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Local School Funding Problems: Urban Predicament Hinders Education

Wednesday, January 17, 2001 at 9:26 AM

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Ohio's school funding debate will heat up in the coming weeks. Four years ago the state Supreme Court ruled that Ohio failed to provide a thorough and efficient system for educating its citizens. It targeted the state's reliance on local property taxes to pay for education as the culprit, and ordered the General Assembly to come up with a suitable alternative. Its first try in 1999 failed to satisfy the court, and so now lawmakers are back at the table, with a June 1st deadline to meet the court's mandate. As part of our ongoing examination of the school funding issue, 90.3's Bill Rice looks at what the impending changes might mean for some of the area's poorer school districts.

Bill Rice- The 1991 lawsuit that toppled the state’s financing for schools focused a lot of attention on Ohio’s poverty-stricken rural school districts. But less has been said over the years about how the current school funding formula affects urban schools.

The East Cleveland school district is a prime example of the problems afflicting inner city education. This is a community of 34,000 people, nearly 100% African-American. Its tax base is extremely low compared with neighboring cities. What’s more, most of the 6,000 children in East Cleveland, like these English students at Shaw High, started school at a disadvantage. Their emotional problems, lack of basic health care or home supervision make teachers’ jobs doubly difficult. East Cleveland School Superintendent Elvin Jones.

Elvin Jones- We’re responsible for academics, but we need to build some spirit. When we build spirit in children it allows for the academic something to flow a lot easier.

BR- Right now the state guarantees schools will receive just under $4,300 per pupil. If a district can’t raise that much in taxes, the state will make up the difference. While the current formula is designed to help inner city schools like East Cleveland meet essential needs—such as payroll—the district often has to struggle to pay for extras like sports uniforms, band instruments, and even textbooks. Plus, the state does not help East Cleveland guarantee the competitive salaries Superintendent Jones desperately needs to attract good teachers.

EJ- When you’re competing with schools like Beachwood, Orange, Solon, teachers can go there and make $7,000 - $10,000 more with the same experience. So they’re gonna get the better teacher, because we just don’t have the extra money to pay those salaries.

BR- Ohio’s cash-poor urban school districts may be getting more dollars from the state than some of their suburban neighbors, but they say they’re still underfunded, and want the funding formula changed. Hugh Calkins agrees. He heads the Initiatives in Urban Education Foundation, a Cleveland-based organization that’s concerned with school finance.

Hugh Calkins- What East Cleveland needs is what Cleveland needs. Ohio has for many years has had the DPIA, the Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Fund, which also provides money for schools with concentrations of low income kids. That figure ought to be tripled.

BR- But Calkins and other critics of the system say just funneling more cash to urban schools doesn’t address the real problem--the fact that those districts don’t have the tax base to support their enrollment. Lori McClung is a government liason in the Cleveland Municipal School District. She says recent increases in school construction money and other spending have been a tremendous helpÑbut she says there’s a still a huge gap between what schools need and what citizens can afford to pay.

Lori McClung- The state does vary what they’re giving because of the size of the district and because of our property tax base--that helps, but it’s small potatoes--it’s these incremements: little things that are being done versus an entire overhaul of the system, which is what has been called for.

BR- Most vocal in that call has been the Coalition for Adequacy and Equity in Education, which initiated the original school funding lawsuit. That group has its own take on the school funding issue. It says the only way to meet the court’s mandate is to draft an entirely new set of education goals—and then determine what it will cost and how to pay for it.

Thanks to April Baer for helping produce this story. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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