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Why New School Funding Plans Are Needed

Monday, January 28, 2013 at 9:39 AM

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Governor John Kasich soon is expected to reveal his plan to overhaul Ohio's school funding system. It's an issue lawmakers and the courts have tackled before. But what's wrong with the way we fund schools now? State Impact Ohio's Ida Lieszkovszky and Molly Bloom explain.

Molly:  Some people say Ohio has a problem.

Ida: Ohio has lots of problems.

Molly: Well many say Ohio has a school funding problem, and it all starts with the Ohio Constitution.  The constitution requires the state provide a “thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State. In Ohio, we are constitutionally mandated to provide an equal level of education to every student, no matter where they live.

Ida: What makes that difficult is the way we pay for our schools; most communities rely heavily on property taxes. About half of a district’s budget comes from local property taxes. The other half is made up of a mix of mostly state funds, and some federal funds.

Molly: Because schools rely on those local dollars, there’s a big difference between how much money schools in poor urban and rural areas have, versus how much schools in wealthy suburbs have.  Wealthy districts have higher incomes, higher property values, and higher property taxes to pay for the best teachers, state-of the art facilities, and a lot of extra-curricular activities that districts with low property values could only dream of.

Ida: A result of all this is year after year, school districts had to ask voters to pass school levies. And, that where this guy came in..

Nate DeRolph: “It’s obviously broken when you see so many districts year after year going back to the ballot for different things. That’s the test of time.”

Ida: Nate DeRolph was the face of the last attempt to actually fix Ohio’s school funding problem. It was the DeRolph case, filed back in 1991. It went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court which declared Ohio’s school funding system unconstitutional - four times.

Gerald Stebelton is a Republican house member and he chairs the house education committee.

Stebelton: Before the DeRolph decision local school buildings were built almost exclusively with local tax dollars and there were districts who could just not afford to build new buildings.

Ida: Wealthier districts could pass levies and build really nice buildings, but…

Stebelton: The lower economy areas could not afford to build new buildings and a couple schools even had outdoor outhouses for their children.

Ida: This was the problem DeRolph was trying to tackle.

Molly: So how’d that go?

Ida: Mixed results.. Even though it ruled school funding constitutional, the Supreme Court couldn’t make the legislature do anything to fix it.

Finally the justices gave up.

Molly: But the DeRolph decisions did have an impact. First Governor Voinovich tried to fix school funding by putting a sales tax on the ballot.  Voters rejected it.
Then under Governor Bob Taft, the state began giving districts money to improve their buildings. More than ten billion dollars has been handed out so far.

Ida: Last year, the state chipped in nearly 25 million dollars to build a new K-12 School in Western Ohio’s Darke County. The state sent 78 million dollars to build four schools in Ashtabula County, east of Cleveland.

Molly: Then it was Governor Strickland’s turn. He formed a task force to solve the problem. His plan put a price on what a quality education should cost, and called for the state to fund it eventually. But that plan, and task force, fell apart when John Kasich became Governor.

Ida: Over the years lawmakers also tweaked the formula that helps pay for operating costs - sending more money to districts with poor students.

Molly: Now Kasich is set to present his own school funding formula.

Ida: What’s that going to look like?

Molly: Well, Kasich hasn’t told us what he’s going to do. But I did talk to Eric Hanushek with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He talked with Kasich last year when Kasich was trying to figure out how to fix school funding in Ohio.

Hanushek: I’m hopeful that he will come out with a broad weighted student funding formula that allows for more autonomy and local decision-making, that encourages local decision- making but holds people responsible for outcomes.

VOICE OVER: So then I asked Hanushek if the governor was likely to spend more on education…

Hanushek: I think that’s a tough question in every state of the union today because the economy is so uncertain and the tax revenues are so uncertain. I know that the administration here in Ohio and probably in almost every state in the union is committed to trying to improve their schools. That’s something very different from committed to spending a lot more money.

Molly: Translation: that probably means no extra money for schools.  But maybe the governor will come up with a different way of distributing the money they’re already getting.
It could mean sending more money to charter schools and voucher programs.

Ida: But the question remains - is that going to fix things? I asked Robert Stabile. He’s a former schools superintendent, and he wrote the guide book school officials rely on to make sense of Ohio school funding.

Stabile: The struggle for money is built into the system. You’ve got the schools who are consumers of tax dollars and you’ve got the residents out there who want their taxes to be low you’ve got the parents who constantly want more services, you know they want to bus to come closer to their home classes to be smaller more text books more opportunities for kids.

Ida:  So there it is, Ohio’s school funding controversy that has lasted 15 years and perplexed three governors. Now it’s John Kasich’s turn.

Molly: It could always go back to the courts.

For StateImpact Ohio,I’m Ida Lieszkovszky and I’m Molly Bloom. 

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Education, StateImpact Ohio

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