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Reporting on the state of education in your community and across the country.

Q&A: Ohio School Funding Reforms With OEA President Scott DiMauro

A student at Betty Jane Community Learning Center in the Akron Public School District in 2017. [Mark Urycki / ideastream file photo]
Student at Akron Schools reads a book at her desk

Starting with the landmark DeRolph decision in 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times that the state's school funding formula, with its reliance on property taxes, is unconstitutional.  Now it appears state legislators may finally be doing something about that, with bills in both the House and Senate proposing major school funding reforms. ideastream’s Jenny Hamel spoke with Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association (OEA), about how the legislation will help fix a long-broken system.

How do the school funding reforms compare with the model Ohio is using now?

I think it takes some very important steps towards addressing the issues that the Supreme Court raised when ruling our current system unconstitutional four times through the door of decision, starting back in 1997.

For one, it reduces the over-reliance on property taxes as the primary means of funding schools. Property taxes will still play an important role, but you're not going to have the over-reliance on property wealth that you see in the current system. When looking at what the state is providing in terms of funding to schools, they’ll look at a variety of factors, starting with what's the actual cost of providing a high-quality education to students to address the needs of the whole student. And in deciding how to allocate that cost between the state and local communities, they’ll look not only at property wealth but also at the income level of residents of those communities when determining how much the community can reasonably bear as its share of the cost and what the state needs to provide for its responsibility.

I'd like to hone in on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District. I recently spoke with Superintendent Liz Kirby and she was really lamenting the financial impact EdChoice private school vouchers are having on the district. So, what impact will the legislation in Columbus have on districts like those?

Currently, when there are students in a district that take advantage of the state's private options, whether it's to attend a charter school, or as we're seeing increasingly, take state tax dollars [from the local schools] and use that for tuition at a private school – and Cleveland Heights-University Heights has been hit by that more than any other district in the state of Ohio – proportionately, currently, what happens is that the funding gets deducted from the state's aid to the public school district. So, that means that effectively that the local property taxpayers are subsidizing private schools and charter schools. That's wrong. And the good news about this proposal that's coming from legislators in Columbus is that any private options that the state wants to provide will be paid for directly by the state. No longer will districts have their funding deducted to cover the cost of students that aren't attending those local public schools. 

Is this a long time coming? People have been saying for years that something must be done to change how education funding is allocated in Ohio. So why is it finally happening now? 

It took a bipartisan group of legislators, led by now House Speaker Bob Cupp, a Republican, and state Rep. John Patterson, who happens to be a teacher and an OEA member from Ashtabula County who have been working on this for years. And now, fortunately, we have a bipartisan group of [state] senators led by Sens. Peggy Lehner and Vernon Sykes, who are taking up this charge so that it's happening in both the House and the Senate. All of these things, I think, are just a testament to persistence. 

So we have both a Senate and House bill in Columbus. What should we all be watching for? 

What I expect to see happen is that both the House and the Senate will conduct hearings on their respective bills, but they are essentially identical bills. There may be some tweaks that are made along the way. And then after each chamber passes its version of the bill, which again, we hope happens over the course of the next few weeks, before the legislature wraps up its work for 2020 and takes off for the holidays and essentially dissolves because the new legislature is going to be coming in, that they'll reconcile their differences. And we will have this new formula in place. And then that will be the basis for the state budget process that will begin next winter. 

An earlier version of this story said the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on the DeRolph case in 1993. The decision was handed down in 1997.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”