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.


Advocates Who Want to Protect Ohio’s Public Schools This Year Must Pursue Three Priorities

On Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, the powerful Ohio Senate Education Committee held its first meeting in the new session of the Ohio Legislature.  In upcoming months, as the Legislature develops the next biennial state budget to be enacted by June 30, 2023, parents, educators, and citizens who care about the common good must pressure the Legislature to support the needs of Ohio’s public schools. Securing the needs of Ohio’s students in public schools will be a heavy lift in a legislature dominated by a conservative Republican supermajority.

The public schools, which serve 1.7 million of our children, don’t seem to be what’s on the minds of Ohio’s legislative leaders right now. Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee agenda featured two primary topics: Senate Bill 1, recently reintroduced to eviscerate the State Board of Education, and Senate Bill 11, a vast expansion of the state’s EdChoice private school voucher program.

Those who support Ohio’s public schools must focus on three priorities: (1) advocating for the full phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan which was embedded in the biennial budget in June of 2021 but never established in a stand-alone law; (2) opposing the vast expansion of EdChoice private school tuition vouchers; and (3) opposing the Legislature’s plan to politicize the Ohio State Board of Education by eviscerating its primary functions and moving them into a cabinet Department of Education and the Workforce under the political control of the governor.

Advocates Must Press for the Full Phase-in of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan in the FY 2024-2025 State Budget.

Two years ago, the Ohio Legislature began implementing a new “Fair School Funding Plan.” The new formula had been carefully designed over three years to fund the state’s public schools adequately and to distribute state funding equitably to ensure that students in poor as well as wealthy communities can thrive academically. Ohio’s school funding had been deemed unconstitutional over 25 years ago in DeRolph v. Ohio, when the school funding formula was deemed overly reliant on local property taxes.  The new Fair School Funding Plan, launched two years ago and 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, was designed to be phased in over six years—three three biennial budgets.

However, the Legislature failed to establish the Fair School Funding Plan in a stand-alone law. It would be unfair, Senate President Matt Huffman said, to tie the hands of future legislatures because nobody can predict the economic constraints on future revenues. In June of 2021, the Legislature did basically fund the first two years of the Fair Funding Plan. Now in 2023, the Legislature needs to add funding for the second step. 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 phase-in.

The Legislature also needs to correct one flaw.  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. It is the responsibility of the current Legislature to correct those serious problems.

Continued phase-in of the Fair School Funding plan is not a sure thing. The Ohio Capital Journal’s Susan Tebben reports that Governor DeWine highlighted the Fair School Funding Plan among his budget priorities last week: “DeWine mentioned the plan in his speech, saying it should be funded, but Democrats are unsure what Republicans’ plans are for the third year of the six-year phase-in designed in the plan. The plan has only been funded for two years so far, because (Senate President, Matt) Huffman refused to assign funding priorities to future general assemblies.”

After the Governor presented his budget priorities, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Haley BeMiller and Anna Staver added: “Huffman… expressed skepticism about DeWine’s plan to fund schools. ‘The same concerns I mentioned when we passed the budget two years ago are still in place,’ he said.”

Advocates Must Vociferously Oppose Senate Bill 11, Yet Another Expensive Expansion of EdChoice Vouchers.

While Senate President Matt Huffman seems anxious about the expense of fairly funding the public schools, Huffman doesn’t seem a bit worried about the fiscal viability of a huge expansion of the EdChoice voucher program, now introduced as Senate Bill 11.  The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock explains that right now under the current EdChioce 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….”

Most people worry that a huge expansion of the number of students taking EdChoice vouchers out of the school foundation budget will radically reduce funding for the state’s public schools. Instead Senate President Huffman argues that the expansion of vouchers will save money for the public schools. Hancock quotes Huffman enthusing that: “(I)ncreasing vouchers up to 400% of the federal poverty line covers most of the state’s residents… ‘Although it’s not a universal voucher, it practically speaking, is in many regards.'” Using specious math that fails to reflect the complex school funding formula, which distributes state funding to compensate for disparities in taxable property and aggregate family income from school district to school district, Huffman went so far as to claim: “As vouchers are expanded there’s more money available for public schools…”  Certainly Huffman is also ignoring that during the history of the EdChoice program, the majority of EdChoice vouchers have always been taken by families whose children already attend private schools. Assuming that trend would continue and more students already in private schools opt to take a voucher as a new entitlement, experts warn that Huffman’s defense of vouchers as a way to save money for public schools is an absurd argument.

