Outrageous Ohio Republican Gerrymandering and the Consequences for Our Public Schools

In State Legislatures are Torching Democracy, which appears in this week’s New Yorker Magazine, Jane Mayer examines what is happening in my state, Ohio, as an exemplar of what’s gone wrong in American politics.

Mayer recounts an interview with David Niven, a political science professor from the University of Cincinnati, who, “told me that, according to one study, the laws being passed by Ohio’s statehouse place it to the right of the deeply conservative legislature in South Carolina. How did this happen, given that most Ohio voters are not ultraconservatives? ‘It’s all about gerrymandering,’ Niven told me. The legislative-district maps in Ohio have been deliberately drawn so that many Republicans effectively cannot lose, all but insuring that the Party has a veto-proof supermajority. As a result, the only contests most Republican incumbents need to worry about are the primaries—and because hard-core partisans dominate the vote in those contests, the sole threat most Republican incumbents face is the possibility of being outflanked by a rival even farther to the right.”

Ted Strickland, Ohio’s Democratic governor from 2007-2011 told Mayer: “The legislature is as barbaric, primitive, and Neanderthal as any in the country. It’s really troubling.” On the other hand, Mayer quotes the extremely contented, complacent, and complicit Republican who rules Columbus today, Matt Huffman, the current president of the Ohio Senate: “We can kind of do what we want.”

Mayer reports: “The vast majority of Ohio residents clearly want legislative districts that are drawn more fairly. By 2015, the state’s gerrymandering problem had become so notorious that seventy-one percent of Ohioans voted to pass an amendment to the state constitution demanding reforms. As a result, the Ohio constitution now requires that districts be shaped so that the makeup of the General Assembly is proportional to the political makeup of the state. In 2018, an even larger bipartisan majority—seventy-five percent of Ohio voters—passed a similar resolution for the state’s congressional districts. Though these reforms were democratically enacted, the voters’ will has thus far been ignored.”  That is because this year as redistricting took place following the 2020 Census, the five Republicans on the seven member redistricting commission were led by Republican Senate President Matt Huffman, Republican House Speaker, Bob Cupp, and Republican Governor, Mike DeWine. “Currently, the Republican members have a 64-35 advantage in the House and a 25-8 advantage in the Senate. This veto-proof majority makes the Republican leaders of both chambers arguably the most powerful officeholders in the state.”

Mayer describes the story of this year’s redistricting from the point of view of Allison Russo, the minority leader in the Ohio House and one of the two Democrats on the redistricting commission: “(T)he Republican members drafted a new districting map in secret, and earlier this year they presented it to her and the other Democrat just hours before a deadline… The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the map—and then struck down four more, after the Republican majority on the redistricting commission continued submitting maps that defied the spirit of the Court’s orders… The Republicans’ antics lasted so long that they basically ran out the clock… At that point, a group allied with Republicans, Ohio Right to Life, urged a federal court to intervene, on the ground that the delay was imperiling the fair administration of upcoming elections. The decision was made by a panel of three federal judges—two of whom had been appointed by Trump. Over the strenuous objections of the third judge, the two Trump judges ruled in the group’s favor, allowing the 2022 elections to proceed with a map so rigged that Ohio’s top judicial body had rejected it as unconstitutional.”

Mayer traces what happened to Ohio back to 2010 and 2011 as Republicans developed a “REDMAP” strategy to take over state legislatures and Congress: “In 2010, the Supreme Court issued its controversial Citizens United decision, which allowed dark money to flood American politics. Donors, many undisclosed, soon funneled thirty million dollars into the Republicans’ redistricting project, called REDMAP, and the result was an astonishing success: the Party picked up nearly seven hundred legislative seats, and won the power to redraw the maps for four times as many districts as the Democrats.”

