If you were one of the school superintendents on hand five weeks ago when John Kasich unveiled his new plan for funding public schools, you likely would have been pleased, too.
The performance was bracing, a governor who appeared to get it, and in a big way. “We wanted to deliver the resources of this state fairly,” Kasich explained. “And we wanted to make sure every boy and girl, no matter what district they come from, are going to be in a position to have the resources they need to be able to compete with boys and girls in any other district across the state.”
The governor cited the vast gulf in property values, some districts raising “$700 or $800 per pupil,” others collecting $14,000. “And you put a child in the middle of that,” he argued, “That’s not fair competition.”
At another turn, he insisted: “That’s the biggest moral issue, everyone deserves a chance. … this is really important that Ohio take on the issue of poverty. And if we can begin to win that battle, get kids trained, get them educated, get them work — wow that will change the very face of our state!”
Kasich stressed that when the actual funding amounts for districts were released, “there isn’t going to be like you’re going to look at a chart and go, ‘Oh my goodness, they didn’t tell us the truth.”
Toward the end of questions and answers, he asserted: “OK? I mean this is not like some difficult thing to figure out. If you are poor, you are going to get more. If you are richer, you’re going to get less.”
Then, a week later, superintendents got a look at the real numbers for school funding proposed by the governor for the next biennium.
Many, especially in poorer districts, did react with the equivalent of “Oh my goodness. … ” One told the Marietta Times: “As excited as I was last week … I am equally heartbroken for the students of Ohio.”
The governor’s numbers clashed with his words. Of those districts able to raise the fewest dollars per mill, roughly one-quarter would receive funding increases the next two years. In contrast, of those able to raise the most per mill, almost three-quarters would receive increases.
Kasich and aides have noted that overall, poorer districts would receive the far greater share of state funding. Yet that has been true of every funding formula.
They have cited population loss and rising property values to explain the surprising budget numbers. They have touted their commitment to guaranteeing that no district receives less money in the next biennium (after two years of deep reductions).
All of that may sound reasonable — until their arguments begin to fray.
Take the “guarantee” or hold harmless provision. At a recent legislative hearing, Barbara Shaner of the Ohio Association of School Business Officials shared the logical conclusion that something must be amiss when those districts covered by the guarantee grow from the current 316 and $68 million to 398 districts and $464 million next year.
More, as Howard Fleeter of the Education Tax Policy Institute explained at the hearing, poor rural districts are more likely to be on the guarantee. He added that if they had to generate the money on their own, they would face asking voters for an average 7-mill property tax increase.
A tough sell.
And not a theoretical exercise. The Kasich team has signaled it would like to see the guarantee eventually disappear. Which makes sense. Better, as Shaner advised, to direct money to districts through the formula than via the padding of a guarantee.
What Shaner, Fleeter and the numbers reveal is that the governor’s funding formula falls far short of his pledge to superintendents to meet the “moral issue” of ensuring all Ohio students have the tools to compete. It doesn’t fulfill the worthy slogan the governor attached to his plan: “Achievement everywhere.”
Missing is the element of adequacy, or an effort to define sufficiently the components and cost of “fair competition,” providing all students with the chance they deserve — to the benefit of all of us.
The absence amounts to giving up on a pursuit that has engaged Republicans and Democrats at the Statehouse since the Ohio Supreme Court first ruled in the DeRolph case in 1997. The court called for a “systemic overhaul” of school funding, the state with an obligation to ensure an adequate education. Without such a guiding standard, the court reasoned, funding schools too easily slides into “residual budgeting,” districts receiving the state money left.
Bob Taft and Ted Strickland made real progress toward defining adequacy, albeit not enough. A Blue Ribbon Task Force tapped by Taft concluded in 2005 that “school funding levels should be based on ‘inputs’ — the ‘evidence-based’ strategies, services and programs that are proven effective in enhancing school success.”
There is no perfect number or formula. Neither is it a matter of just more money. Opportunity is the key, in urban, rural and suburban schools, in the form of such things as Advanced Placement classes, exposure to the arts and music, learning a foreign language. That is what a school funding formula must deliver.
Michael Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.