What the New Ohio Budget and School Funding Plan Will Mean for Public Schools

The FY 2022-2023 Ohio budget is different than most biennial state budgets because folded into it is a new public school funding formula, developed over more than three years and adopted previously by the Ohio House but never enacted by the Ohio Senate.  For those of you who worry about how public schools will fare under the new Ohio budget, the expert to consult is Howard Fleeter. In this post, I’ll summarize Fleeter’s analysis: FY22-23 State Budget Recap: Ohio’s New School Funding Formula, Voucher Changes and (yes, another round of) Income Tax Reductions.

Howard Fleeter is Ohio’s education funding expert. He has served Ohio’s education advocacy community through the Ohio Education Policy Institute (OEPI), since its inception in 1997. Fleeter regularly provides analysis for the Hannah News Service in a newsletter known as On the Money. In Cleveland, On the Money is available for library card holders in the research databases at the Cleveland Public Library, but the publication is not even available in Clevenet member branch libraries. Sadly On the Money is paywalled, which means you’ll have to trust me to summarize Fleeter’s conclusions.

Warning: In Fleeter’s new piece you cannot learn the answer to your primary question: How will my own school district fare during the upcoming biennium and beyond? And you won’t find the answer to your other urgent question: How long can my district put off going to the ballot to try pass yet another local levy?  On the other hand, Fleeter explains clearly and lucidly how the new budget and school funding plan will work.

Fleeter identifies the two essential components of Ohio’s school funding formula as being adequate school funding and the equitable distribution of the state’s contribution to the formula.

How the New Budget Addresses the Need for Adequate School Funding

The first problem the new formula must address is the old formula’s incapacity to measure how much money Ohio’s 610 school districts need: “Ohio’s most recent school funding formula, in place from FY14-FY19, did not employ any methodology for determining the base cost amount.”  The base cost is the formula’s calculation of the amount of combined state and local funding needed  to educate each of our state’s roughly 1.7 million children and adolescents. Fleeter continues: “Instead, the legislature simply set the per pupil amounts based on how much money they chose to allocate to K-12 education, an approach that the Supreme Court rejected over and over in the DeRolph case. In FY19 this amount was set at $6,200 per pupil…. The House funding plan (whose formula for base cost was adopted in the final budget) utilized an inputs-based approach to adequacy which resulted in an average base cost amount of roughly $7,200 per pupil, nearly 20% higher than the FY 19 figure…”  Fleeter credits Ohio’s new 2021 formula with the successful “development of an inputs-based methodology for determining the per-pupil base cost” for the first time since FY11.

What about other state investments beyond base cost? Unlike the Ohio Senate, the Ohio House in its proposed budget actually used up-to-date cost figures to determine how much school districts need for added categorical funding for students with disabilities, disadvantaged students, career-tech students, English language learners and gifted students. Sadly, although the House used accurate data, Fleeter reports that the House version of the budget called for $0 increase in disadvantage aid in FY 22 and only 1/7th of the scheduled increase in FY23.”  And, “An economically disadvantaged student cost study included in the House version of the budget was removed in the final version….”  The cost study, eliminated in negotiations with the Senate, was considered essential for identifying all the ways school districts should be providing additional support for students in communities where poverty is concentrated.

One positive: The old formula “included a ‘gain cap’ provision which limited annual increases in state funding to a pre-determined maximum percentage,” but in the new budget, “The much-despised gain cap has finally been eliminated.”  The gain cap problem affected growing school districts, which deserve additional per-pupil state dollars when more and more students move into the community. This problem in the old formula had frozen state funding under a gain cap for 163 of the state’s 610 districts.  The final budget does protect a transitional hold-harmless guarantee for districts whose enrollment is falling.

Another positive:  In the new budget the state “directly funds” vouchers and charter schools out of the state budget. Every time students leave for charter schools or take vouchers to a private school, the school district will no longer see a per-pupil charter school fee and the cost of each private school voucher extracted right out of the local school district budget. Fleeter writes: “This change has been 20 years overdue and brings Ohio in line with how most other states fund charter schools and voucher programs.”

One potential problem. The new budget folds an important budget line from the FY21-FY22 budget, Governor Mike DeWine’s Student Wellness and Success Program, into the current budget’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid without additional funding. This program is “intended to provide resources to address nonacademic barriers to student success, including mental health services, ‘wraparound services’ such as dental, vision, and medical care, family engagement and support services, and after school programs and mentoring.” Fleeter explains that the change “raises questions as to whether this funding stream will ultimately be spent on new initiatives to help reduce non-academic barriers to student success (as envisioned by Governor DeWine) or will simply be absorbed into the spending that districts are already incurring.”

How the New Budget Addresses the Need for More Equitably Distributed School Funding

The FY22-FY23 budget introduces a new mechanism for calculating each school district’s capacity to raise the local portion of school funding: “The state and local share mechanism is by far the single most important driver of equity in Ohio’s school funding formula. Property wealth has traditionally been the basis for the state/local share calculation because it is a reflection of school districts’ varying local tax revenue capacity. However, it is essential that the income level of school district residents also be included because this is a reflection of the ‘ability-to-pay’ of district residents. Ability-to-pay is important in Ohio because the heavy reliance on school levies as a result of HB 920 (the state’s local property tax freeze law) means that districts with lower income residents are less able to tap into whatever tax capacity they have by approving local levies.”

The new state budget employs “an income factor which adjusts the local share downward (and the state share upward) in school districts with income levels below the statewide median income and does the reverse in districts with income levels above the statewide median income. The most current data available is used to make this calculation.” Fortunately the final state budget incorporates the House version of the new local share calculation. The Senate budget “did not update the property value and income data, continuing to use 2014, 2015, and 2016 property value data and 2013, 2014, and 2015 income data.  Had the Senate’s funding formula been implemented in FY22 and FY23, the underlying data would have been 10 years old when it was updated in FY24 and FY25, which would have likely caused serious funding disruptions for many school districts.”

One Huge Problem with the New School Funding Formula

The final FY22-FY23 state budget school funding plan was a compromise between the House version built around the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan and a new and much cheaper Senate proposal.  Although many of the mechanisms of the House Fair School Funding Plan were finally incorporated into the budget, the plan’s full six-year phase-in didn’t make it.

Fleeter writes: “The most significant concern with regard to Ohio’s new school funding formula is that HB110 (the final budget) specifies that the funding changes described above are only funded for the FY22 and FY23 school years. The funding formula developed by the Cupp-Patterson workgroup… called for a 6-year phase-in period. With the exception of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid… increases in all funding components are correspondingly phased in at a rate of 16.7% in FY22 and 33.3% in FY23.  However, under HB 110, there is no language which outlines further funding phase-ins in FY24 and beyond.”

