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Published: Sunday, 7/21/2013

Commentary

New state budget does little for struggling schools

The budget places even more pressure on local property tax bases to pay for schools

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

Like explosives-sniffing dogs in a minefield, experts who analyze Ohio’s new budget are finding destructive devices nearly everywhere they search.

There are the obvious bombs, such as the Republican-controlled General Assembly’s refusal to expand Ohio’s Medicaid program of low-income health insurance and to increase the state severance tax on fracked oil and natural gas — both reasonable priorities of GOP Gov. John Kasich.

The new two-year budget distorts state tax policy to redistribute wealth to the richest Ohioans from less well-off families. Lawmakers and the governor use a fiscal blueprint to wage war against Ohio women, by imposing harsh new restrictions on reproductive freedom.

But the budget includes more-subtle improvised explosive devices as well, such as its revised formula to distribute state aid to Ohio public school districts. The formula does little to improve the adequacy of school funding, as it fails to restore fully the massive cuts in state support in the previous budget.

It diverts money to for-profit charter schools and private-school vouchers from the traditional public schools that still educate the great majority of Ohio’s schoolchildren. And it continues to ignore an Ohio Supreme Court order to state government to find a better, fairer way to pay for public schools.

Who says so? It isn’t just teachers’ unions that you would expect to oppose just about everything the Republican governor and legislature do. You also hear concerns expressed by organizations with such sober-sounding names as the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials.

During a visit to Toledo last week, leaders of these associations made clear they aren’t out to pick a fight with Mr. Kasich and lawmakers. But the numbers they offer in their analysis of the new budget, prepared by the nonpartisan Education Tax Policy Institute, speak for themselves.

Still short

First, the bottom line: The school funding formula in the new budget provides more than $15 billion in state aid over the next two years. That’s an increase of $831 million over the previous budget, and more than Governor Kasich’s proposed budget would have offered, as Republican lawmakers will proudly tell you.

What they neglect to point out is that the new formula aid figure is still $607 million less than in the 2010-11 budget, before the largest recession-induced cuts in state and federal funding took effect. The new budget cuts taxes by $2.7 billion over three years, and stashes nearly $1.5 billion in the state rainy-day fund, but won’t make schools whole.

“The new funding formula doesn’t make up for [school districts’] losses statewide,” says Michelle Francis, deputy director of legislative services for the state school boards association. “We still don’t have equity. We appreciate the investment in education, but there’s room for improvement.”

In fiscal 2015, the second year of the new budget, the state’s poorest rural school districts will get $5,846 in formula aid per student, an increase of 8.1 percent from the second year of the previous budget. The wealthiest suburban districts will get just $1,854 per student in state aid — but their hike from the last budget will amount to a 14.2 percent increase, nearly twice as much as for the hard-pressed rural systems.

Closer to home: During fiscal 2015, Toledo Public Schools is slated to get $6,729 in state aid per student. That’s an increase of almost 6 percent over fiscal 2009, and the highest amount of any school district in northwest Ohio, according to the tax policy institute’s analysis.

Sounds good. But since fiscal 2009, inflation has risen in northwest Ohio by about 8.6 percent, and will increase even more in the next two years. So the higher complement of state aid to TPS won’t even keep pace with the rising cost of living.

And the percentage increase in per-student funding is twice as high in several more-affluent suburban Lucas County districts — Maumee and Oregon — as it is for TPS. Since the measure is funding per student, declining enrollment in Toledo doesn’t account for this apparent lack of equity.

Need to ‘tweak’

“Do we need to make some adjustments to the formula, driving funds where they need to go?” asks Barbara Shaner, associate executive director of the school business officials’ association. “That’s what we’re looking at — whether the formula will need to be tweaked as time goes on.”

TPS is preparing to ask the district’s voters to renew a millage for school operations this November, just as the new budget starts to eliminate a longtime state subsidy of homeowners’ local property tax bills. Although the change does not affect current levies, it soon will force districts across Ohio to rely even more on property taxes, as voters are increasingly reluctant to approve millage requests.

“There’s a definite shift in the tax burden,” Ms. Shaner says. “It’s going to make it much harder for districts to pass levies.”

The new budget creates yet another voucher program, ostensibly to promote Governor Kasich’s “guarantee” that all Ohio students will be able to read before they’re promoted from third grade.

The budget also expands funding of charter schools, while it continues to shortchange traditional schools.

Vouchers supposedly give impoverished students the opportunity to attend a private school as an alternative to a bad neighborhood public school. But now they will be available to families making as much as $46,000 a year, and to students who attend even high-rated public schools.

Governor Kasich is right when he asserts that local school districts can and should do more to save money by sharing services and combining business operations, even if they’re not ready to engage in broad-scale consolidation. Thomas Ash, director of government relations for the school administrators’ association, notes that many districts already are doing that, out of economic necessity.

But the state’s persistent underfunding, and skewed funding, of Ohio’s public schools are also forcing districts to do less-positive things: laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting academic programs.

That’s something for Ohio voters to think about during the next statewide political campaign, when candidates for governor and the General Assembly will assure us how much they love kids.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade. 

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1



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