"Thorough and Efficient" Remains Elusive for Ohio Schools

By
Ben Postlethwait

Dateline
Updated Tue, Jun 4, 2013 1:53 pm

Nearly 20 years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state was not in compliance with its constitutional mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient system” for funding public and secondary education.

In the decades since, a bitter debate has raged in Columbus over the best school funding formula. Despite a new model proposed by Gov. John Kasich, battle lines are being drawn once again.

Kasich says his plan ensures that poor schools will receive more while rich schools get less.

Critics predict just the opposite.

Unanswered is the central question of whether Ohio’s children can truly have access to equal education, regardless of where they live.

To understand the current debate, it’s important to understand the history.

DECADES OF DEBATE

In 1994, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Ohio’s system for funding public primary and secondary education did not meet the standards set by the state’s constitution.

In DeRolph v. State of Ohio, the court found that “Ohio’s elementary and secondary public school financing system violates Section 2, Article VI of the Ohio Constitution, which mandates a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

This phrase, “thorough and efficient,” would be argued over four court cases from 1994 to 2002.

Each time, the court ruled in favor of the coalition of superintendents challenging the state.

Over time, this phrase was interpreted to mean that schools were to receive equal and sufficient funding for their operation, but the court gave no specific instructions for making this ruling a reality.  

The intensity of the debate was captured in 2001 when the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer stated, “The informal and formal discussions among the justices regarding the jurisdictional and merit issues have been of an intensity and duration unmatched by any other case.”

As the court battles raged, successive Ohio governors and legislatures have been unable to agree on a funding formula and instead have applied various short-term measures to address basic problems. Likewise, politicians and school officials have remained at odds.

The issue remains divisive.

Ohio’s reliance on a tax levy system to raise local funds for school districts has politicized the debate and directly tied the financial stability of a school to the economic conditions in a given district.

In short, some rich schools have gotten richer while many poor ones have gotten poorer.

A QUESTION OF EQUAL OPPORTUNITY

Is it truly possible that Ohio can have a funding system that provides equal opportunity to all of its students?

Addressing this question has been the goal of Bill Phillis, co-founder of The Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, a Columbus-based organization born in the Appalachian Region. 

Phillis, former superintendent of several local school districts and former Assistant Superintendent to the Ohio Board of Education, has always been an active member in Ohio’s education reform community.

After resigning from the Ohio Board of Education in 1992; he joined the growing protest surrounding school funding.

Beginning in the late 1980s, growing dissent surrounding the condition of buildings and lack of state funding prompted superintendents in southern Ohio to form the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools.  

Realizing that this was a statewide problem not confined to Appalachia, the coalition evolved into the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. 

In 1991, they filed a complaint with the Perry County Common Pleas court on behalf of Nathan DeRolph, a 15-year-old at Sheridan High School in the small town of Thornhill.

He, along with the Coalition, testified about his school’s poor conditions and state of disrepair.

“Great inequities existed as far as expenditures per pupil, like a three-to-one ratio in terms of adequacy. Many of our young people were in dilapidated buildings without science labs, without any kind of technology, with outdated textbooks…,” Phillis recalled.

Appalachian Ohio has always been the home of this debate, as it was Perry County Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis who originally ruled in favor of the Coalition.

Appalachian Ohio schools were the heart of the Coalition and the area continues to be a hotbed of educational reform, with local state legislators like Sen. Lou Gentile and Rep. Debbie Phillips still advocating for fair funding.

Legislators and a succession of Ohio governors tried to address this largely unsolved problem.

Former Gov. George Voinovich was quick to denounce the 1994 decision.  

Phillis and the Coalition praised the proposed evidence-based model released by Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration. 

Ohio’s education system relies on three factors: property value, population, and income.

The Supreme Court’s 1994 ruling held that as long as local districts shoulder more than half the burden of paying for this system, the state is in violation of the Ohio Constitution.

Over the years, governors have proposed many plans to address this problem, with critics claiming they were little more than Band-Aid efforts to address larger issues.

In the opinion of Carl Martin, Superintendent of Athens City Schools, the state has failed to comprehensively address the problem of constitutionality.

KASICH'S PLAN

With longstanding issues unresolved, will Gov. Kasich’s plan do enough address a broken system?

In February, Kasich rolled out a new budget that included his “Achievement Everywhere” plan for education. “If you are poor, you’re going to get more. If you’re richer, you’re going to get less,” Kasich said as he outlined this program.

This includes a promise that every district would receive the same amount of support that a school with a $250,000 per pupil valuation, the total value of all property in a school district divided by the total number of its students.

In short, no school would receive less, and the rich schools would not get richer.

However, analysts have poked a variety of holes in this argument.

In early March, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer revealed that some public schools would receive less funding under the proposed model, because preliminary numbers released by the governor’s office included funding for charter schools, the quasi-public institutions that Kasich and many Republican allies support as an alternative to traditional public schools.

The majority of Ohio’s young people still attend public schools, and The Plain Dealer’s research showed that, in many cases, these schools will lose money as a result of Kasich’s budget.

According to their research, 46 percent of Ohio’s public school districts would see a drop in state share of instruction after charter school funds are deducted.

“There are a lot of empty promises in this budget,” Phillis said during a town hall meeting about the administration’s budget in February.

Charter schools are a big part of the governor’s plan for education, as well as the Republican Party’s plans for the future of public education

Phillis sees flaws in the philosophy and financial ideas surrounding charter schools and voucher programs.