The Legislature’s added failure to phase in the 100% increase in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid in FY22, as the House had proposed, and its failure to fund the House’s proposed cost study of the needs of economically disadvantaged students will only exacerbate the threat that the new formula once again will fall far behind what students need. There is good reason to fear that despite the best intentions of the legislators and experts who developed the Fair School Funding Plan over more than three years, this budget, will fail to address the needs of the state’s poorest children and will, as time passes, perpetuate long-running inequity.

One more thing… All the Ways the Legislature Expanded EdChoice Vouchers

The leadership in the Ohio Senate is devoted to expanding school privatization, and EdChoice vouchers are one place where the Ohio Senate left a big mark on the new state budget.  In his report last week, Fleeter simply lists all the ways the Legislature used the new FY22-FY23 budget to expand the state’s investment in one of its largest school voucher programs—EdChoice. The size of each K-8 voucher will grow from $4,650 to $5,500 and for each high school voucher from $6,000 to $7,500.  The legislature altogether eliminated “the cap on the number of EdChoice vouchers… which had previously been set at 60,000.” EdChoice vouchers are for children in the attendance area of a school on an eligibility list based on academic performance, but in the new budget all siblings of students who currently have a voucher are available wherever they live.  Students will also be eligible for EdChoice if they live in the attendance area of a public school that ranks in the lowest 20 percent on the State School Report Card Performance Index.  While there used to be a 75 day window for submitting an application for an EdChoice voucher, there is now “a rolling window with no closing date.”

And finally and most alarming, the new budget has begun “phasing out the requirement that students must have attended a public school in the year prior to qualifying for an EdChoice voucher. “This criteria had already applied to high school students (including incoming 9th graders) and will now be extended over a 4 year period to include K-8th grade students. By the FY26 school year no student would be required to have attended a public school in the year prior in order to be eligible to receive an EdChoice voucher.”

With the Legislature’s having reduced myriad limitations on eligibility for EdChoice vouchers, eliminating the cap, and making the application process open ended, one wonders how the overall budget for this program can possibly be anticipated or controlled.

That’s why, the Columbus Dispatch’s Grace Deng reports: “A coalition of 75 Ohio public school districts planning to sue the state over the EdChoice school voucher program said Monday the newly enacted state budget was an ‘assault’ on public schools.”

New Ohio Budget Will Demonstrate What Our State’s Leaders Value

I have never observed such a sense of urgency among educators and parents as we wait to see the compromises that will come out of Ohio’s House-Senate budget conference committee as soon as this afternoon. The Ohio Legislature must pass a budget and send it to Governor Mike DeWine for his signature by Thursday, the beginning of the FY 2022-2023 biennium.

One reason anxiety is running high is because the Ohio Senate has put off acting on a House-passed, brand new, school finance formula that experts say would comply with the demands of the Ohio Constitution for the first time since the Ohio Supreme Court found our state’s school funding unconstitutional 24 years ago. The Ohio Senate allowed legislation for the new school funding formula to die on December 31 at the end of the session by refusing to consider or vote on the bill after the House passed it earlier in the month.

Senate leaders argued they needed more time to study the plan, which the House reintroduced as Issue 1 last winter. When the Senate again failed to act, the House inserted the Fair School Funding Plan into its version of the next state budget, but the Senate didn’t respond until early June, when Senate leaders inserted their own substitute school funding plan—without significant discussion—into the Senate’s version of the state budget.

The House Fair School Funding Plan was developed by legislators, educators, and school finance experts over three years, while the Senate’s alternative merely appeared. The state’s seasoned school funding expert, who has studied and reported on our school funding system since the early 1990s, Howard Fleeter has explained not only that Senators based their new formula on outdated property valuation and median income data, a problem guaranteeing that the Senate’s plan won’t keep up with inflation, but also that the Senators failed to correct a mistaken calculation in the old formula that mismeasures each school district’s capacity to generate property tax revenue.

Why does all this arcane stuff seem frankly frightening to parents and teachers and school superintendents? Here are two experts dissecting the ongoing deterioration of Ohio’s method of funding public education, which left all of the state’s 610 school districts with state funding frozen at the FY 2019 level throughout the past two school years, and which previously had left over 80 percent of the state’s school districts on hold-harmless guaranteed funding or with state funding capped.

  1. In April, outlining Ohio’s urgent need for the Fair School Funding Plan, Policy Matters Ohio’s state fiscal expert Wendy Patton explained: “Even as policymakers have expected public schools to do more, they have cut state aid to public schools over time, by allowing it to be eroded by inflation and diversion of funds to charter schools… and vouchers… As a result, public schools have increasingly relied on local resources, which causes unequal funding…. This is because our state’s school funding system relies heavily on property taxes, which advantages wealthier districts… As corporations eliminated jobs with living wages in Ohio, racial discrimination in employment and government-sanctioned segregation forced Black, Indigenous and other people of color into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty…. Schools in these communities need additional resources, but the declining local tax base cannot generate what’s needed. Many rural and small-town districts have faced economic challenges that make it hard for them to provide local funding.”  Overreliance on local property taxes was specifically found unconstitutional in the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in DeRolph.
  2. In May 6, 2021 testimony to the Senate Education Committee, Howard Fleeter described how the framers of the House’s Fair School Funding Plan designed the plan to address what has been alarming and  long-standing inequity in Ohio school finance: “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in particular has lagged well behind the growth in the number of such students over the past 20 years (funding has increased 22% while the number of (these) students has increased 61% since FY01)… Studies in other states have indicated that the additional costs of educating low-income students are typically 30% or more… Targeted Assistance and Capacity Aid should be retained as is the case in the HB110 funding formula (the Fair School Funding Plan).  These two formula components supplement formula funding by providing additional funds to low wealth districts that lack the tax base to pursue local educational initiatives in the same manner that wealthier districts can through local levies.”

Thankfully, both chambers of the legislature say they will agree to eliminate the state’s punitive and disequalizing school district deduction method for funding vouchers and charter schools—a method which deducts a state-set fee for each voucher or charter school tuition right out of the local budget despite that the school district’s state per-pupil foundation assistance is in many cases less than the cost of the voucher or charter school tuition. But despite this important reform, the Ohio Senate’s school funding plan exacerbates several other problems for public schools on top of the primary problem of our dated, inequitable and inadequate school funding formula. The Senate’s budget hurts public schools by:

  • expanding  the size 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;
  • adding a neo-voucher tuition tax credit program for families with income below $300 percent of the federal poverty line;
  • creating taxpayer funded education savings accounts for home schooling;
  • permitting widespread scattering of charter schools across all the school districts in the state, while in the past their location has been limited to so-called “challenged” school districts; and
  • requiring 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.

