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Your Guide to the Ups and Downs of School Funding in Ohio

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Monday, January 28, 2013 at 6:00 AM


Governor John Kasich is expected to reveal his plan to overhaul Ohio’s school funding formula this week.

It’s an issue lawmakers and the courts have tackled before.

Several times.

So what’s wrong with the way we fund schools now?

[audio href="" title="You Guide to School Funding in Ohio"]Ohio has had a long history of trying to fix its school funding formula.[/audio]

The Problem

The Ohio Constitution requires the state to provide a "thorough and efficient system of common schools" throughout the state.

What makes that difficult is the way we pay for our schools; most communities rely heavily on property taxes. In fact, about half of the average 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.

That's why there are school levies on the ballot nearly every time you go to vote.

Since schools rely on those local dollars, there’s a big difference between how much money schools in poor urban and rural areas have, compared to how much schools in wealthy suburbs have.

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

DeRolph V. The State of Ohio

DeRolph was the face of the most well known attempt to fix Ohio’s school funding problem. His case, DeRolph v. The State of Ohio, went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court.

"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," says Gerald Stebelton (R - Lancaster). "The lower economy areas could not afford to build new buildings and a couple schools even had outdoor outhouses for their children."

The Ohio Supreme Court declared Ohio’s school funding system unconstitutional, and told the legislature they should fix the funding formula. But, they could not force the legislature to do anything.

Over the years, the Supreme Court made largely the same ruling four times before it gave up and said it wouldn't take up the DeRolph case again.

Attempts to Fix the Funding Formula

The legislature may not have done what the Supreme Court wanted, but their 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 formed the Ohio School Facilities Commission which gives money to districts to improve their buildings.
  • Governor Strickland 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. That plan, and task force, fell apart when John Kasich became Governor.

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

Kasich's Turn

You'll have to wait a few more days to find out the entire details of Kasich's plan, but plenty of people have been guessing at what the proposal will look like.

“I’m hopeful that he will come out with a broad weighted student funding formula that allows for more local autonomy and local flexibility in decision-making, that tries to encourage more innovations but holds everybody responsible for outcomes,” says Eric Hanushek of 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 says it's unclear if the new school funding formula will mean more money for schools.

"I know that the administration in Ohio and probably almost every state in the union is committed to trying to improve their schools," Hanushek says. "That’s something different than committed to spending a lot more money."

Many people think the governor's plan will create a different way of distributing money schools already getting, perhaps by sending more money to charter schools and voucher programs.

The Ongoing Problem

Some folks say that still won't fix the problems DeRolph's case highlighted.

The struggle for money is built into the system," says Robert Stabile, a former schools superintendent and author of the guidebook on Ohio school funding.

"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."

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