Advocates Must Oppose Senate Bill 1 to Eviscerate the State Board of Education and Move Most of Its Responsibilities to a Department of Education and the Workforce under the Control of Governor.

Efforts to politicize the Ohio State Board of Education culminated in December when the Legislature came close to passing Senate Bill 178. (See here.) The effort collapsed in the final hours of the legislative session, but the bill was reintroduced immediately in January as Senate Bill 1.  The Ohio Capital Journal’s Susan Tebben describes the discussion of SB 1 at this week’s first meeting of the new session’s, Senate Education Committee: “Workforce development components of a bill to overhaul education in Ohio by taking power from the state school board and putting it under the governor’s office were applauded by supporters in an Ohio Senate committee Tuesday. Supporters ranged from businesses to career centers to the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, all of whom spoke out at the Senate Education Committee about the progress they believe the bill would make in developing workforce talent in the state, rather than bringing in employees from other states and countries.”

Tebben quotes Senator Bill Reineke describing bill he has introduced: “The bill’s focus is still the same: to improve academic and workforce skills to drive better accountability and outcomes for our kids’ education and career readiness.”  Tebben also quotes Reineke explaining that the bill also will, “guarantee homeschooling families the ability to home-educate their child by exempting a child from compulsory school attendance when that child is receiving instruction in core subject areas from their parents.”  She points to the irony that Reineke’s defense of homeschooling in Ohio “comes amid a new investigation by the Department of Education into what’s been reported as a pro-Nazi homeschooling network run by a couple from Upper Sandusky.”

As I listened to a December hearings on Senate Bill 1’s predecessor, SB 178 intended to reduce the power of Ohio’s state board of education, I heard the members of the committee frame their arguments about test-based accountability and expanding the workforce—abstract concepts that have little to do with education practice—which is the purview of the State Board. I listened to politicians discuss standardized test scores—numbers, percentages, and supposed trends measured by the numbers. The conversation did not once connect to what happens in a public elementary school classroom or in a comprehensive public high school. I listened to an ideological debate with little connection to the role of the State Board of Education, which is to shape education practice.

This year as Ohio’s law makers attempt once again to politicize the State Board of Education, advocates should demand that legislators attend to their own responsibility for education policy. The first step would be fully phasing in the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan as the Legislature drafts the FY 2024-2025 state budget, a phase-in that must include promised dollars for Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid.  A second step would be avoiding the catastrophic cost of a massive expansion of private school tuition vouchers. Finally, the Legislature should allow the State Board of Education, with several enthusiastic and well qualified new members elected in November, to get on with its work.

Ohio’s New Budget Helps Public Schools and Expands Privatization All at Once

Ohio’s 1.7 million students enrolled in public schools; their parents, teachers, principals, and school superintendents; and the citizens who pay local property taxes all owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Cupp.

Formerly a state senator and an elected justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, and currently the Speaker of the Ohio House, Cupp and former state representative, John Patterson led the group of legislators, educators, and policy experts that, over three years, designed the House’s Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan, which this week became the centerpiece of Ohio’s new budget.

Republicans dominate both chambers of the Ohio Legislature with veto-proof majorities, but thanks to Cupp’s leadership and a massive demand from across the state for a better public school funding formula, both chambers of Ohio’s legislature agreed on Monday night to delete the Ohio Senate’s inferior and rushed alternative school funding plan and restore the House’s Fair School Funding Plan into the state budget.  The new budget was sent to Governor Mike DeWine for his signature.

The education provisions in the new budget are far from perfect.  In a number of ways the budget reflects a clash of ideologies that splits legislators along party lines, although Speaker Cupp represents a group of Republicans who have stalwartly supported the Ohio Constitution’s mandate for the state’s provision of a thorough and efficient system of public schools.