All this is in addition to the Ohio Senate’s proposed 5 percent cut in income taxes. Policy Matters’ Wendy Patton presented testimony demonstrating that only the wealthy will benefit from what the Senate is proposing: “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.”

Despite Patton’s warning, Gongwer reports that Senate President Matt Huffman explained last week that new higher revenue projections for the upcoming biennium in addition to American Rescue Plan funds might push him to increase tax cuts above the 5 percent already proposed in the Senate’s early June budget. Huffman has declared that higher revenue must be spent on one-time expenses this year instead of long-term investments in education or other programs.  However, he has failed to acknowledge that the tax cuts he is proposing—based on this year’s revenue—would not be rescinded at the end of this year. These tax cuts would be permanent unless the legislature subsequently raised taxes.

Alarm about House-Senate budget negotiations is not limited to public school supporters.  In a letter last week to legislators and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, 97 state and local organizations identified problems in the Ohio Senate’s version of the budget: “It removes the plan to fairly and equitably fund our K-12 schools, dismantles the state’s foundation for ensuring high-quality child care, and removes critical funding to expand broadband access to our neighbors across the state. Another change will lead to fewer affordable housing options for low-income seniors, people with disabilities and parents trying to provide a better life for their children… All of these changes will be damaging to the long-term health and well-being of children, adults and families… particularly Ohioans with low wages… State lawmakers have cut income taxes for the wealthiest Ohioans for 16 years and Ohio continues to fall behind the nation on jobs, wages, and overall quality of life.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors castigate the lack of moral principle in the Ohio Senate’s proposed budget: “The Senate says it’s just being frugal but the numbers belie that. Its proposal would add to inequities in school funding while perpetuating divisions over something that should unite Ohioans of all political stripes—the need to invest in our children.”

This blog has examined Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan here.

EXTRA: Big 8 Ohio School Districts Protest Senate Plan for School Funding

The Ohio Legislature is considering a new school funding formula as part of the state budget which must be signed into law by July 1.  In this morning’s Plain Dealer, Laura Hancock reports* that the Ohio 8, the state’s largest urban school districts, held a news conference yesterday to protest several provisions of the Ohio Senate’s substitution of an inferior school funding plan for the Ohio House’s carefully developed and vetted Fair School Funding Plan.

Hancock reports that the state’s eight largest urban school districts announced: “The 25 wealthiest Ohio public school districts would receive the largest percentage increase in funding under the Senate’s version of education funding reform in the two-year state operating budget.  Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon said, ‘The 25 least wealthy districts in Ohio, including ours, received the smallest percentage of increase…  From an equity and fairness perspective, we would still advocate for a fair funding formula.'”

The Ohio 8 also point out an outrageous expansion of school privatization inserted quietly into the version of the budget now being considered by a House-Senate conference committee:

“The Ohio 8 group also disagrees with a budget provision currently being considered by the House-Senate conference committee that requires districts to sell or lease their buildings to charter, STEM or college-preparatory boarding schools in the district’s boundaries if the facility has been used for district academic instruction but less than 60% of the building is used for that purpose in the preceding school year.  That provision would go into effect July 1.”

Cleveland CEO Eric Gordon protests: “This is essentially evicting our schoolchildren out of our own buildings in order to give it to somebody else for other schoolchildren… They’re forcing us to move more children around our communities and there’s no similar provision that a charter school would have to use the whole space in the building.”

Hancock explains further: “Reasons that buildings are sometimes not at 100% capacity include them being used for wraparound services, for specialized programming, early learning, and after-school programming, Gordon said.”

It is appalling that the House-Senate budget conference committee is discussing a middle-of-the-night amendment to the budget that has never been considered at all in open hearings.  One wonders whether one of the large charter management organizations wrote the amendment and pulled strings to get it inserted into the state budget, or whether it was the Thomas Fordham Institute, which advocates for the expansion of charter schools and which, in Ohio, serves as a charter school authorizer.

The Ohio Legislature’s budget conference committee should insert the Ohio House’s thorough, equitable, stable Fair School Funding Plan back into the state budget. The plan was developed over three years by legislators, public school educators, and policy experts. The Ohio Constitution does not envision the investment of state budget dollars into a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect educational choice for each individual student.  Instead the state constitution defines public schools as an essential part of the social contract—the embodiment of our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens and to Ohio’s children.  The constitution mandates a thorough and efficient system of common schools.

*The link is an exact copy of the Plain Dealer‘s paywalled article.

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.

What Does Educational Equity Mean?

Monday, May 17, 2021, marked the 67th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which banned racially segregated schools and unequal access to education. Over more than two decades, NAACP attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall built up a series of court precedents leading to the 1954 decision in Brown, which declared that educational opportunity, “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” However, two-thirds of a century later in most places in the United States racial separation and inequity remain the conditions of our children at school.

Among advocates for educational equality, there has, for decades, been an ongoing conversation about the definition of equity. Iris Rotberg, a professor of education policy at George Washington University, recently published a column in which she quotes Thurgood Marshall’s definition all those years ago:  “We sit… not to resolve disputes over educational theory but to enforce our Constitution… I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

Rotberg interprets Marshall’s words: “The government’s responsibility, therefore, is to ensure equal opportunity, not to debate its link to student achievement.”  She is interpreting Marshall’s definition of justice to mean equality of educational inputs and not a comparison of test score outcomes.  She is advocating that states be held accountable for equalizing resources and that we reject what has come to be known as outcomes-based school reform which punishes schools and school districts where scores don’t quickly rise.

In its Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Schott Foundation for Public Education called America’s attention to disparities in educational inputs by demanding that we stop judging schools exclusively by standardized-test-score achievement gaps and instead try to conceptualize and measure opportunity gaps faced by the children across many parts of our country.  This spring, for example President Biden has recently taken the same approach, asking us to recognize opportunity gaps by including a provision in the American Rescue Plan, the recent COVID relief bill, to expand the Child Tax Credit to $3,000 per child ($3,600 for children under six-years-old), and make it fully refundable for families too poor to pay enough taxes to benefit from this measure.  Biden has been concerned that until now the current Child Tax Credit has left out the poorest children in this country. Their extreme poverty has created an opportunity gap that affects every aspect of their lives.

In education policy itself, equality of school inputs is a matter of school funding. Congress addressed this issue back in 1965 by establishing Title I to provide federal compensatory funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, but that program has long suffered from underfunding.