For some background on the “RedMap” plan, we can turn to Gordon Lafer, whose 2017 book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time,” explores the Republican strategy to take over state legislatures: “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… ‘RedMap’ for short… aimed at winning control of legislatures that would be charged with redrawing congressional districts, following the 2010 census. This effort—funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, and ALEC member corporations—helped turn eleven states all red, with Republicans controlling the governor’s office and both legislative chambers. Critically this sweep included a belt of states running across the upper Midwest, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. Newly empowered in traditionally pro-union states that are battlegrounds in national politics, corporate lobbies and their legislative allies moved quickly to enact sweeping reforms intended to advance their economic agenda and cement their political advantage.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 34-38)

In this week’s article, Mayer expands the list of powerful sponsors of far right interests in today’s Ohio.  Added to the corporate interests are hot-button advocacy groups promoting pro-gun, anti-reproductive freedom legislation along with efforts to control the school curriculum.  For example, Mayer describes the Center for Christian Virtue, a statewide organization affiliated with the religious right’s national Alliance Defending Freedom. Mayer interviews one Ohio state representative, Gary Click, who “acknowledged to me that the group had prompted him to introduce a bill opposing gender-affirming care for transgender youths, regardless of parental consent. The center, in essence, handed Click the wording for the legislation.”

Mayer’s focus is legislative gerrymandering’s effect on on hot, culture war legislation including reproductive rights, but she does discuss one proposed bill on education—to ban the discussion in the public schools of divisive topics like race, racism, and LGBTQ concerns. In fact three such bills have been proposed—HB 322, HB 327, and HB 616.  The Legislature also recently passed a bill to permit school districts to arm teachers and another banning transgender girls from school sports.

However, Mayer doesn’t mention another important complication gerrymandering has inserted into Ohio’s debate about public school teaching about racism.  After a battle on the State Board of Education about an anti-racism resolution, passed in 2020 and later rescinded under pressure from powerful Republican legislators, Governor Mike DeWine has, with impunity, imposed a gerrymandered map of State Board of Education districts. The Governor’s map is based on one of the state senate district maps previously rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court.  The governor’s new, gerrymandered State Board district map violates state law and will, in future elections, dilute the voting power of African American citizens in metropolitan Cleveland and Columbus. Despite a campaign by advocates for a fair State Board map, the Governor’s map will very likely be formally adopted tomorrow, on August 10, 2022.

Beyond the scope of Mayer’s article, however, Republican-gerrymandered Ohio legislative politics have also undermined the very foundation of the state’s system of public schools, which educate 1.8 million students.  The most recent FY 2022-2023 state budget, passed in July of 2021 included a new “Fair School Funding Plan” designed supposedly to remedy years of  inequitably distributed and inadequate school funding.  But in that same budget bill, the Ohio Legislature underfunded the new school funding plan and failed to launch a full phase-in of the program because it spent the money instead to expand school privatization (See here, here and here.) The budget bill significantly lifted the number of students who can qualify for private school tuition vouchers, expanded eligible sites for charter schools from a limited number of school districts to every district in the state, and significantly increased the dollar amount of each EdChoice voucher and overall funding for privately managed charter schools, both of which are paid for out of the public school foundation budget. And the Legislature continues to consider HB 290, the Backpack Bill, an education savings account neo-voucher program, which would make all Ohio students eligible for a publicly funded voucher—again at the expense of Ohio’s school foundation budget.

Once again, Gorden Lafer describes the deeper attack on public education itself as a centerpiece of the Republican 2010 “RedMap’ plan: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda…. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goal of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards…. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector…. (T)he sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government. Finally the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education. In all these ways, then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda….”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

As an Ohio citizen and a strong supporter of public schools which are required by law to protect each student’s rights and meet each student’s needs, I am delighted that Jane Mayer has called attention to the reality we are experiencing.  Unfortunately for Ohio’s citizens, gerrymandering poses serious challenges.


Who Is Writing the Model Bills Against CRT? And One Alarming Political Consequence of the CRT Controversy in Ohio

Many of us are familiar with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the far-right bill mill that creates and distributes model bills to be introduced across the fifty statehouses to create waves of similar public policy.  There was the Taxpayer Bill of Rights(TABOR), for example, and there are all sorts of ALEC model bills promoting charter schools and voucher programs.

(This blog has been updated and corrected.  There are 11 elected members and 8 appointed members of the 19 member Ohio State Board of Education.)

But even though the proposed statutes look alike, most of this year’s bills being considered in many of the state legislatures—bills that prohibit teaching of divisive concepts that touch on race and human sexuality, eliminate diversity training for teachers and other school staff, and ban books—are not coming from ALEC.  ALEC’s model “American Civics and History Act,” introduced ten months ago is mild compared to most of the rest.  It does, like many of these model bills, require that civics and history materials be posted online for parents to review, and it prohibits school districts from forcing students to agree with any particular point of view on controversial topics.