Like Cupp, Rep. Jamie Callender (R-Concord) believes in the role of government for providing a fair and adequate system of public education.  Callender was one of the House sponsors in the current legislative session for the Fair School Funding Plan, and he expressed his relief that the House plan was restored into the budget by the conference committee: “This (budget) bill does something… a lot of folks thought was impossible a few years ago. This bill is a victory for every child in the state of Ohio… This bill takes the flaws of our antiquated, band-aided, broken, outdated, unpredicable, untransparent public district school funding formula and replaces it with what’s become known as the Cupp-Patterson plan.”

Contrasting with Cupp and Callender, Gongwer (6/28/21) quotes Senator Andy Brenner (R-Delaware) describing the budget compromise that expanded his priority—vouchers and charter schools—in addition to improving public school funding: “We have a school funding formula for the first time in two years that is going to help out all school districts in the state of Ohio… And included in that school funding is a large amount of school choice options.”

The new budget includes a 3 percent income tax cut. Ohio Republicans have, according to Ohio Senate Finance Committee Testimony from Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton, a long history of slashing income taxes and this budget is no exception: “The tax reductions… come on top of huge tax cuts the richest Ohioans have received over the past 16 years. While lower-and middle-income Ohioans on average saw little change or paid more in state and local taxes, the top 1% received more than $40,000 a year in tax cuts.” Gongwer (6/28/21) quotes Ohio Senate Finance Committee Chairman Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls) bragging about this budget’s 3 percent income tax cut: “I think this is a budget for Ohio individuals… We are funding our education. We’re expanding our ability for choice in education. We are returning hard-earned dollars back to individuals.”  Dolan adds, according to Gongwer, “I think we want to be competitive.  Only Indiana now is lower than us in our surrounding  states… It is a matter of giving money back to individuals. It is also a matter of making our state attractive for development.”  Dolan’s loyalty to tax cuts that benefit the wealthy could be viewed as self-serving; he comes from the family that owns Cleveland’s major league baseball team. Dolan’s Senate Finance Committee adopted the Senate’s alternative school funding plan into the version of the budget that it sent last week to the budget conference committee along with a proposed 5 percent income tax cut.  The House-Senate conference committee moderated Dolan’s planned tax cut and rejected the school funding plan his committee sent forward.

Addressing his colleagues as they got ready to vote on the budget bill, Sen. Vernon Sykes (D-Akron) most eloquently expressed what has been universal gratitude from legislative Democrats for the restoration of the Fair School Funding Plan into the new Ohio budget: “As we look back on this time, one of the most significant improvements that we’ll be making in education is what we’re voting on today in this Fair School Funding Plan.”

For the Plain Dealer, Andrew J. Tobias and Jeremy Pelzer describe the financial consequences of the budget conference committee’s restoration of the Fair School Funding Plan into the new budget: “The budget bill largely incorporates a House education plan that was designed to significantly boost funding and make Ohio’s system of funding schools more fair by targeting poorer areas… The bill… imposes a new school funding formula, throwing out the existing system of artificially funding and capping funding for certain districts. The result is a $226 million increase for K-12 education in 2022 and another $141 million increase in 2023.”

But the budget is a product of compromise in a legislature dominated by fiscally conservative Republicans who favor the expansion of taxpayer-funded charter schools and vouchers. And the conference committee limited the scope of the Fair School Funding Plan. The new budget does not adopt the Fair School Funding Plan’s full six-year phase-in; the original House version envisions more pieces of a complicated formula falling into place beyond the current biennium.  By design, the original Fair School Funding Plan evaluates the programs Ohio’s public school districts need to provide, costs them out, and then indexes them to inflationary price increases over time.  Matt Huffman, the Senate President, has forced the legislature to limit the plan to the current budget biennium, which means that after two years legislators can simply refuse to continue funding the programs that are part of the plan.  Such an eventuality would send school districts once again rushing to the ballot to try to pass local levies and would take Ohio’s public schools back into another era of “overreliance” on local property taxes. “Overreliance on local property taxes” was found unconstitutional in DeRolph. because local school districts across our state have such disparate capacities to fund their public schools.

