By Thomas W. Johnson
Ohio has once again started the journey to develop a new way of funding our local school districts -- a journey our state has started several times but never quite finished. This time, I believe Gov. John Kasich is bringing this journey toward the end and that his new school funding and reform plan holds great promise for providing every student's school with the resources they need to succeed.
As a former state budget director for seven years and state representative from southeast Ohio for 22 years -- who also chaired the Ohio House Finance Committee for four years -- I've been in the middle of Ohio's school funding debates for the past three decades. In that time I learned that no change is desired by some education leaders more than a change that increases funding in their district. Despite the fact that support for local schools consumes nearly one-quarter of Ohio's general revenue fund, no increase ever seems to be quite enough.
Ohio has more than 600 school districts, making it very hard to craft a formula that pleases everyone -- or even most. At the same time, Ohioans continue to move away from urban and rural areas to the suburbs, and many districts are starting to see rising property values as a result of Ohio's economic recovery. Given these facts, it was surprising that, in response to the governor's comments that his plan gives more money to poor districts and less money to rich districts, some local education leaders complained when they saw estimates that some poor districts would receive the same funds as last year while some suburban and high-wealth districts would receive increases.
The fact is that the governor's plan does exactly what he said it would do: gives poor districts more state money and rich districts less. Poor districts receive far more money per pupil than rich ones, and poor and urban districts receive more of the state's total education funds than rich ones.
Ohio's school finance system allocates state funds according to student enrollment, property tax wealth and residents' incomes, among other factors, so a school district's help from the state goes up or down based on its need. When districts have fewer students or greater property tax value or income, and are therefore more capable of taking care of their own needs, they receive fewer state funds. Conversely, districts with more students or lower wealth need more help, and the state provides it.
The need for reforms to this system is driven home by the fact that more than 400 of Ohio's 611 school districts are receiving more funds than they would if the formula were allowed to distribute funds as intended. In fact, if the formula operated as intended, approximately two-thirds of all districts would receive large, potentially destabilizing funding cuts compared to the amounts they received in previous years. However, the governor shielded districts from such cuts by guaranteeing that no school district receives less than it did last year. While this spares districts the inconvenience of having to face up to reality, it also means that state funds are not completely allowed to go to the places of the greatest need. Districts that are getting larger or poorer don't have all the resources they should receive to help their students achieve.
Sparing all districts from cuts allows them to focus instead on implementing the other, nonfunding changes that the governor's plan proposes, such as identifying and freeing themselves from duplicative or unneeded red tape and pursuing additional, one-time funds through his proposed new $300 million Straight A Fund to finance changes that can help them improve efficiencies and achievement. The potential benefits of these reforms are as great, if not perhaps greater, than any amount of change to the way funds are allocated.
The governor's plan is as well-considered as I have seen, and it lifts barriers and encourages innovation that will help our students succeed. It also reveals how much Ohio's economy is, in fact, improving. Responding to these many changes, in ways that comprehensively meet the overall educational needs of Ohio and its students, is a big lift, but one that I think the governor's plan appropriately takes on and is capable of accomplishing.