The Fight For Equal Education: An Examination Of Ohio Public School Funding

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Last year, Ohio Governor John Kasich vowed to fix the state’s unconstitutional public education system, a problem that has plagued the state for 15 years.

In a speech to a collection of Ohio school superintendents in January 2013, he outlined his plan to reform the system of public school funding with the promise that, “If you’re poor, you’re going to get more. If you’re rich, you’re going to get less.”

As it turns out, that’s a lot easier said than done.

Public education funding was deemed unconstitutional because the funding formula for public education – primarily state funding, local property taxes, and levies – did not translate to universal education, but localized funding primarily in wealthier urban areas, while poorer rural areas were left to do more with less.

State Representative Debbie Phillips (D-92nd) has some of the poorest schools in her Southeast Ohio district, including Athens, Meigs, and Trimble counties.

“The poorest counties in the state are actually being cut, pretty dramatically. So when that came out, there were superintendents saying they’d been lied to.”

It all began in 1991 with DeRolph v. State of Ohio, where the complaint of the inequality of education funding in Ohio was first filed in the Perry County Court of Common Pleas.

In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in the case. The opinion of the court stated that Ohio “fails to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools” as required by the Ohio Constitution. The court directed the state to find a remedy.

 “And they basically ruled that the quality of a child’s education should not be decided by where they live, explained Rep. Phillips. “That the system was over reliant on local property taxes setting up really huge disparities in the opportunities available to the students.”

Micah Covert is the President of the Board of Education for Nelsonville-York Schools and works at the Rocky Mountain Company in Nelsonville.

“It’s one of the great injustices of our time,” Covert lamented. “I wouldn’t call it a civil rights issue, but on the one hand it is very unfair and I just don’t understand why this part of the state is not treated the same as other parts of the state.”

In Ohio, public education is funded through local property taxes, state funding, and levies. While Athens County has the benefits of Ohio University through student and faculty residences, Athens City Schools Associate Superintendent Tom Gibbs explained that it isn’t far outside of Athens where there is extreme poverty. This is based on how much families make, how much their properties are worth, and how much they can raise in levies.

However, as Covert and Trimble School Board President Erica North attest, there are problems with this formula.

“According to the way Gov. Kasich presented it, we should be getting more funding than the wealthier districts,” North said. “Unfortunately it hasn’t played out that way for us. We are looking at losing finances.”

A principle reason is that property evaluations in their counties and districts are markedly lower than others in the state. Simply, the property is not worth as much as urban real estate. Specifically for Nelsonville-York, Covert explains that a substantial part of it is also the Wayne National Forest, which is non-taxed federal property.

North faces similar fundraising obstacles for Trimble Local Schools.

“So, for us, if we put a one-mill levy out there and it’s approved it will generate approximately $40,000 for the district. In Athens City School district if they do a one-mill levy, they will raise $426,000 for their district.”

Trimble parent Eric Riley raised two children in the county’s school district. He knows firsthand how hard passing levies can be on the community.

“It even splits families,” Riley said, “because some people in the family are for it, some against it. I’ve experienced that. It’s hugely difficult; it’s just an economically depressed area.” 

Gibbs agrees that levies are not a realistic way to maintain the quality of public education.

“This is a statewide issue that goes back to the fundamental funding formula,” he added. “While Gov. Kasich’s team proposed an idea that would address that flaw in the funding, I don’t see that happening adequately.”

What does the future hold? If nothing changes, then the schools will be forced to face financial emergency and deficit spending. And that is when talk of layoffs and cutting programs come to the table.

Covert says Nelsonville-York will face a negative balance after five years and North says their current five-year forecast places them as deficit spending in the third year.