And during 2018 and 2019, in huge statewide Red4Ed walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma and big strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland and Chicago, schoolteachers helped us better grasp opportunity gaps. They protested that their students were suffering from shortages of school social workers, guidance counselors and school nurses; overcrowded classes of 40 students; lack of enriched curriculum and art and music; and shuttered school libraries.

Historically, as Thurgood Marshall recognized, unequal school funding has also accompanied school segregation as a driver of educational inequality.  When Reconstruction collapsed in 1868, legislators in the states of the former Confederacy did everything they could to segregate schools and drive money to the schools serving white children. In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains how, in post-Reconstruction constitutional conventions across the South, legislators not only segregated schools but also introduced the idea of making school funding reliant on local property taxes: “Make school funding dependent primarily on local tax revenues and give local officials more discretion in operating their schools. This would do two important things.  First, it would make vast inequality possible. Wealthy areas could spend as much on education as they wanted, and poor areas—areas heavily populated by blacks—would remain, well, poor. Second, wealthy white communities would effectively be relieved of the duty of supporting black education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 145)

In her recent column, Rotberg rejects the other failed education “reform” strategy lawmakers have been trying out for several decades: look at student outcomes as measured by standardized tests and then sanction schools and school districts that can’t quickly raise test scores: “(T)he United States focused on initiatives that had no direct link to equity, but that reformers hoped would raise student test scores and reduce the achievement gap—(in Marshall’s words) ‘what the children are able to do with what they receive.’… The second approach did little overall to make the country more equitable or to strengthen academic attainment.”  She is talking about outcomes-based accountability: ” ‘fixing’ the education system and rewarding or punishing teachers for students’ test scores… Three main reforms have dominated the education system and education policy research: charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools; holding teachers accountable for student performance; and curriculum standards to guide instruction. The results show little evidence that the reforms led to a more equitable society or to national gains in student achievement.”

Ohio provides a perfect case study for Rotberg’s argument for the state’s provision of adequate and equitable public school resources. In recent decades, Ohio education policy has relied heavily on the test-and-punish philosophy that Rotberg bluntly rejects. Ohio ranks schools by their test scores and brands the poorest districts with “F”s and wealthy exurban schools with “A”s on the school report cards the state issues. Ohio has rapidly expanded private school tuition vouchers and the state has expanded charter schools, but Ohio’s mechanism for school privatization reduces fiscal resources in the public school districts serving poor children. The state locates EdChoice voucher qualification only in school districts with Title I schools and deducts the vouchers right out of the local school budgets. And it permits the location of privatized charter schools only in the school districts where standardized test score outcomes are low. The state has seized three of the states poorest school districts and imposed emergency overseers without any observable school improvement.

While all this was going on, Ohio entirely abandoned the state’s constitutional mandate requiring adequate and equitable school funding. This month the Legislature is considering a new Fair School Funding Plan as part of the budget which must be passed by June 30. Experts have regularly pointed out the collapse of the state’s school funding formula—leaving school districts overly reliant on unequal local property taxes.  In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter explained: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a (working) school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.” Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

In Ohio and across many states, it is a good time to reconsider Justice Thurgood Marshall’s definition of equity: “I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

Buying into the Social Contract is Different from Buying Education with a Public Tuition Voucher in a Privatized School Marketplace

For a quarter of a century, Ohio has pursued the accountability-based “education reform” strategy that was formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Ohio holds schools accountable for raising students’ scores on high-stakes standardized tests by imposing sanctions on schools and school districts unable quickly to raise scores. Ohio identifies so-called “failing” public schools, ranks them on school district report cards, and locates privatized charter schools and voucher qualification within the boundaries of low-scoring districts.  Additionally, the state takes over so-called failing school districts and imposes Academic Distress Commissions as overseers. Ohio’s students are held back in third grade if their reading scores are too low, and high school seniors must pass exit exams to graduate.

After more than two decades of this sort of school policy, student achievement hasn’t increased and test score gaps have not closed.  Ohio is a state with eight big cities—Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Toledo, Youngstown, Akron, and Canton; lots of smaller cities and towns; Appalachian rural areas and Indiana-like rural areas; and myriad income-stratified suburbs. Just as they do across the United States, aggregate standardized test scores correlate most closely with family and neighborhood income, not with the characteristics of the public schools. In the fall of 2019, the Plain Dealer’s data wonk, Rich Exner, created a series of bar graphs to demonstrate the almost perfect correlation of school districts’ letter grades on the state school district report card with family income.

But while Ohio has punished so-called “failing” schools, it hasn’t done much to help the public schools in Ohio’s poorest communities. In profound testimony before the Ohio State Board of Education in early April, Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton described several decades of fiscal realities for Ohio’s 610 school districts, conditions that have accompanied the decades of punitive accountability: “(T)he state provided slightly more than half of the funding for Ohio schools, on average, in 1987, but since then local dollars have paid for the greater part of funding… Gov. Ted Strickland narrowed the gap over his 4 year term…. But Gov. John Kasich promptly reversed that effort with a $1.8 billion cut to school funding imposed over the two-year budget of 2012-13.  School funding has lagged ever since. By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

Patton continues, noting that state funding has been not only inadequate but also unstable: “Lawmakers have allowed state funding for Ohio’s public schools to rise and fall over time, adjusted for inflation. They also changed the formula for granting state aid four times over the past dozen years.  Uncertainty in state aid made planning and staffing hard for districts…  Poverty affects children’s ability to learn, and concentrated poverty makes it worse.  In the first years following the Supreme Court finding (DeRolph case), educators persuaded the legislature to provide extra funding for students experiencing poverty.  But over time the number of economically disadvantaged students in Ohio rose, but funding did not keep pace.”

While Ohio’s legislature has doggedly enacted punitive school accountability and at the same time allowed school funding to collapse, however, in recent years a philosophical divide in the legislature has emerged and widened on the subject of public school funding.  Despite that both of Ohio’s legislative chambers are now dominated by Republican supermajorities, the Ohio House, led by Bob Cupp, passed a major Fair School Funding Plan last December, a plan that meets the 24-year—until now unfulfilled—mandate of the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in DeRolph v. Ohio.  The Ohio House passed the Fair School Funding Plan by an overwhelming margin of 87-9 and sent it to the Senate, where Senate Finance Committee Chair Matt Dolan and incoming Senate President Matt Huffman killed the plan at the end of the legislative session by refusing to bring it to the floor for a vote.

In early February in the Ohio House, sponsors immediately reintroduced the Fair School Funding Plan at the beginning of the new legislative session. Then the Ohio House folded the plan into the proposed FY 2022-23 biennial budget, which the House passed on Wednesday and sent forward as HB 110 to the Ohio Senate. Although the need for a new school funding plan has been exhaustively demonstrated, there is widespread worry that the fate of the Fair School Funding plan rests with Senator Matt Huffman, whose website defines him this way: “President Huffman is devoted to quality school choices for all families, lowering taxes and reducing regulations on Ohio’s small business.”

