State Reps. Robert Cupp and John Patterson spent more than a year working on an overhaul of the school-funding formula. They were joined by a group of school officials. The result was something much better, and not simply because the current formula is a mess — with a fraction of districts statewide actually receiving money as designed. The Cupp-Patterson team brought greater clarity, transparency and rationality to the formula.
Why, then, has Larry Householder decided to move forward on the new two-year state budget without including the Cupp-Patterson changes?
The House speaker has expressed warranted concern about how funding actually would flow to schools. Districts with poverty concentrations of 15 percent or less would receive more new money per pupil than districts with poverty rates of 60 percent and higher. That is puzzling given that research shows it takes more resources to educate a disadvantaged student, and currently, those disadvantaged students fall 30 percentage points behind their higher-income peers on state proficiency tests.
As Howard Fleeter of the Ohio Education Policy Institute has noted, 19 low wealth districts would receive no funding increase under the Cupp-Patterson plan during the next biennium. Eight of those districts are among the 14 poorest in the state, with two, Lorain and Youngstown, in academic distress. The 19 poor districts, rural and urban, have a student population of 94.5 percent economically disadvantaged.
These districts need additional resources to support learning. Yet the Cupp-Patterson plan would route considerable new funding to districts where students already are achieving at high levels. There may be reasons for those increases, such as increased enrollment. They pale when dollars are limited and a leading challenge for the state is narrowing the wide achievement gap.
Ideally, the Cupp-Patterson team would have engineered adjustments, but that has proved elusive so far. Thus, Speaker Householder told the Columbus Dispatch over the weekend, “I don’t think it can be done in the time frame of this budget.”
In that way, lawmakers avoid another complication: Where to find the $1.1 billion to pay for the Cupp-Patterson plan the next two years? The Republican majorities hardly appear inclined to do the logical thing: Close, or narrow, the misguided tax break for “pass-through” income from businesses, a $1 billion-a-year drain on state coffers.
There is consolation. In his budget plan, Mike DeWine has proposed nearly $500 million to support “student wellness and success.” The governor wants to direct the money toward poor districts and disadvantaged students for such things as mental health counseling, “wraparound” services, mentoring and after-school programs. He would make the investment outside the school-funding formula, which, essentially, would be held at its current levels.
The governor’s approach isn’t a long-term funding solution, not with the many distortions in the formula. It does have the immediate benefit of directing substantial resources where they are most needed. Those poor districts without funding increases under the Cupp-Patterson plan would see new money come their way. It is encouraging to see Speaker Householder cite his readiness to work with the governor’s framework.
That isn’t to say the Cupp-Patterson project should be abandoned. It brings real gains. It would be a shame to give up the effort. If anything, the lawmakers anticipated the problem their plan encountered. They call for a study to examine the cost of educating economically disadvantaged students. That long overdue assessment should go forward. It may yield what is missing now, a funding formula with the virtues of Cupp-Patterson — and adequate resources driven to the highest priority.