The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben describes Senate President Matt Huffman’s justification for passing only the first two years’ of the Fair School Funding Plan: “The original plan for the funding formula was a six-year phase-in program, but in the new state budget, only two years are funded. Senate President Matt Huffman said the out-year costs are ‘still a significant concern,’ but the main motivation for only looking two years into the future of education was the budget cycle. ‘No matter what we do about predictability, all spending decisions under our constitution are two-year decisions.'” Senator Huffman is a dogged fan of the expansion of school privatization, and there are many people who question Senator Huffman’s motive for passing only two years of a well-designed six-year plan.  Many public school supporters suspect that to ensure the continuation of the plan after two years, they will be required once again to mount the same intense advocacy that contributed to this year’s compromise that at least yielded two years of public school funding reform.

Still, Representative Bob Cupp, who brought together the group that developed the Fair School Funding Plan, believes (Gongwer 6/29/21) its launch in the next biennium will be significant: “It’s going to be up to future General Assemblies, but it does put in place the template for how you calculate the base costs and how you distribute the funds, which is a much more fair and stable and predictable process… It does begin that calculation on the real cost of educating our children… It’s been the culmination of decades.”

The House’s original Fair School Funding Plan also contained a school funding oversight commission and the development of studies to track school districts’ real costs over time along with the funding challenges for school districts serving concentrations of poor children.  The new budget omits those provisions.

This week’s new Ohio budget also significantly expands school privatization through vouchers and charters by raising the amount of each taxpayer funded, private school voucher from $4,650 to $5,500 for K-8 students and from $6,000 to $7,500 for high school students.  The new budget also accommodates a Senate priority by establishing a new tuition tax credit private school voucher plan. The Plain Dealer’s Tobias and Pelzer explain that the new budget: “Offers a state income tax credit for private school tuition of $500 for those making less than $50,000 and of $1,000 for those making less than $100,000.”

On the positive side, the Legislature corrects the extremely disequalizing method Ohio has used to fund privatization. The new  budget provides for direct state funding of vouchers and charter schools as a replacement for the old method that extracted the cost of vouchers and charter school tuition right out of local school district budgets.

And, the new budget creates a path for three of the state’s poorest school districts to emerge from punitive state control. After the 2015, middle-of-the night passage of Ohio HB 70, the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland were taken over by the state, which created Academic Distress Commissions to oversee their operations and seize power from their elected boards of education. Under the budget bill this week, Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben reports: “Academic distress commissions will be a thing of the past, under a measure from the Senate version of the bill.  The language… allows the three districts… to create a three year plan to be released” from state oversight.

There were several other worrisome differences between the Ohio House’s and the Ohio Senate’s budget proposals, most of them expanding charters and vouchers.  In a bill that is a thousand pages long, it will take some time for experts and reporters to sift through a mass of provisions that may have survived the conference committee’s negotiations. For example, there was a provision in the Senate’s budget to expand the permissible location of charter schools to all the school districts in the state rather than limiting their location as it is today to particular school districts. I don’t know whether that provision survived the conference committee.

Another amendment being considered by the conference committee required that school districts sell or lease a school building to a charter school if the public school building was used in the previous school year for academic instruction for students at less than 60 percent of building capacity. If that provision remains in the budget, Governor Mike DeWine should use his line item veto to remove it. The state of Ohio should not be mandating that school districts sell off the facilities they own in order to promote the expansion of charter schools.

The Ohio Constitution defines public schools as an institution embodying our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens and to Ohio’s children.  The budget conference committee’s restoration of the Fair School Funding Plan, even if limited only to the upcoming biennium, will restore adequate funding to the schools that serve our state’s 1.7 million public school students and will significantly equalize children’s educational opportunity across our state’s 610 school districts.

However, the expansion of vouchers and charter schools opens the door for future growth of school privatization.  Ohio’s parents and citizens who believe in a strong system of public education will have work to do to preserve the Fair School Funding Plan beyond the current two-year limit and to prevent the rapid expansion of vouchers and charters at the expense of public schools in future state budgets.