The Toledo Blade‘s Jim Provance describes Huffman’s careful but unenthusiastic response to the school funding plan in the new budget: “Senate President Matt Huffman (R.. Lima) raised concerns about the general level of spending in the House-passed plan: ‘Financially, the government is in good shape at the state level… That doesn’t mean necessarily all the citizens are. I think it’s easier to make decisions that can be catastrophic in the long term when, at the moment, there’s a lot of money available.'”

The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s Jessie Balmert reports the same kind of lukewarm, cautious response from Huffman: “The fate of that new school funding formula, which would be phased in over six years, is murky.  Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, has said he doesn’t like the price tag, and the GOP-controlled Senate is working on its own way to pay for schools.”

The thing is that Matt Huffman has not been the least bit shy about expanding his own priority for school privatization. Last November he alone revised one of Ohio’s punitive educational accountability schemes—EdChoice Vouchers—by putting the burden for paying for the vouchers on the state’s poorest school districts. In late November of last year, Huffman rammed through, without any open hearings, changes in the EdChoice Voucher program, which has for several years been funded through school district deductions. (The state counts voucher students as though they are enrolled in a school district and then removes $6,000 for each high school student and $4,650 for each K-8 student right out of the school district’s local budget for the student to pay private school tuition. The district receives the state’s per-pupil basic aid for each of the students, but in many cases the voucher extracts more money than the school district receives for that student from the state.)  In November, to solidify support for the program from legislators representing Ohio’s wealthy suburbs, Huffman revised the program so that only students in federally designated Title I schools can now qualify for EdChoice vouchers, thereby placing the financial burden of this program only on the school districts serving Ohio’s poorest children.

Now that the Fair School Funding Plan has been sent to the Ohio Senate as part of the House budget, the worry, of course, is that Huffman’s chamber will delete the plan—developed over several years to balance the need for adequate and equitably distributed state school funding—or redesign it to save money. The plan is calculated around the actual costs of personnel like teachers, counselors, and school nurses and other basics like technology, transportation, and facilities.  In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter presented testimony explaining that due to a long collapse in school funding, Ohio’s school funding formula has ceased to work: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.  In FY12 and FY13, Ohio employed the ‘Bridge’ formula which was not really a formula at all, instead basing funding on FY11 levels. From FY14 through FY19, Ohio did have a school funding formula; however, this formula suffered from several significant deficiencies. First the base cost was not based on any adequacy methodology, instead just utilizing per pupil amounts selected by the legislature. This approach is the very embodiment of ‘residual budgeting’ which was explicitly ruled unconstitutional in the March 1997 DeRolph ruling.”  Although the term “residual budgeting” sounds technical, what Fleeter means is that from FY 14 to FY 19, without considering actual school expenses, the Legislature simply set per-pupil state funding based on now much “residual” money the Legislature had left in the budget after funding all the other expenses of state government.

What would cause Ohio’s state senators to fail to address such a serious injustice for our state’s children?

What we are watching here in Ohio is a conflict in basic values between House and Senate and even between two Republicans from Lima, Ohio: Bob Cupp, the Speaker of the House, and Matt Huffman, the Senate President. Senator Huffman understands schooling from the point of view of consumerist individualism: He supports policies that encourage families to choose their children’s education privately as though they are buying a car or a selecting a smart phone. But the money to pay tuition would come from Ohio tax revenues. Representative Cupp, who has spent a long legislative career informing himself about school finance, understands our public schools, protected by the specific language of the Ohio Constitution, as the center of the social contract. Public education is an institution that epitomizes our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens in a democratic experiment.

The wide support for the Fair School Funding plan expressed by the members of the Ohio House of Representatives demonstrates the values defined by the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber: “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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the New “Fair School Funding Plan” Matters for One Ohio School District: Will the Ohio Senate Let It Die?

In Ohio, the state senate is refusing even to consider a new school funding plan, developed over a period of several years to replace the old school funding system that has become progressively unworkable over the past decade.  Last Thursday, the Ohio House of Representatives passed the proposed new plan by a huge margin: 84-8.  But the Ohio Senate Finance Committee has not even chosen to hold open hearings on its own companion bill, which was introduced early last month as Senate Bill 376.  The current biennial legislative session will end on December 31, and without consideration by the Ohio Senate and passage by that date, the Fair School Funding Plan will die.

If the Ohio Senate refuses to pass this bill, it will be merely one more piece of proof that the incoming senate president, Matt Huffman, and Matt Dolan, who chairs the senate’s finance committee, are committed to supporting children in private and religious schools with publicly funded vouchers at the expense of the 1.6 million children and adolescents who are enrolled in our state’s public schools.

The testimony I submitted last month to the Ohio House Finance Committee on behalf of the Heights Coalition for Public Education details why passage of the new plan is so important to one school district—the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, in an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. Here is that testimony.

The Heights Coalition for Public Education commends the sponsors in both chambers of the Ohio Legislature for bringing forward the proposed Fair School Funding Plan, defined by Substitute HB 305. The bill’s original sponsors described the new plan’s necessity when it was introduced a year and a half ago: Eighty percent of the state’s school districts, 503 of 610 districts, were capped or had fallen onto guarantee. Today, neither base cost nor categorical state school funding comes close to approximating the actual cost of K-12 schooling in Ohio.

Substitute HB 305 enhances equity, increases the state’s investment in the under-resourced public schools and school districts with concentrations of the state’s poorest children, and ends school district deduction funding for charter schools and tuition vouchers for private school tuition.

We commend the sponsors of the bill for revising the original plan to enhance equity. For measuring local capacity, you have expanded the range of the sliding scale to ensure that the state better distinguishes wealthy school districts from the school districts with low property tax bases or those which struggle to pass levies because their residents are impoverished. And you have increased categorical aid for economically disadvantaged students from $272 per pupil to $422 per pupil, an urgently important change. The purpose of the state school funding plan, in accord with the provisions of the Ohio Constitution, is to create a system that ensures that all children are provided an equitable opportunity to learn. The late political theorist, Benjamin Barber defined educational equity: “Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical…” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, p. 13)

For many years—through mechanisms like the state report card which rates and ranks school districts; the third grade guarantee; the state takeovers in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland; and the assignment of charter schools and vouchers, all based primarily on aggregate standardized test scores—Ohio has doled out punishments for schools and school districts that serve concentrations of the state’s poorest children. However, a mass of educational research documents that aggregate standardized test scores for any school or school district correlate with family and neighborhood income and are a poor measure of school quality. In September of 2019, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a stunning analysis, by the newspaper’s data analyst Rich Exner, of the school district grades awarded by the state of Ohio on the 2018-2019 state report cards. Exner’s bar graphs present a series of almost perfect downward staircases, with “A” grades for school districts in communities with high median income and “F” grades for the school districts in Ohio’s poorest communities. The correlation of academic achievement with family income has been demonstrated now for half a century, but too often Ohio policy has blamed public school teachers and administrators instead of using the resources of government to assist struggling families who need better access to healthcare, quality childcare, better jobs, food assistance, and better resourced public schools.

