Long Awaited Bipartisan School Funding Plan Proposed for Ohio

Yesterday  Ohio Representatives Robert Cupp (R-Lima) and John Patterson (D-Jefferson) released a much needed, bipartisan proposal for a new Ohio school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan, of course, is preliminary.  It will be proposed as the substance of the Ohio House Education Budget and would have to be enacted by the Legislature. (Quotes in this post come from the preliminary PowerPoint presentation from Monday afternoon’s session.)

Conceptually the plan described yesterday afternoon would raise the level of state support for K-12 public education to a more adequate level and additionally address what is currently inequitable distribution of funding across the state’s 610 school districts.  The Cupp-Patterson Plan considers not only each school district’s capacity to raise funds from its local property tax base but also considers the amount and concentration of family poverty.

The details are not yet available, and of course, the details matter a lot in a school funding formula.  A state can make its formula more equitable, while at the same time underfunding the total allocation of state funds; such a plan merely levels down all districts.  We’ll need to look at the amount of funding the Cupp-Patterson Plan recommends.  Then, of course, because this plan is intended to serve as the basis of the Ohio House Education Budget, we’ll need to look at what the Legislature agrees to fund. A workable school funding formula would need to be fully funded.

In recent years without a fair and adequate formula, Ohio has merely imposed punitive, outcomes-based school accountability—punishing the lowest scoring schools and school districts.  Currently Ohio rates and ranks schools and districts on a state report card largely derived from aggregate standardized test scores—which have for decades been shown to correlate less with school quality and more with family and neighborhood poverty.  The state has driven state and local dollars out of the lowest-scoring school districts—through a school district deduction system—to pay for students carrying away vouchers for private school tuition and a fixed amount to charter schools. The bottom-scoring school districts  have been seized by the state, with state overseers appointed, the local school board discredited, local democracy destroyed.  But the state has at the same time provided too little funding for its poorest districts.

Yesterday’s presentation addresses the school-district-deduction penalty for school choice: “Students participating in school choice programs… will not be included in resident district student count”; the vouchers and charter allocation will be funded by the state.  This provision will ensure that no school district will lose more state charter and voucher dollars than the district would receive for those students in state aid. The current school-district-deduction for school choice has been a serious and inequitable problem for many school districts.

For the first time Representatives Cupp and Patterson have proposed to increase financial support for our state’s poorest school districts as measured not only by the size of their property tax base but also by aggregate family income.  The goal is to increase the capacity of the poorest school districts to better support families and meet the children’s needs. Yesterday’s presentation declares: “Ohio school funding is a patchwork not based on student needs.”

The new plan challenges the state to: “base state school funding on what students actually need to succeed in a rapidly changing world; assess every community’s capacity to pay its fair share—transparently; and treat all Ohio’s school districts and taxpayers as fairly as possible.”  Its proponents claim their formula considers what it really costs to operate a school district and address the needs of every child.

Representative Cupp promises that the formula  will be fair and stable—characteristics that Ohio’s funding formula has chronically lacked. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel quotes Cupp: “Our current funding formula, forged in the last recession, is seriously flawed… It’s not any longer even functioning as a formula.”

Currently, according to yesterday’s presentation, 80 percent of Ohio’s school districts are on guarantee—meaning they receive what they got last year—or that their funding from the state has been capped.  In order for a formula to work, a state must fund it, but when 503 of the state’s 610 school districts are on guarantee, it means the state is not budgeting enough money to pay what the state’s own formula says the districts need.  If the new plan is enacted by the legislature and fully funded, the authors of the new plan project that 84 percent of Ohio’s school districts will be on the formula with only 16 percent—the wealthiest districts in the state—on guarantee.

In a tweet, Innovation Ohio’s @Steve Dyer who attended the presentation in Columbus, reported an additional promise made when the formula was presented: “Wow. will build in inflationary increases and re-examine the costs every four years.”

Ohio’s current funding plan is also unstable.  It calculates each district’s state funding by comparing each school district’s local funding capacity to a constantly changing state average. Hence a district’s funding can vary relative to an average that changes every year, at the same time the district’s needs remain constant.  In the new plan, “State/local shares are calculated using residents’ income and each district’s property value and won’t shift unless that district’s income or property values change.”  The new formula will be based 60 percent on property valuation and 40 percent on the income of the school district’s residents.

The new Cupp-Patterson formula is a foundation plan which provides a base cost per child. Additionally it adds categorical funding depending on the number of children who fall into particular categories designated in state law—for poverty, preschool, special education, gifted education, English language learning, career-tech, STEM, Open Enrollment, students leaving for charter schools, students carrying away a voucher, transportation needs, and the presence of an educational service center.

The new plan’s designers explain that the plan will combine state and local dollars according to a formula that will cover actual costs, provide freedom to districts to use state funds for local needs they determine, and ensure that every district has enough money for quality classroom instruction, co-curriculars, social-emotional needs, counselors, technology, safety, and professional development for teachers. The plan includes enriched pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds living in poverty, and it funds special education at 100 percent, instead of the current 90 percent level.

The new plan grew out of a two year Speaker’s Task Force on Education and Poverty, a special task force chaired by Representative Robert Cupp.  In its final report, the Cupp Task Force emphasized the need for greater support for schools serving children in poverty. The Task Force’s recommendations include wraparound health and social services, expanded early childhood education, equitable access to career education, and enough money that all Ohio school districts can afford  challenging curriculum and well-qualified teachers.  The Governor’s budget proposal released last week addresses the need for wraparound social and medical services.

Reporting yesterday afternoon, the Plain Dealer‘s Andrew J. Tobias quoted Representatives Cupp and Patterson declaring that their plan would finally make Ohio’s school funding constitutional: “(T)hey say it will reduce Ohio’s reliance in school funding on local property values—the core of a landmark series of rulings from the Ohio Supreme Court that found the state’s school funding system unconstitutional more than 20 years ago… ‘I think this meets all the requirements of the DeRolph decision,’ Cupp said.”

Representatives Cupp and Patterson and the public school educators and school finance experts who worked with them to create the new plan conclude: “We ask our legislators and all Ohioans to consider our plan in its entirety, as a essential roadmap to guide school funding decisions.” The proposed formula is comprehensive.  If the members of the Legislature tinker with it, and unless members of the legislature fund it, it will lose its capacity to distribute school funding adequately and fairly.

Of course the biggest question is about Ohio’s capacity, after years of tax cuts, to pay for an adequate and equitable school funding plan. Patterson was asked this question yesterday afternoon and Siegel reports his response: “Asked if, based on what they know about recent two-year revenue estimates from the state budget office and the Legislative Service Commission, there is enough money to pay for the plan, Patterson said, “The question is do we have the will to fund what we really need to fund if we truly believe that every student ought to have a chance to succeed?  This is an investment in Ohio.”

This is a preliminary analysis of the principles and concepts in the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan.  Details about the cost of the plan and how each school district will fare will be released on Friday.  The Dispatch‘s Siegel adds that Cupp and Patterson “hope to phase-in the proposal over four years, and during that time, no district would get less money than they currently receive.”