Framing a New Website Forced Us to Reconsider Public Education’s Core Principles

This week the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education launched a new website.  If you live in Central Ohio in Columbus or Marion or Chillicothe—or Southwest Ohio in Dayton or Cincinnati or Middletown—or Northwest Ohio in Toledo—or Southeast Ohio in Athens or along the Ohio River, you may not imagine that this website will be of interest to you. And if you live in another state, you are probably certain the new website is irrelevant. If you live in Northeast Ohio, however—in Cleveland or Akron or Youngstown, Lorain or East Cleveland (the three impoverished school districts which the state has taken over in recent years) or in any of the suburbs of these urban areas, maybe you’ll take a look.

I believe, however, that the website might, on some level, be important for anybody who cares about public education in America. The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education is a loose group of educators and advocates, and the way this new website evolved out of several broader conversations speaks to our times.

Federally and across the states, America’s public schools are emerging from two decades of federally mandated, rigid, high-stakes, standardized-test-based, public school accountability—punitive accountability with sanctions, and delivered without financial help for the mostly underfunded schools and school districts deemed “failing.” We had fifteen years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—softened in 2015, when the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. The new version modified the punishments but continued to mandate the annual testing and the theory of sanctioning schools into better performance—performance still measured by each school’s aggregate standardized test scores.

Privatization was part of this. One of the federally mandated punishments for so-called “failing” schools was to privatize them—turn them into charter schools. Plus, since 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has persistently stimulated the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools.

Then, in 2016, President Trump made things worse for public schools by appointing Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos, founder and board member for years of the American Federation for Children, has been among the nation’s richest and most powerful advocates for tuition vouchers for private and religious education. Under DeVos, we have watched four years of lack of attention to the public schools by the Department of Education, along with massive conflict in education policy and educational philosophy.

And since last April, schools have struggled to operate during a pandemic which the President has failed to control.  After a difficult spring and the sudden closure of public schools, it was assumed that public schools would find a way to open safely for the fall semester. But instead we are watching a miasma of approaches—hybrid schedules to bring a limited and safe number of children into buildings each day—public schools opening in some places full-time everyday—schools open only for virtual learning—alarming inequity as many children lack internet capability—increasing outbreaks of COVID-19 among students and staff in districts that have fully reopened—schools opening and quickly forced to close—wealthy families grouping together to hire private teachers for tiny schools in the basement or the attic.

In this leaderless situation with schools struggling everywhere, no matter their efforts to prepare, questions of policy have just sort of faded away—except that the privatizers are doggedly trying to co-opt the chaos in every way they can. In Ohio, the Legislature has taken advantage of the time while the public is distracted by COVID-19 to explode the number of EdChoice vouchers for private schools at the expense of public school district budgets, to neglect to address the injustices of our state’s punitive, autocratic state takeovers of the public schools in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland, and to put off for over a year discussion of a proposed plan to fix a state school funding formula so broken that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts (80 percent) have fallen off a grossly under-funded old formula.

In recent years, most Ohio school districts have been getting exactly as much state funding as they got last year and the year before that and the year before that even if their overall enrollment has increased, the number poor children has risen, or the number of special education students has grown. And all this got even worse under the current two-year state budget, in which school funding was simply frozen for every school district at the amount allocated in fiscal year 2019.  That is until this past June, when, due to the revenue shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Governor cut an additional $330 million from the money already budgeted for public schools in the fiscal year that ended June 30, thus forcing school districts to reduce their own budgets below what they had been promised. With much hoopla in the spring of 2019, the new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan was proposed. A year ago, however, research indicated (see here and here) that—partly thanks to the past decade of tax cuts in Ohio and partly due to problems in the new distribution formula itself—the new school funding proposal failed to help the state’s poorest schools districts. The analysis said that a lot of work would be required to make the plan equitable.  New hearings are planned this fall, but nobody has yet reported on whether or how the Cupp-Patterson Plan has been readjusted.