Substitute HB 305 eliminates school district deduction funding for the state’s vouchers and charter schools, and would, therefore remedy what has become a primary source of inequality in Ohio’s system of funding public schools. Because, in Ohio, students in so-called failing schools qualify for vouchers, and because the siting of charter schools is limited to districts with lower test scores, “school district deduction” funding for these programs punishes the very school districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty. Not only will vouchers and charter schools drain $2,352,881,306 overall from the budgets of Ohio school districts for vouchers and charters in FY 21 and FY 22, according to William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition of Equity and Adequacy, but the cost of these school district deductions for vouchers and charters is inequitably distributed across the state’s 610 school districts. School district deduction funding, which is said to provide students an escape from so called “failing” schools, inequitably sucks money out of the local budgets of school districts which serve children who need expensive additional services. Many of these districts also have the lowest capacity to raise local revenue. In many cases, the students carrying away the vouchers have never been enrolled in the districts from which they are carrying away the money.

In a white paper last April , a co-convener of the Heights Coalition, Susan Kaeser explains why specifically the EdChoice voucher program, funded by school district deduction, is inequitable: “The financial burden of EdChoice vouchers is not shared evenly by school districts across the state, punishing some districts and not others. This disparity is made worse by the reality that the majority of students in the districts most affected by vouchers live in poverty and are not white…”

The Heights Coalition advocates for the public schools in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District. whose school district budget has been devastated in recent years by EdChoice vouchers. Why?  First is the clamor for vouchers among a growing community of religious families whose children have never been enrolled in the district’s public schools. The second reason is the increase over the years in impoverished students currently enrolled in our public schools. According to the Ohio Department of  Education’s 2019 Cupp Printout, 99.98 percent of our students are currently designated as disadvantaged.

Here is what the school district deduction for EdChoice vouchers has done to our school district. In a PowerPoint presented to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education last month, the school district’s treasurer, Scott Gainer explains that in our school district the number of students claiming vouchers—and the dollars being deducted from our school district’s budget—have grown precipitously. Much of the growth occurred when the Legislature, in the FY 20-21 biennial state budget, expanded eligibility to all students in grades 8-11 in EdChoice designated schools. The amount diverted from our school district budget to EdChoice vouchers has grown from $2,256,017 in 2017;  to $3,232,403 in 2018;  to $4,187,249 in 2019;  to $7,074,249 in 2020;  to $9,017,250 in the current 2020-2021 school year.

Currently 1,792 students are carrying vouchers out of our school district budget at the expense of the 4,810 students enrolled in our public schools. This year EdChoice voucher students are diverting to private and religious schools 45 percent of the school district’s state’s foundation school funding despite that they represent only 27 percent of the combined total of students the state counts as part of the district.

While 1,240 of vouchers granted by the state this year are renewals, which means that the district continues to collect state aid to cover a portion of the cost of each voucher, students applied for 552 new vouchers for this school year—a year when the state budget allocation is frozen at the FY 2019 level. For these 552 students, the district is forced to cover the full cost of their vouchers—$2,566,800—out of the local school district budget.

And while the legislature claims that the vouchers are designed to help students and their families be able to make a choice to leave public schools, Gainer documents that in our school district during the current school year, 1,699 of the 1,792 students carrying the vouchers out of our school district—roughly 95 percent—have never been enrolled in our public schools. In essence, this means that in our school district, and across Ohio, the Legislature is forcing local public school districts to undertake an unexpected expense: paying for private and religious education.

In the DeRolph decision, the Ohio Supreme Court charged the state legislature to create a system that is no longer overly reliant on the passage of local operating millage. Currently in our district, EdChoice diverts 45 percent of state foundation funding out of our school budget and forces our voters to replace this funding with additional local operating levies.

The Heights Coalition for Public Education commends you for considering Substitute HB 305. The Fair School Funding Plan is a comprehensive blueprint which, when funded, will ensure that public schools across Ohio can provide an opportunity to learn for all of our children. We urge you promptly to enact the Fair School Funding Plan.

Ohio Legislative Leader Rams Through Voucher Changes that Hurt Students in Poor, Title I Schools

This post has been updated.

The Ohio Senate is up to its old tricks.

Five years ago right at the end of a spring session of the Ohio Legislature, a group of state senators added a long amendment to House Bill 70, which was about expanding the number of full service, wraparound community learning centers—schools with medical and social services located right in the school. The amendment had nothing to do with the subject of the original bill. The amendment’s purpose was to establish the state takeover of the school district in Youngstown and set up a procedure for state takeovers of other so-called “failing” school districts. A deal had been cut. No opponent testimony was permitted. The Ohio Senate passed the amended HB 70 and sent it back for quick approval by the Ohio House. Within hours, Governor John Kasich had signed it, and without public input, an appointed Academic Distress Commission supplanted the elected school board in Youngstown.

This time the subject is vouchers.

Last spring, just as everything shut down due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, both houses of the Ohio Legislature debated changes in the EdChoice voucher program and came up with two separate bills. EdChoice eligibility is currently described by legislators as “performance-based.” The state designates EdChoice schools by these schools’ low ratings on the state’s school district report card, which everybody agrees is flawed. Last spring the program was expected to double in size. At angry hearings, school districts complained because EdChoice vouchers are funded through something called “the school district deduction.” The House plan would have funded the vouchers out of the state budget; the Senate plan kept the school district deduction.

When COVID-19 shut everything down and House and Senate were unable to agree on a plan, a conference committee began quietly meeting. It’s been a complicated year, so everybody was surprised last week when the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reported that Matt Huffman, a powerful legislator already elected to be senate president in the new legislative session beginning in January, had announced that the conference committee has a new plan for EdChoice vouchers. On Wednesday of this week, without any public hearings and without any real attempt to explain Huffman’s EdChoice scheme to the public, the Ohio Senate passed Huffman’s new plan as part of Senate Bill 89. On Thursday SB 89 was approved by the Ohio House .

