When Gov. John Kasich first outlined his plan to reform Ohio public school funding, there was hope it would lead to a more equitable, more adequate system. As details of the proposal have emerged, that hope largely has been dashed.
The promise was clear: “If you are poor, you’re going to get more; if you’re richer, you’re going to get less,” the governor told a meeting of school leaders from across the state this year. “No school district will receive less money than last year.”
When the numbers came out, poor urban districts such as Toledo Public Schools did not receive less. But in general, the state’s better-off suburban districts got richer, while many low-income districts got relatively poorer.
Mr. Kasich’s plan rewards charter schools, physical and online, out of proportion to their performance. State aid to charters would increase by at least $35 million — and maybe a lot more — from the current two-year budget.
The governor wants to extend the Ed Choice voucher program as well. Kindergarten students whose families earn as much as twice the poverty level would be included next year; that proposal would expand to include first graders the following year. He also wants to give vouchers to students in kindergarten through third grade whose districts consistently fail to meet his third-grade reading guarantee.
Under the plan, thousands more students could transfer to private and charter schools, reducing any positive impact of the funding overhaul on poorer, lower-performing districts such as TPS. Yet according to the progressive think tank Innovation Ohio, the academic performance of charter schools, with a few exceptions, often is worse than that of traditional public schools.
The governor’s school-funding proposal is creating uncertainty. How many students will transfer to higher-performing traditional schools, private or parochial schools, brick-and-mortar charters, or virtual academies? No one knows, so neither the winners nor the losers in the voucher sweepstakes can plan on how much money they’ll gain or lose.
The Kasich administration says the promise that districts whose enrollments are declining won’t get less money year to year is ultimately unsustainable. That means many schools should expect to get less in future years.
Ohio public schools lost an estimated $1.3 billion to $1.8 billion in state aid in the current budget. Many districts can’t afford to lose any more. Yet districts such as TPS, which have struggled to pass levies, may find that they soon will have to appeal to voters again.
More than 100 superintendents of poor rural school districts descended on Columbus recently to argue that the governor’s school-funding formula would hurt their students. It also likely would accelerate the exodus from poor urban districts such as TPS. Superintendents of some wealthier suburban districts even sounded embarrassed when details of Mr. Kasich’s plan revealed how much more they would benefit.
The governor gets an “A” for his effort to circumvent the basic problem with public school funding in Ohio: an unconstitutional over-reliance on local property taxes. But he gets much lower grades for fairness, effectiveness, and transparency.
School funding is not primarily an exercise in free-market economics. It’s time to go back to the drawing board.
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