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Published: Sunday, 4/3/2011

Strengthen public schools

Gov. John Kasich's all-cuts budget would afflict public schools in northwest Ohio and across the state in distressing and mutually reinforcing ways. The governor's education proposals should give even lawmakers of his own Republican Party pause — and the resolve to seek a better-balanced approach.

Mr. Kasich would slash state school aid by nearly $1 billion over the next two fiscal years, at a time when districts such as Toledo Public Schools must cope with local property-tax bases that remain eroded and the expiration of federal stimulus money. At the same time, he would divert more than a half-billion dollars from public schools to an unnecessarily broad expansion of tax-funded voucher programs and private charter schools.

As the Kasich administration belatedly acknowledged last week, the budget plan would reduce net state funding of school districts in this area by as much as 28 percent. It would give some districts throughout Ohio small aid increases through the state's basic funding formula. But it would seize an estimated $1.1 billion in business and utility tax reimbursements that schools had counted on.

The budget proposal takes districts' wealth, or lack of it, into some account. TPS would endure a relatively small percentage cut — about 7 percent. But that still amounts to $15 million less for a district that faces a projected $37.7 million revenue shortfall in the next school year.

Given the state's own estimated $7.7 billion revenue gap, painful reductions in school aid are inevitable. But the drastic cuts Mr. Kasich proposes would virtually force school districts to seek local tax increases, lay off teachers, increase class sizes, close schools, gut vital instructional programs, or do all of these things.

Schools can and should operate more efficiently by doing such things as sharing services and expenses, as Mr. Kasich asserts. But even the most cost-effective districts could not readily offset the kinds of reductions he expects them to absorb.

As he proposes an overdose of austerity for public schools, the governor wants to lift the current ceiling on the number of charter schools in Ohio and increase the number of private-school vouchers funded by the state from 14,000 a year to 60,000 by 2013. Both initiatives are, if not misguided, then at least ill-timed.

The appealing promise of charter schools, public or private, is that in exchange for relief from many of the rules that govern traditional public schools, they will produce better results and generate educational competition. But the actual performance and lack of accountability of too many of Ohio's 300-plus charter schools do not warrant the expansion Mr. Kasich seeks.

Advocacy groups such as Policy Matters Ohio and Innovation Ohio note that most charter schools in the state have done no better, and often worse, than traditional public schools. In Toledo, a company that ran a charter school the state closed because of poor academic performance has opened a different school in the same building with a different name, but many of the same teachers.

Vouchers allow students to take some or all of the money that public schools would spend to educate them and apply it to tuition at a private or religious school. The Ohio Educational Choice Program offers vouchers to students who attend failing public schools — as much as $4,250 a year for grade-school students and $5,000 for high school students.

Such amounts often are not enough to cover private-school tuition. So vouchers tend to benefit middle-class families that can make up the difference more than poorer households that cannot.

As with charter schools, the academic results of voucher programs are at best mixed. And the question of whether public tax dollars should support private institutions in this fashion deserves robust debate on its own.

Public schools educate 90 percent of Ohio's children. These schools cannot turn students away because they are hard to educate. The Ohio Supreme Court repeatedly has declared unconstitutional the state's method of funding public schools, without remedial action by the other branches of state government.

Governor Kasich and the General Assembly need to find ways to pay for Ohio's public schools more adequately and fairly, even in — especially in — tough economic times. Ohio's future is at stake.

Balancing the state budget on the backs of public schools and their students, and trying to minimize that shell game with appeals to untested educational "reforms," won't get the job done.



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