Ohio Activists Speak Out to Protest Injustices in Ohio Senate’s Substitute School Funding Plan

Last week, educators and policy experts spoke out clearly and profoundly against the Ohio Senate Finance Committee’s insertion into the next state budget of its own deficient and flawed school funding plan as a substitute for the Fair School Funding Plan that was part of the House Budget.

The Fair School Funding Plan—developed over three and a half years by experts, passed by a huge margin in the Ohio House and inserted into the House Budget—was designed to remedy a school funding formula that has ceased to work for any of the state’s 610 school districts during the current biennium.  Angry supporters of adequate and equitably distributed public school funding spoke last week to oppose the new Senate proposal which fails to remedy problems with public school funding and also expands school privatization.

Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton provided Senate Finance Committee testimony last week to oppose the Senate Finance Committee’s proposed 5 percent income tax cut: “This money will not significantly benefit most Ohioans and the cut will drain resources needed for good schools, better child welfare services and other public services that benefit all Ohioans…  Nearly half of the tax reduction would go to those in the top 5%, who are paid more than $221,000 a year. The top 1% percent, who have income of at least $526,000, would average a cut of $1,712 and receive a quarter of the tax reductions. The tax reductions in the Senate bill 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.”  Tax cuts in Ohio over the past decade and a half are a primary reason for the shocking statistic Patton provided in a recent Policy Matters report: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

Also testifying to oppose the Senate Finance Committee’s school funding plan were Thomas Hosler, Superintendent of the Perrysburg Schools; Ryan Pendleton, Treasurer of the Akron Public Schools; and Mike Sobul of Forecast5 Analytics, all the members of the expert committee which designed the Fair School Funding Plan that is part of the House Budget—the plan which the Senate Finance Committee rejected last Tuesday.  Hosler, Pendleton, and Sobul began by pointing out that historically, Ohio school funding has relied on “residual budgeting,” a practice deemed unconstitutional in the DeRolph decision. Instead of basing the state’s school funding formula on what school district staff and programs actually cost, Ohio legislators have merely been used to plugging in a number based on current revenues available to be divided among the state’s many fiscal responsibilities.

Hosler, Pendleton, and Sobul explain that their Fair School Funding Plan would be constitutional partly because it is based on the real costs school districts must incur: “What makes the Fair School Funding Plan… unique is that for the first time we stepped away from the practice of residual budgeting to fund education, and instead, asked what it costs to educate the ‘typical’ child. We answered this question by analyzing and evaluating the national research and established best practices in education, as well as the expertise and judgement of professionals in the field to determine the funding necessary to ensure that Ohio’s youth has access to high quality educational opportunities… The Fair School Funding Plan funds students where they need it most through a meticulously constructed base cost… Constructing base costs was a painstaking process of determining component-by-component the necessary instructional and support personnel, services, and building and district leadership essential in providing every public school student the basic foundation funding…. (F)rom the outset, the Senate’s formula suggests that the end goal is to substantiate a lower base cost and not properly determine an adequate education for a typical student.”  Hosler, Pendleton, and Sobul contrast the operation of their Fair School Funding Plan  to what they believe is the Senate’s defective substitute. (You will find this testimony archived under Ryan Pendleton’s name.)

Senate leaders do increase school funding in the next two years, but their plan would fall short over the long run.  They argue that it would be irresponsible to pass the Fair School Funding Plan, which has a six year phase in as part of its design, because perhaps there won’t be enough state revenues after the FY 22-23 biennium. Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro pointed out last week that, with the economy recovering, the state currently has adequate revenue to launch the Fair School Funding Plan: “Clearly, from a state budget standpoint, revenue has recovered and the state is seeing pretty robust revenue growth… Just through that natural growth, there are clearly the dollars available to fully and fairly fund our schools. The Senate chose instead, rather than doing that, to impose a 5% cut to our state income tax.”

The Senate’s substitute school funding plan also increases school privatization in several ways.  First, the Ohio Senate proposes to increase the amount of already existing private school tuition vouchers from $6,000 to $7,500 for each high school voucher and from $4,650 to $5,500 for each K-8 voucher.  DiMauro puts the Senate’s proposed voucher expansion in context: “Under the Senate plan, a high school student getting a private school voucher would receive more state aid than kids attending 80% of Ohio’s public schools… K-8 voucher students would get more funding than public school students at about 50% of public schools.”

The Senate also includes two small new neo-voucher programs in its budget plan: a new tuition tax credit voucher program of up to $2,500 per year to pay private school tuition for families with income below 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, and a $250 tax credit for home schooling families to buy educational materials. And finally the Ohio Senate proposes to remove geographical limits on the siting of new charter schools, which were limited in the past to urban school districts and other low income communities. Now, under the Senate proposal last week, new charter schools could be scattered across the state.

The people testifying before the Senate Finance Committee last week identified important funding deficiencies in the Senate’s new plan, and they protested the diversion of tax dollars students would carry away from public schools to privatized alternatives. But there is a deeper, foundational problem here.  House and Senate versions of a new school funding plan in Ohio represent radically conflicting political ideologies. The Ohio House Fair School Funding Plan acknowledges that government has a responsibility to provide a system of public schools. The Ohio Senate adheres instead to a belief system articulated widely by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and promoted by organizations like EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which declares its purpose: “The EdChoice mission is to advance educational freedom and choice for all as a pathway to successful lives and a stronger society.”

In their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, educational historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire dig into the principles underneath school privatization: “Education is a personal good, not a collective one. It is more like private property than like a public park… Schools belong in the domain of the free market, not the government. They should be under the purview of personal preference and choice, not regulation and oversight.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. xx)

Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning traces the history of the idea of public education in the United States as a public good, not merely a personal benefit. The Founders understood public schooling’s purpose as the formation of public citizens. After the Civil War, the principles underlying the public meaning education were strengthened as states of the former Confederacy were required to provide for public schooling in their state constitutions as a requirement for rejoining the Union: “All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education.  Most of these clauses were first enacted or substantially amended in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia’s, Mississippi’s and Texas’s readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions…. (A)fter the Civil War, no state would ever again enter the Union without an education clause in its constitution.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 53)

Under the Ohio Constitution our public schools epitomize our mutual public responsibility to Ohio’s children.  Twenty-four years ago, the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court interpreted our state constitution to require adequate school funding equitably distributed across the state’s school districts.  They explicitly rejected what they called overreliance on local property taxes. Three and a half years ago, keeping in mind that the goal of every good school funding formula is to use state taxes from wealthier communities to support quality programming in the public schools districts where the local property tax base is inadequate, the Ohio House gathered a committee of experts who drafted the Fair School Funding Plan. The goal? To ensure that students in Ohio’s poorest communities would be able to enjoy the same quality programming as students in exurbs where median income and property appraisals are higher .

The Ohio Senate has demonstrated that it is now prepared to throw away the Ohio House’s plan for adequate and equitable public school funding. Over time, the Senate’s substitute plan would fall short of adequate public school funding while driving ever more tax dollars to private and charter schools.  If the Ohio Senate passes the plan proposed last week by the Senate Finance Committee, advocates must demand that the Ohio House members serving on the budget conference committee stand firm in their support for the Fair School Funding Plan.