In this context, discussions in the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education focused on our need to help ourselves and the citizens in our school districts find our way.  What are the big issues? What information will help us explore and advocate effectively for policies that will ensure our schools are funded adequately and that funding is distributed equitably? In Ohio, how can we effectively push the Legislature to collect enough revenue to be able to fund the state’s 610 school districts without dumping the entire burden onto local school districts passing voted property tax levies? How can we help stop what feels like a privatization juggernaut in the Ohio Legislature? And how can federal policy be made to invest in and help the nation’s most vulnerable public schools?

The idea of a website emerged, with the idea of highlighting four core principles—with a cache of information in each section: Why Public Schools?  Why More School Funding? Why Not Privatization? and Why Educational Equity?  Although we have noticed that much public school advocacy these days emphasizes what public school supporters are against, we decided to frame our website instead about what we stand for as “friends of public education” even though our opposition to charter schools and private school tuition vouchers is evident in our website.

Our framing around key ways to support public public education is consistent with thinking in other periods in our nation’s history when policy discussion regarding public schools has centered more narrowly on three of the public school questions which organize the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s new website: Why Public Schools?, Why More School Funding?, and Why Educational Equity?

Not too long ago, before the kind of thinking that culminated in No Child Left Behind flooded across the country, in a 1993 book called An Aristocracy of Everyone, political philosopher Benjamin Barber described public schools as, “our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goods, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 14-15)

Educational historian David Tyack reflected on the public role of public education in his 2003, Seeking Common Ground: “I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not. The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin… The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering. Almost anywhere a school age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend. Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)

In 2004, James Banks, the father of multicultural education, anticipated issues that have now culminated in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Banks explicitly rejected dominant culture hegemony as he described the public purpose of the public schools: “A significant challenge facing educators… is how to respect and acknowledge community cultures… while at the same time helping to construct a democratic public community with an overarching set of values to which all students will have a commitment and with which all will identify.” (Diversity and Citizenship, p. 12)

All the way back, in 1785, John Adams declared: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  (Center on Education Policy, Why We Still Need Public Schools, 2007, p. 1.)

The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s new website reframes our organization’s work according to the old principle that it is our civic responsibility to protect our nation’s and our state’s commitment to our children and our future in a system of well-funded public schools.

Ohio Budget Sets Moratorium on New State Takeovers of School Districts, Fails to Resolve Lorain Crisis

State budgets outline what sort of public investment is possible within the revenue constraints of any state government. They also outline the spending priorities of the majority.  Sometimes, despite laws that prohibit logrolling, they also contain a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with fiscal matters.

Ohio’s new biennial budget reflects a priority for tax cutting.  Ohio’s legislators—despite the 17 day extension required because even the huge Republican majorities in both chambers couldn’t agree on a lot of things—reached consensus that taxes should be further reduced instead of investing in services needed by the must vulnerable Ohioans.  For example, the Legislature did not raise basic formula funding for 3 school districts already designated in Academic Distress or for the ten additional public school districts teetering on the edge of that categorization.

The Ohio budget conference committee, mercifully, did not insert into the state budget the Senate Education Committee’s long and detailed amendment prescribing a new state takeover plan for the 10 districts threatened with state takeover in the next two years. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky reports that Senate President Larry Obhof, “said the conference committee… agreed to a one-year moratorium on a controversial law allowing state takeover of academically failing school districts while lawmakers continue work on a solution in separate legislation.”

The Ohio House had repealed the state takeovers of school districts in its version of the budget. The Senate Education Committee had inserted into the Senate’s budget a cumbersome plan that featured a new state School Transformation Board, private takeover consultants approved by the state to conduct “root-cause” analyses, state-approved school district “improvement director czars,” and if insufficient improvement did not follow, the old top-down state takeovers. It is a very good thing that the conference committee left the Senate’s plan out of the budget.