He feels that for public schools to succeed, they need a unified community to fund those schools, not a fractured base. He said that this year, there will be $824 million dollars of state funds that could go to public school districts instead being given to charter schools. 

A BENEFIT FOR CHILDREN?

Kasich’s Achievement Everywhere plan is based on a theme of benefitting children.

But does it really address the systemic problems facing Ohio’s schools?

A legislative bipartisan effort to address this long-running issue has been to assign each child in the state a dollar amount that would be necessary for their successful education.

The most recent value was $5,565 in FY 2008 and $5,732 in FY 2009.

Kasich moved away from this model, with his top educational advisers, like Barbara Mattei-Smith, stating that they did not even attempt to assign a necessary value to a student although this is a mainstay of many funding methodologies across the country.

Phillis sees this as a betrayal of history, going against the long-accepted standard for solving these funding problems.

“That throws away 85 years of history. That says all the attempts in the past to arrive at a adequacy number were just useless. What that is, is an excuse to reduce the amount of money to go to schools now and in the future,” Phillis said.

To complicate matters, on April 19, the Ohio House passed an overhaul of Kasich’s model to bring it more in line with a previous education proposal: the “building blocks” model.

This model introduced by Gov. Bob Taft included a constant state funding amount with variable funding based on a district’s wealth.

Rep. Phillips, who voted against the revised bill, said the House version of the bill is flawed in many ways, including the fact that it drives an additional $39 million to charter schools instead of traditional public schools. She said that this shift of focus unfairly hurts communities.

“We have some kids who don’t have text books that they can take home at night because there aren’t enough to go around, and in the same state there’s schools that have heated sidewalks so they don’t have to shovel the snow,” said Phillips.

Despite this, Phillips said that she is happy the revised bill raised the base amount of per pupil funding from Kasich’s proposed $5,000 to about $5,700.

She said that the revised bill also takes many schools off the guarantee, the minimum state funding level allowed.

State Senator Lou Gentile said he’s concerned the modified bill doesn’t address the larger issues with the school funding system.

“We continue to fall into this trap of relying on this system, which creates a lot of inequities where schools in one part of state are well-equipped and can provide a very high quality education but other areas that aren’t able to fund schools at that same level,” Gentile said.

Gentile said that schools haven’t recovered from the cuts the governor imposed in the last biennium, and that taking any measures without returning some of that money to schools is unfair.

An expansion of the voucher system and charter schools remains in the budget while there are reports that as many as 133 districts could receive less funding in the House proposal.

However, the plan does raise the base amount of funding per pupil from $5,000 to $5,732, perhaps to offset the fact no fixed amount was determined as necessary for a successful education.

WHAT'S THE RIGHT DIRECTION?

Some believe the changes are a step in the wrong direction.

Dr. George Wood, superintendent of Federal Hocking School District, said most school administrators know exactly what their schools need to be successful.

“We’ve studied schools ad nauseam,” Wood said. “The reports I get, the data I get, the information I get… we have a ton of evidence of what things kids need to succeed in school.”

He said costs should be determined in an unbiased, nonpartisan way in order to accurately measure the education being provided to kids.

Wood believes that because of an error with this model, the average income an area receives might not be truly representative of its ability to pay a higher share of cost of instruction.

“If you use the mean income in Athens, they’re in the top 15 percent of school districts in the state,” Wood said.

“If you use the median, they’re in the bottom 15 percent.”

Wood said inequalities are created in an area like Athens, with a relatively affluent university in an otherwise impoverished region.

He said that in working out this funding formula, the state incorrectly assumed that property values had risen across the board.

He said this unfairly hurts rural areas, which haven’t seen a rise in property values.

Wood doesn’t think Kasich is “an evil, bad person.” He believes that Kasich attempted to take a more balanced approach to funding schools.

“I think he was really aiming for that. It didn’t come out that way, when the numbers got run,” Wood said.

Wood also said that there are simpler, untested ways of make this funding more egalitarian.

He suggests taking the average tax valuation across the state and distributing it equally.  

Phillis suggests something similar, calling on the governor and the state government as a whole to refocus on education, and use state surplus money to ease the burden of disadvantaged schools.

“The state has the fiscal capacity.

The state has the intellectual capacity, to get people together to find the elements of a quality education,” Phillis said.

“Is the political will there to do that? I don’t see it, currently.”

Martin saw the solution in very practical terms. He said that while Kasich has a done a good job of balancing the state budget, he could afford to spend the billion dollars he has “in a rainy day fund” to pay back Ohio’s schools.

“All we would ask is… you should give back some of that money, because part of the reason you have that money is because you cut our funding, cut our funding and cut our funding,” Martin said.

However, moving beyond the simple financial problems with Kasich’s proposal and subsequent house amendments, there is the argument that there simply isn’t an answer to the school funding dilemma.

Some believe that there’s no formula that would provide “thorough and efficient” funding for all of Ohio’s schools.

Martin said there are inherent issues with relying on property values and per pupil valuations.

He said that it’s unbalanced that Dublin City Schools has a billion dollar tax base while Trimble Schools has a 40 million dollar tax base.

“Relying on the ability to tax yourself and raise revenue is an inherently imbalanced system,” Martin said.

Phillis sees this as an essential contemporary debate, key to preserving democracy within the state.

“What started out through the constitution as a common school district, available to all the children to all the people, is going to end in a Wild West syndrome where each person gets a voucher and they take it to wherever,” Phillis said.

“That is antithetical to the social compact, to the idea of the common good. Whenever we start deifying the individual benefits to the detriment to the common good, we have lost a good segment of our democracy.”

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