The so called bans on the teaching of “critical race theory” being debated in myriad state legislatures (and passed in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and North Dakota) look so similar, however, that they cannot possibly be bubbling up spontaneously.  So where are these bills originating?

Last July, Education Week‘s Sarah Schwartz set out to answer that question: “Within several months, Republican legislators in more than 20 states have introduced bills that would restrict how teachers discuss racism, sexism, and controversial issues… The same language echoes throughout much of the legislation, from bans on ‘divisive’ or ‘racist or sexist concepts,’ to provisions that require teachers to present contending perspectives on ‘controversial’ issues… At the core of most of the bills… is language lifted from a September 2020 executive order by former President Donald Trump. But it’s not that simple. Education Week reporting uncovered a complex web of individuals and conservative organizations that are writing model legislation and supporting these state-level bills.”

While all of these laws try to control how teachers handle discussions (or avoid discussions) about race and sexuality in their classrooms, Schwartz breaks the model laws into five categories:  legislation that would ban teaching “divisive” concepts;  laws that would restrict discussion of racial, gender, or social identity;  laws that would prohibit teachers from encouraging students in civics classes to participate in advocacy for course credit;  laws that would require schools to post online all curricular materials;  and laws that would prohibit teachers from showing their own political biases. Some of the proposed legislation covers several of these categories at once.

Schwartz identifies some of the organizations producing and distributing model bills. One is Citizens for Renewing America, led by Russell Vought, former director of President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget: “Citizens for Renewing America has drafted its own model legislation using the list of divisive concepts, which also bars schools from asking students to support any of the ideas outlined in the 1619 project… Two of the recently passed laws, in Idaho and Tennessee, most closely match language used in Citizens for Renewing America’s model legislation….”

Another organization “putting forth a model bill is the Alliance for Free Citizens…. Former Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, who led Trump’s voter fraud commission is the group’s general counsel… The Alliance for Free Citizens’ model legislation also includes a list of ‘racist or sexist’ topics, but is more restrictive than some other bills—banning any materials that promote these concepts, and preventing schools from hosting speakers that hold these views.”

“The America First Policy Institute, a think tank and advocacy group employing former Trump administration officials and advisers, has also consulted with at least two states on their proposed bills…. Outside of this circle, critical race theory has also become a central issue for some conservative organizations established well before the Trump era, such as the Heritage Foundation… State-level conservative organizations have taken up the issue as well—the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Idaho Freedom Foundation.  A proposed Texas law, the ‘Partisanship Out of Civics Act’: “matches provisions…authored by Stanley Kurtz, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group.  Bills proposed in Ohio and Arizona… also include this language.”  In Maine, Schwartz reports that the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a right-wing, anti-Muslim foundation advised legislators on a bill “that would prevent teachers from ‘engaging in political, ideological or religious advocacy in the classroom.'” A law in Wisconsin reflects the priorities of the far-right Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

It is important to recognize that while raucous hearings about the model bills from far-right organizations are dominating the public education debates across state legislatures, the racist ideology attached to the bills has definitely also infected power politics. In super-majority Republican, highly gerrymandered Ohio, for example, we have been watching this play out.

In July of 2020, the Ohio State Board of Education passed Resolution 20, a progressive anti-racist statement. Here is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s editorial board summarized Resolution 20: “The resolution… condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms, white supremacy culture, hate speech, hate crimes and violence in the service of hatred’ and said the board itself would work to ‘engage our members in open and courageous conversations on racism and inequity’ while offering training ‘to identify our own biases.’ The resolution directed the Ohio Department of Education to examine curriculum and standards to see if any changes were needed to ‘eliminate bias’ and ensure accuracy, and to encourage and support school districts, parents and communities in examining their own practices.”

The 2020 election shifted slightly the membership of the Ohio State Board, and last October 2021, the newly constituted board replaced Resolution 20 with a weaker Resolution 13. That is when Ohio’s legislative leaders began to use the ugly politics around discussions of racial issues at school to drive their broader agenda.