Thank you, Senator Teesa Fedor (D-Toledo) for speaking the truth despite being outvoted. The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben reports that Fedor protested that the new EdChoice plan “does not reflect the public school advocates and the issues they brought forward (last spring). At best, this change is based on arbitrary criteria.”

What Is Huffman’s New Plan?

Here is how the EdChoice program has been working. Schools are “EdChoice Designated” by their scores on the state report card. The state continues to count the voucher students as though they are enrolled in the public schools and gives each voucher student’s per pupil state foundation formula funding to the school district, but then deducts the voucher from the school district’s local budget. The problem is that in all but a handful of the state’s school districts, the cost of the voucher—$4,650 for a K-8 voucher or $6,000 for a high school voucher—is higher than the amount the state gives the school district for that student. EdChoice voucher deductions rob school districts of essential budget dollars. And in the current budget biennium, with state school funding frozen at the FY19 level for all school districts, 100 percent of the cost of newly awarded vouchers is being covered by local school district budgets. Thus EdChoice vouchers reduce local school budgets at the expense of needed programming for the students who attend traditional public schools.

Huffman’s new, revised SB 89 plan passed on Wednesday by the Ohio Senate and accepted by the Ohio House on Thursday, still uses the school district deduction method of funding. But instead of relying on the school district report cards—whose calculation everybody regards as flawed—Huffman’s plan starts by targeting public schools where at least 20 percent of students qualify for federal Title I funding. Title I schools are identified by the federal government because they serve concentrations of students living in poverty. Second,  Huffman’s plan selects the 20 percent of Ohio’s schools scoring lowest on the performance index of the state report cards. Through the combination of these two factors, Huffman’s plan designates the schools which will qualify for EdChoice. The new Huffman plan will designate only 469 schools.  Under the old state report card designation process, EdChoice had been expected to double its current size this winter to 1,229 schools.

Serious Questions about Huffman’s New Plan

Why does Senator Huffman want to extract precious funding from the budgets of school districts that serve concentrations poor students who themselves need smaller classes and more programming in their public schools?  Despite that the Ohio Legislature justifies EdChoice vouchers as a way to help poor students (ignoring considerable evidence—see Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, The Public School Advantage—that private and religious schools are not superior to public schools), the plan hurts the mass of poor students whose public schools are diminished when the vouchers extract money out of their public school’s budget. Tebben quotes State Senator Andy Brenner—among the Legislature’s farthest-to-the-right ALEC members who once dubbed public schools a form of socialism—disingenuously justifying the new plan as a salvation for poor students who attend so-called “failing” schools: “We need to make sure that those students are given a solid education and yes, I would love to see that those students stay in their original, traditional buildings if they could do that… But they’re not learning… They should be allowed that opportunity.”

The situation in the school district where I live, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, typifies the mistake in the Legislature’s justification.  In the CH-UH school district during the current school year, 1,699 of the 1,792 students carrying the vouchers out of the school district—95 percent—have never been enrolled in the school district’s public schools. In essence this means that in CH-UH, and across Ohio, the Legislature is forcing local public school districts to undertake the unexpected expense of paying for private and religious education. Dispatch reporter, Staver quotes both Senator Huffman and current Senate President Larry Obhoff worrying about private and religious school families who fear losing vouchers as the reason the Senate must hurry up and pass the new plan, but it is the state’s poorest public school students who will lose out under Huffman’s new plan.

Covering Huffman’s new plan, cleveland.com’s Jeremy Pelzer quotes Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, condemning the new plan because it is increasingly targeted to districts serving children in poverty: “Schools that rate low on the state’s performance index are usually in areas of the state with high poverty rates…  We don’t think that’s fair… We don’t think this is a good day for Ohio’s kids.” DiMauro’s assessment is correct. Last March, part of the controversy about EdChoice vouchers was that the Ohio school district report card designation had projected a number of schools in wealthy suburbs becoming EdChoice Designated as the number of Designated schools was set to explode to 1,229.  By limiting EdChoice Designated schools to Title I schools, Huffman’s new plan will protect the local budgets of the outer suburban districts serving wealthy families from EdChoice voucher deductions.

Why did Senator Huffman sneak through a redesigned voucher plan without hearings when the Legislature is currently holding hearings on a carefully developed, bipartisan comprehensive school funding plan that his voucher funding scheme contradicts? Important questions about Huffman’s rushed attempt to pass SB 89 this week arise because the Ohio House and Ohio Senate are currently considering Substitute HB 305 and SB 376, which together constitute a new, comprehensive state school funding system. The Fair School Funding Plan, a bipartisan effort that has undergone two years of analysis, is currently in open hearings, and must be passed by the end of the current legislative session on December 31, 2020 or the process would have to start over again.  The Fair School Funding Plan is designed to rectify an old formula that has stopped working altogether.  A decade of state tax cuts has left the formula underfunded; 508 of the state’s 610 school districts had been operating under caps or hold harmless guarantees until the current biennial budget froze all formula state aid at the FY 2019 level. The new plan identifies growing inequity as a particular problem as the state has failed to help the school districts with the lowest local taxing capacity and the greatest number of impoverished students. If it is adopted, the new Fair School Funding formula would increase state categorical per-pupil assistance for disadvantaged students from $272 per pupil to $422 per pupil.

The new Fair School Funding Plan would also eliminate all school district deduction funding for vouchers and charters. The Ohio House has begun hearing open testimony from public school superintendents, treasurers, parents, and advocates about the dire need for more state assistance.  Even the state’s fast-growing outer suburbs have been suffering under capped funding as they need to hire more teachers. The state’s poorest school districts are desperate. I wonder why Senator Huffman has rushed through a bill to confirm school district deduction voucher funding at the same time the Legislature is considering banning this funding method?

Why is Senator Huffman designating Ohio schools by their Title I status for vouchers that extract local school district funding, thereby directly undermining the purpose of the federal Title I program?  The federal Title Formula program was enacted in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. Its purpose was federally improving school funding equity by supplementing state funding in the schools serving our nation’s poorest students. Now the Ohio Legislature has passed a plan to use the Title I designation to identify school districts from which state will be diverting funding for EdChoice vouchers for private and religious schools. Ironically and tragically, Ohio Senate Bill 89 will undermine the purpose of Title I by denying opportunity for the students enrolled in the state’s Title I public schools.

