COLUMBUS — As Ohio’s latest report card scores yet again show a strong correlation between poverty and low achievement, state lawmakers are preparing another revamp of Ohio’s school funding formula.
Some experts say addressing the nagging income achievement gap requires fixing the funding.
“We have a significant and persistent achievement gap,” said Howard Fleeter, lead analyst for the Ohio Education Policy Institute, which is backed by associations representing school boards, superintendents and treasurers.
“To me, this is the most significant societal problem we are facing right now. Education is opportunity for kids, and we have systematically, over time, groups of kids who aren’t learning at the same rate that they ought to be.”
On the latest state report cards, 145 Ohio school districts scored an A or B for performance index, which measures test scores. Only four of those 145 had a population of low-income students higher than the state average.
Ohio’s lowest-performing districts, with a performance index score under 70, had eight times as many low-income students on average as districts with scores over 100. Low income is defined as “economically disadvantaged” students with family income below 185 percent of the federal poverty level — $38,443 for a family of three.
“There is stuff we know to do, and it takes money,” Fleeter said, pointing to universal preschool, summer programs and extended school days. “We need to get outside the box that school is six hours a day for 180 days of the year and it starts when you turn 5. If we keep trying that, we should not be surprised when, year after year, we find this (achievement gap).”
But undertaking such a substantive revamp in most districts likely means a change in the way Ohio funds schools. An informal workgroup of school superintendents and treasurers, led by Reps. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and John Patterson, D-Jefferson, has been meeting for nearly a year trying to craft changes to the state funding formula.
Figuring the cost
The group plans to roll out recommendations in late November, in time for consideration in the next two-year budget.
Asked what the major problem is with the current formula, developed by Gov. John Kasich and modified by lawmakers over six years, Cupp said, “What isn’t the problem with it?”
“This is a recession-era formula when the legislature was struggling to figure out how to keep things going with a lot less money,” Cupp said. “It’s sort of been patched ever since. It’s almost more patch than formula.”
Cupp and Patterson agree that a main flaw is base funding that isn’t tied to anything. Kasich never tried to determine the cost of an education, arguing that there was no magic number.
“The idea is to arrive at the actual cost of educating the typical student in a typical town,” Patterson said. “If you’re going to fund something, you should know how much it costs.”
No one has seriously attempted to calculate that number since Gov. Ted Strickland in 2009. Deciding what education costs, and what elements should be included in that total, is complicated.
Mike Sobul called it “huge” that Cupp and Patterson have brought in 16 superintendents and treasurers from across the state to help work out the formula, instead of trying to fix it from Capitol Square. As a long-time research director with the Ohio Department of Taxation and current treasurer of Granville Schools, Sobul is helping the committee on multiple topics.
Assumptions made while he was in the taxation department don’t look so good now that he’s inside a school district, he said. “What seems like small numbers on the state side when you get into individual districts don’t look so small.
“What students need to be successful is not what they needed 25 years ago. So much of the formula is really based on 25 years ago, an education system that is in the past.”
Both Cupp and Patterson said discussions have involved paying for things aimed at reducing the income-achievement gap. Cupp also has headed a separate group examining poverty in education.
“There is general consensus that three things that would be helpful to reducing the achievement gap are things everybody is already talking about: increased early childhood education, wrap-around services (counseling, medical, family services, etc.) and positive behavior intervention,” Cupp said.
The big questions are, how does the formula account for those services, and how does the state pay for them?
“We’re going to have to enhance our ability to finance these improvements,” Patterson said.
Neither Cupp nor Patterson is putting a price tag on the proposal yet. Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he’s heard it could add hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I’m glad they are doing it,” Brenner said. He agrees that money should be directed to schools in the worst financial shape but wonders what happens to suburban districts like those around Columbus and in Delaware County where state revenue is currently capped and schools aren’t getting millions of dollars that the formula says they should receive.
The working group appears ready to scrap a key piece of the current funding formula, the state share index, that uses property values and income to determine how much of the financial burden is borne by the local district. Cupp, Patterson, Fleeter and Sobul agree it doesn’t work properly.
“For some districts, it’s just irrational,” Cupp said. “It has quirks and is unpredictable in some respects.”
Fleeter says the index works against rural districts. For example, he compared New Albany schools, one of the state’s wealthiest, and rural Millersport in Fairfield County, with fewer than 600 students.
Millersport gets more than three times the base funding per pupil as New Albany. But take away the artificial caps and guarantees that keep districts from gaining or losing money, and what the formula actually says is New Albany should get $2,391 per pupil compared to $2,220 for Millersport, Fleeter said.
This occurs despite New Albany having a median income more than double that of Millersport and Millersport having seven times the number of low-income students.
“The major challenge is trying to do something that is fair and reasonable and helpful for every district,” Cupp said. “There is never going to be anything perfect.”
Funding changes must keep the income-achievement gap in mind, Fleeter said. He points to the state “prepared for success” score, which he says really shows whether students are ready to take their next step in life, be it college, training for certification or working. It gives credit for factors including SAT or ACT scores, honors diplomas and industry credentials.
Last year, 53 percent of students in families making above 185 percent of the poverty level achieved a “prepared for success” score, but only 16.5 percent of students whose families made less achieved a score.
“The disparities there, that’s what’s going to determine the course of a person’s life,” Fleeter said.
Only 6 percent of districts statewide scored an A or B on the “prepared for success” component.
Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group, said the achievement gap is troubling, showing that structural reforms are needed. State officials already have taken steps to improve funding in low-income districts, he said, pointing specifically to large urban districts.
“It’s not just about plowing more money into the system,” he said.
“It’s a little frustrating when you see districts doing the same things over and over. You have single salary schedules where it doesn’t matter how effective you’ve been as a teacher or what courses you’re teaching … you get paid the same depending how long you’ve been there.”
How districts spend the money absolutely matters, Fleeter said, but first, schools need an adequate amount. “If money didn’t matter, then the wealthier districts wouldn’t spend what they do. They’re not stupid.”
Reach Jim Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org