Let’s remind ourselves about the serious, unresolved issues that the new one-year moratorium on state school district takeovers fails to address:

  • A one-year moratorium on new state takeovers grants at least a temporary reprieve from state takeover to Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill. These school districts have been branded as failures by Ohio for their low aggregate standardized test scores, and their fate remains unresolved. These school districts serve concentrations of very poor children, many of them children of color.
  • The moratorium on new state school district takeovers does nothing about the current disastrous state takeovers in Youngstown and Lorain, and the newest takeover in East Cleveland. Two months ago, by an extraordinary, bipartisan margin of 83-12, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal HB 70 (the state school district takeover law fast-tracked through the Ohio Legislature in 2015). The Senate has refused to consider HB 154.  The overwhelming bipartisan House support for eliminating state takeovers reflects the seriousness with which members of the Ohio House view the chaos into which state takeover has pushed Lorain and the dysfunction in Youngstown.

In the new budget, the Legislature not only neglected to address the state school takeover disaster, but also neglected to support the state’s poorest school districts threatened by state takeover—big cities with concentrated family poverty, towns where manufacturing has collapsed, and inner-ring suburbs— with additional operating funds. The Legislature did, however, adopt and expand Governor Mike DeWine’s proposal to add funding for wraparound social and medical services to help school districts better serve the needs of students and their families. The funding is weighted to provide extra dollars for districts serving the largest numbers of poor children. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explains: “The governor had proposed giving schools across the state $550 million over the next two school years for so-called wraparound services, like medical and mental health care, family supports and mentoring.  The ‘student wellness and success’ plan, as it is called, is aimed at helping students in every school in Ohio with issues that interfere with learning and with helping them succeed in school and in life. The version passed by legislators added $125 million more than DeWine proposed based on poverty levels of districts. In 2020-21, for example, DeWine had proposed giving the poorest 20 percent of school districts $300 per student, while giving the richest 20 percent of districts $25 per student.  The new plan, which came out of the House, raises all payments for 2020-21.  That means $460 per student for the poorest districts and $30 for the richest… The minimum that any district could receive also was raised from $25,000 to $30,000.”

Governor DeWine vetoed one section of the education budget. The Columbus Dispatch reports that about three dozen Ohio school districts have so much property wealth that they receive less from the state than private schools in their districts receive for auxiliary services.  In a later article Catherine Candisky, and Randy Ludlow explain that DeWine vetoed a provision of the budget to ensure that wealthy school districts would not receive less state aid than private schools in their districts receive.  DeWine explains his veto (see p. 10, Item 16): “This item would guarantee a base amount of per-pupil funding to all public school districts. Ohio’s school funding system was designed to offer the most support to the districts that are least able to provide adequate services to their students. The districts that would benefit the most from this item are among the wealthiest in Ohio. Carving out a special exemption to provide additional resources to the districts most capable of providing resources for their students is not a responsible use of the limited funding available to Ohio’s school districts. Therefore, this veto is in the public interest.”

However, the Dispatch confirms that the Legislature also passed a budget provision to allocate a $38 million funding increase for Ohio’s quickest growing school districts, which, due to their local property taxing capacity, have had their state funding capped for several years.  DeWine chose not to veto this provision, which will reward the same wealthy districts—the rapidly expanding exurban school districts surrounding the state’s big cities.

Even though budgets are supposed to deal with fiscal matters, folded into this budget are new high school graduation requirements. Unfortunately, the new graduation requirements that appear in the budget are the ones that originated from a lobbying group, Ohio Excels, representing business interests.  Educators have complained that the plan they designed, which was eventually approved and presented by the Ohio State Board of Education, was ignored.  And just this week a member of the State Board of Education raised serious questions about whether the cut scores designating students as “accelerated” or “proficient” are set unreasonably high so that the state denies many students who really are proficient enough points to graduate from high school.

Now that Ohio has a FY 20-21 biennial budget, much of education policy remains unresolved, including the urgently important crisis in Lorain due to its current state takeover chaos and the fate of 10 districts the state has threatened to take over.  Surely there will be further debate about the graduation requirements logrolled into the state budget without sufficient debate.  And left out completely is the matter of the new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan which was not addressed in the budget. It has now been formally introduced as HB 305, and will likely be extensively debated in upcoming months.

This article was updated on 7/19/19.