Ohio Legislature Looks to Adopt New School Finance Plan During 2020 Lame Duck Session

The Ohio Legislature will waste no time before trying to enact—before the end of the current legislative session at the end of December—a Fair School Funding Plan, which was proposed in the spring of 2019. The Ohio House has been holding hearings for months on what, this week, became Substitute House Bill 305. Last week Senate Education Chair, Peggy Lehner, and 14 additional co-sponsors introduced a companion bill, Senate Bill 376.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky summarizes the Ohio Legislature’s attempt to move forward immediately to pass the new school funding blueprint: “A bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Friday unveiled a complex and long-sought overhaul of Ohio’s school funding system that would provide another $1.99 billion a year—about a 24% increase—to K-12 schools when fully implemented. The proposal to change the way state aid is calculated and distributed to public schools establishes the per-pupil cost of ‘a quality education,’ and determines how much funding each local community should be able to cover itself and how much should come from the state. It aims to keep overall funding levels relatively even across the state despite widely varied tax bases across Ohio’s more than 600 school districts.”

The term-limiting of several of the plan’s co-sponsors is accelerating the timeline for seeking the bill’s passage before the end of 2020.

Here is the primary reason why a new school funding plan is needed in Ohio. Materials released when the new funding plan was introduced in the spring of 2019 showed that before the current biennium, in 503 of the state’s 610 school districts, state school funding was capped or the district had fallen onto a hold-harmless guarantee. Then the current biennial budget for FY 2020-2021, froze the state’s contribution to state foundation school funding at the FY 2019 level with no increase to cover normal inflation.

The purpose of a state school funding plan, in accord with the provisions of each state’s constitution, is to create a system ensuring that all children, no matter where they live, are provided an equitable opportunity to learn. The late political theorist, Benjamin Barber defined educational equity: “Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical…” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, p. 13)

The Fair School Funding Plan Would Make Ohio School Funding More Equitable

The plan the Ohio Legislature now hopes to pass has been modified from an earlier version to enhance equity.  It directs additional funding to the state’s poorest school districts, particularly those in urban areas where poverty is concentrated. The plan was developed through a comprehensive costing out study to establish an ongoing method for defining the per-pupil base cost, which the formula then modifies through a calculation of each school district’s local capacity to raise school revenue. Local capacity in this plan combines two measures: (1) each school district’s local property valuation and (2) the income of the school district’s residents (as a proxy for their capacity to vote to pass local levies). Modifications to the original plan have expanded the calculation that divides the state’s school districts into five tiers based on local school district wealth categories. Very significantly, the revised plan increases categorical aid for economically disadvantaged students from $272 per pupil to $422 per pupil.

The Fair School Funding Plan Eliminates School District Deduction Funding for Charters and Vouchers

The Fair School Funding Plan does nothing to reduce the extensive school privatization that already exists in Ohio.  Ohio’s original school voucher program is the second oldest in the country, and the legislature has multiplied the number of statewide school voucher programs at public expense.  Neither does the new plan control the number of charter schools nor does it enhance regulation of what has proven to be a charter sector filled with conflicts of interest and fraud.

However, the new plan significantly shifts the funding mechanism for some of these programs. In Ohio, while some of the voucher and charter programs are currently funded out of the state budget, the legislature has recently expanded the funding of statewide EdChoice vouchers by deducting dollars right out of school districts’ local budgets for students to carry away in vouchers for private school tuition.

In the current biennial budget, passed in the summer of 2019, the Legislature expanded EdChoice vouchers by adding new grade level cohorts of students who qualify in designated schools and also by expanding the number of schools the state deems “EdChoice designated.” Because the burden of EdChoice falls most heavily on public school districts serving poor children, the expansion of EdChoice, which is funded by the local deduction method, poses serious equity concerns, by extracting essential dollars that could otherwise be used for reducing class size and hiring counselors, social workers, school nurses, and librarians.

The proposed Fair School Funding Plan eliminates the school district deduction funding mechanism for the state’s vouchers and charter schools and would, therefore, remedy what has become a primary inequity in Ohio’s system of funding schools. Here is the sponsors’ explanation of Substitute HB 305: “‘Enrollment’ used in HB 305 means the number of students actually being educated by the district. Students attending community schools (Ohio’s name for charter schools), other schools through one of the state scholarship programs (Ohio’s name for vouchers), or court-placed in schools outside the district of residence would be counted for funding purposes in the school where they are being taught. Students open enrolling into a district also would be counted as students of the district where they are taught.  In all of these instances, funding would go directly (from the state) to the educating entity.”

The Fair School Funding Plan’s elimination of the school district deduction as the funding mechanism for privatized vouchers and charter schools  is one of the urgently important reasons for the Legislature to pass Substitute HB 305 and SB 376.  Recently the Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, Bill Phillis documented that in FY 21 and FY 22, “$2,352,881,306 will be deducted statewide from local school district budgets for vouchers and charters.

In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, the district where I live, the amount of the local school district deduction for EdChoice vouchers has grown explosively: from $2,256,017 in 2017;  to $3,232,403 in 2018;  to $4,187,249 in 2019;  to $7,074,249 in 2020;  to $9,017,250 in the current 2020-2021 school year. This year students with vouchers are carrying away 45 percent of the school district’s state foundation funding to pay private and religious school tuition. Ninety-five percent of the students carrying vouchers out of the CH-UH public school budget this year have never been enrolled in the district’s public schools. In essence, this means that in the CH-UH school district, and across Ohio, the Legislature has been forcing local public school districts to undertake an unexpected expense: paying for private and religious education. 

Will the Ohio Legislature Raise the Funds to Pay for a Six Year Phase-In of the Fair School Funding Plan?

The caution about the new plan is that sponsors call it a blueprint, but they are clear that it will not come with immediate funding appropriations to cover the cost.  A six year phase-in is anticipated.

Funding the new plan will pose a major challenge as, after a decade of tax cuts during Governor John Kasich’s tenure, the state lacks the necessary revenue to cover the cost of the new plan. The worry about funding is complicated by projections, reported last Friday by the Plain Dealer‘s Jeremy Pelzer, that Ohio will face a state budget shortfall in the current fiscal year of $2 billion (before June 30, 2021) due to the COVID-19 recession which is expected to continue and perhaps intensify unless the pandemic can be brought under control through testing and contact tracing until a vaccine is widely available. Late last spring, after the pandemic caused business shutdowns and widespread layoffs, Governor Mike DeWine was forced by a recessionary collapse in state revenue to cut $330 million out of the already appropriated FY 20 state K-12 education funding. This money, which school districts had already allocated for specific expenses, disappeared before June 30.

Despite Worries About Paying for the 6-Year Phase-In, the Legislature Should Adopt the Fair School Funding Plan.

Despite concerns about how the Legislature will fund the six-year phase-in of the plan, it is important that a bipartisan coalition of Ohio legislators has come together to create a blueprint school funding formula, which would fulfill the Legislature’s obligation under the state constitution to provide all of Ohio’s children equal access to educational opportunity. It will be up to the public to support the full funding of the new plan.