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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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