While 11 members of the 19 member Ohio State Board of Education are elected, Ohio’s  governor appoints 8 members. Last October 2021, the governor and leaders in the Ohio Senate discovered a little-used State Senate power of “advise and consent” over the governor’s appointments to the State Board of Education—a power of advise and consent that can, apparently, be imposed even after members are already serving on the State Board. In the months prior to the vote to replace Resolution 20, Republican State Senate President Matt Huffman and the Senate’s Republican Education Committee Chair, Andy Brenner met with all of the appointed members of the State Board to evaluate their performance. After the vote on Resolution 20—based on the Huffman and Brenner’s evaluations—Republican Governor Mike DeWine requested the resignations of both of his appointed members who voted to keep the anti-racist Resolution 20 —including the state board’s popular elected president, Laura Kohler.

Now it is mid-February 2022, and Maureen O’Connor, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court just threatened to hold Governor Mike DeWine, Republican House Speaker Bob Cupp, Senate President Matt Huffman, and other state Republican leaders in contempt of court for refusing to present un-gerrymandered Congressional and state legislative district maps (which are also required for delineating state board districts).

The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reports that last week—according to his legal prerogative when the legislative maps are missing—Governor DeWine himself redrew the districts for the 11 elected members of the Ohio State Board of Education.

What is striking about his new maps—which will stand unless they are legally challenged or other maps are approved—is that Governor DeWiine has broken up the districts of all four of the remaining elected State Board members who voted to support keeping the 2020 ant-racist Resolution 20.  The districts of two of the three African American members of the State Board of Education have been drawn to include rural, largely white and Republican counties. While incumbents will not be removed from office, the redistricting will affect future elections.

Hancock describes the concerns of current State Board member Meryl Johnson, a 40-year Cleveland teacher, now retired, who currently represents Greater Cleveland’s District 11, set in the Governor’s new maps to be broken up. Johnson calls the Governor’s new maps “very sad.” “The state’s education system is not effectively meeting the needs of specific groups of students, such as African American, Hispanic, English learners, economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities.”

Hancock also reports the reactions of Ohio educators. The president of the Ohio Education Association, Scott DiMauro worries: “The continuing attempts to gerrymander Ohio’s maps threaten to undermine the promise of a high-quality public education for all of Ohio’s children…  Unfair… district maps… rob Ohio voters of their right to choose board members who represent their interests and who will stand up for what’s best for Ohio’s kids.”

The president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, Melissa Cropper predicts the likely result: “The effect of Governor DeWine’s delineation of Ohio’s State Board of Education districts will be to dilute the voting power of Black communities and other communities of color and to jeopardize the seats of the strongest advocates for the Board’s strategic plan for Ohio’s schools.”

Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman Seizes Control of the State Board of Education

On Friday, two members of the Ohio State Board of Education, including the board’s elected president, were forced to resign because the all-powerful president of the Ohio Senate opposed their vote to retain an anti-racism resolution passed by the state board last year following George Floyd’s murder and not to retract that resolution.

The two who were forced to resign were in the minority when the state board voted in October to replace last year’s Resolution 20.  Here is how, yesterday, the Plain Dealer‘s editorial board summarized the original Resolution 20: “The resolution… condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms, white supremacy culture, hate speech, hate crimes and violence in the service of hatred’ and said the board itself would work to ‘engage our members in open and courageous conversations on racism and inequity’ while offering training ‘to identify our own biases.’ The resolution directed the Ohio Department of Education to examine curriculum and standards to see if any changes were needed to ‘eliminate bias’ and ensure accuracy, and to encourage and support school districts, parents and communities in examining their own practices.'”

In the recently passed replacement Resolution 13, the Ohio State Board of Education simply condemns any teachings that seek to divide and pledges “to promote academic excellence without prejudice or respect to race, ethnicity or creed.”

On Friday, Laura Hancock’s coverage of the resignation of State Board President Laura Kohler made the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s print edition front page, above the fold. The story is important for several reasons. It definitely speaks to the current furor about how the social studies curriculum in Ohio’s schools treats the history of slavery and whether and how to help students understand the role of racism in our history and in our civic and personal lives today.

