure is derived.” (emphasis in the original)
  • Under the Fair School Funding Plan, the state has promised to support school districts serving poor children with added Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, but is phasing in increases for DPIA at a slower rate than the phase-in of the rest of the plan. “There was zero increase in DPIA funding in FY 22 and only a 14% phase-in in FY 23.  All other components of the formula were phased in at a 16.67% rate in FY 22 and a 33.33% rate in FY 23.” Doesn’t it make sense to phase in DPIA at the same rate as the phase-in of the rest of the plan?
  • The overall amount of funds allocated over the years to Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid has lagged at the same time the number of poor students who need the services has grown considerably: “(F)rom 2001 through 2021 total state aid for economically disadvantaged students has increased by 23.3%… while the number of economically disadvantaged students has increased by 57.5%….”

Finally, Fleeter and Browning name a serious threat to the future of the entire Fair School Funding Plan. The legislature funded the phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan only for the first two years of the scheduled six year phase-in. The Plan was passed as part of the last biennial budget; it has never been established by stand-alone legislation. Two years ago, legislators left themselves the option of abandoning the funding of the plan after the end of the FY 2022-2023 biennium. In other words, their commitment to the plan may be winding down to its conclusion now before the new budget cycle begins on July 1, 2023.

It will be urgently important for advocates to demand that the Fair School Funding Plan survives in the FY 2024-FY2025 state budget, and that the full phase-in of this year’s promise—2/3 of the six year phase-in of the full plan—be part of the new biennial budget.  Additionally there must be a correction to ensure the full and timely phase-in of funding for Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid.