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Published: 9/9/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

COMMENTARY

School cuts cost Ohio a lot now, more later

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

A new report on schools and money, released between the Republican and Democratic conventions, didn't get the attention it deserved. But it should occupy a central role in Ohio's political debates this fall.

The study by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities raises big questions about the strategy in Columbus of balancing the current state budget largely by slashing $1.8 billion in aid to public schools. It concludes that such practices, in Ohio and other states, have weakened public education in a way that threatens economic recovery and competitiveness.

It's not just a statehouse issue. The school aid dilemma mirrors the campaign debate this year over whether the federal government should reduce its debt almost exclusively by cutting spending, or by taking a balanced approach that also includes revenue increases.

According to the study, Ohio ranks sixth highest among the states in the amount it has cut school aid in 2012; there's $152 less per student this school year than last year, adjusted for inflation. Looked at another way, Ohio's 3.8 percent reduction in per-student spending this year is the nation's seventh largest. By contrast, Michigan ranks 26th on both measures, with a state aid cut of 0.1 percent, or $6 per student, the report says.

Gov. John Kasich argues that his insistence on balancing the two-year budget without raising taxes -- the budget actually cuts taxes for many of Ohio's wealthiest residents -- has created an economic climate conducive to growth and job creation. But the report suggests another side to the story.

"These very deep, damaging cuts make it less likely that Ohio will have the work force it's going to need to succeed in the future," says Phil Oliff, a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the lead author of the study. "You're cutting rungs off the ladder of opportunity for students, because they won't have the skills they need to work their way into the middle class and beyond."

The budget hit that Ohio school districts have taken from the state's disinvestment was a key factor in the layoffs last year of nearly 3,000 teachers across the state. Many districts have had to increase class sizes, reduce services to students, and put reform initiatives -- such as expanded early-childhood programs and longer school days and years -- on hold.

More districts, locally and throughout Ohio, are charging students to play sports and take part in other activities. School officials report opening classrooms this school year with fewer supplies, more out-of-date textbooks, and aging technology. They're spending less on contracts with private vendors, thus reducing contributions to the local economy.

Federal stimulus aid helped stave off such cutbacks for a while, the report notes. But it's gone.

Fiscal shortfalls are compelling a large number of districts with deep needs and stagnant property values -- including Toledo Public Schools -- to ask voters for big tax increases this November, in the face of widespread resistance to new levies. All these things are slowing down the state's economic recovery in the short term and jeopardizing its quality of education in the long term.

Mr. Oliff's report makes clear that the downward trend in Ohio school funding preceded Governor Kasich's tenure. Since 2008, a period that began when Democrat Ted Strickland was governor and includes the Great Recession, the state has cut spending per student by 7.9 percent, or about $329. Both figures are above national norms.

The state has cut its income tax by 21 percent since 2005. It also has made the tax code more favorable to business. Without these changes, the state would have an estimated $2.5 billion in additional revenue each year that could go to schools and other essential services.

Mr. Kasich's next big push will be to cut the income tax even more, again conferring the bulk of the benefits on the richest Ohioans. That isn't the straightest path to widely shared prosperity.

The governor argues frequently, and with some merit, that Ohio's real school funding problem is that too much state aid never reaches the classroom, but is consumed by administrative expenses. He says his school reform proposal will include incentives to districts to share services and cut overhead.

That's appropriate. But the best school aid model in the world won't work if it isn't funded adequately and equitably. State government has ignored that responsibility for years, but the budget problems of so many districts make a solution -- which includes reduced reliance on local property taxes and more, not less, state support -- even more urgent now.

Some critics of teacher unions contend that if Ohio voters had not trounced Issue 2 last year, repealing a state law that would have greatly restricted the collective-bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees, school districts could have slashed their pay and benefit costs without resorting to layoffs. Mr. Oliff responds by citing research showing that teachers' skills are the most important part of a school's contribution to its students' success.

"If the goal is getting a great teacher into every classroom, slashing salaries and cutting funding won't help with recruiting and retaining the best teachers," Mr. Oliff told me.

If Ohioans truly believe that high-quality education is the key to a thriving economy, an ample supply of well-trained workers, and a brighter future for our children, then we need to act on that belief instead of making excuses.

Otherwise, we should prepare to watch other states -- and countries -- pass Ohio by.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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