But Hancock’s story also exposes Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman’s consolidation of power in Columbus. In the new state budget passed in June, Huffman led the legislature to undermine key parts of a new public school funding formula and at the same time to expand the funding for and the availability of private school tuition vouchers and also to increase the state’s investment of tax dollars in charter schools. Huffman is a strong supporter of the expansion of all kinds of privatization of the public schools.

The 19 member Ohio State Board of Education includes 11 elected members from across the state and 8 members appointed by the Governor. Huffman cannot, of course, dictate to the state board of education’s elected members who are responsible to their constituents. But it is apparent that he now controls the appointed members.

Four of the state board’s members were recently appointed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, and Laura Kohler, originally appointed by Governor John Kasich in 2017, had recently been re-appointed to a second term by Governor DeWine.  Huffman points out that state law gives the Ohio Senate the power of “advise and consent” over the Governor’s appointments, though that power is rarely used. The Columbus Dispatch’s Anna Staver explains how Huffman recently seized this provision to control the replacement of the anti-racism Resolution 20 with the much more banal Resolution 13:

“Huffman and Republican Sen. Andrew Brenner (who chairs the Senate education committee) started interviewing the governor’s appointees to the state board. That included Kohler, of New Albany; Steve Dacklin, of Columbus; Martha Manchester, of Lakeview; Eric Poklar, of Worthington, and Timothy Miller, of Akron. The Senate has had the option to ‘advise and consent’ on the governor’s appointments to various boards, but it’s not a power they’ve exercised a lot in the past. It’s a bit of a weird system, Huffman said. Appointees start working before the Senate ever decides if they’re qualified. And if the senators never vote, the appointee simply serves out his or her term. ‘You can get burned that way…, ‘ Huffman said.  ‘And I thought we ought to have some process, especially in these high level positions.’ So, he and Brenner started interviewing the state board of education nominees.”

Staver describes how Kohler understood the meaning of her interview with Huffman and Brenner prior to the State Board’s vote to rescind Resolution 20: “Kohler said no one ever told her to repeal the resolution or she’d lose her job, ‘but it was apparent that neither of the senators was supportive of the resolution.'”

The Plain Dealer‘s Hancock published a follow-up to announce the forced resignation (also on Friday) of a second appointed member of the State Board of Education, Eric Poklar.  Poklar joined Kohler and a minority of the State Board to vote for keeping last year’s anti-racism resolution instead of passing the newer Proposition 13.  Clearly Poklar’s vote, like Kohler’s along with his earlier interview with Huffman doomed his recent appointment by the governor to the Ohio State Board of Education.  Hancock adds that, “Earlier this week, the Ohio Senate confirmed the appointments of three State Board of Education appointees who had voted to rescind the anti-racism resolution: Steve Daklin… Martha Manchester… and J. Timothy Miller….”

In her original front page report for the Plain Dealer, Hancock describes how Senator Matt Huffman described the meetings with the new appointees of the State Board of Education. The word “threat” never appears, of course, but it is clear that the “advise and consent” interviews with appointed board members who were scheduled to vote on whether to rescind a controversial resolution very likely clarified how each member was supposed to vote if he or she wanted to remain on the job: “He said they talked about the anti-racism resolution… He also said he talked with them about the operations at the Ohio Department of Education. He said he regularly hears form local school officials who are dissatisfied with the department. ‘We talked about school choice and school funding and the operation of the Ohio Department of Education.'”

The conversations about the Ohio Department of Education are significant to another important matter. In Ohio, the state board of education is responsible for appointing the state superintendent of public instruction. Hancock explains how Laura Kohler, in her resignation statement, describes the implications of Huffman’s recent action: “Kohler said that she hopes with her resignation that the legislature won’t interfere in the work of the Ohio State Board of Education. However, the board has been looking for a new state superintendent of public instruction since Paolo DeMaria retired in September. ‘I think that the board is going to have to remain vigilant,’ she said. ‘There are some issues that will have great interest to members of the legislature, including the appointment of a new superintendent of public education. I have always strived to promote a partnership between the legislative branch and the board and the executive branch and the board.  My hope is that the partnership will continue with everyone in every role respecting the role that the others have to play.'”

It would be much better for Ohio if Senate President Matt Huffman also had respect for the separate roles of the legislature, the governor and the state board of education and for respectful collaboration.

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)