COLUMBUS, Ohio — How much does it cost to properly educate Ohio schoolchildren? What percentage of taxpayer dollars should go into classrooms or reading help, counseling or the arts? Should struggling districts get more than comfortable ones? How much more?
All huge questions. All without answers.
Since 2009, Ohio has been effectively without a school funding formula, the equation that answers vexing policy questions and doles out dollars accordingly. The decisions that go into calculating what's paid to Ohio's 613 school districts and 353 charter schools have the potential to affect many Ohioans' tax bills, home values, and the ultimate quality of the education Ohio children receive.
Republican Gov. John Kasich scrapped his Democratic predecessor Ted Strickland's attempt at a solution last year. Kasich made no mention of a replacement during his recent State of the State speech, though an education adviser initially predicted a draft plan could be ready by October 2011.
Damon Asbury, legislative director for the Ohio School Boards Association, said, "I think people realized it was more complicated than originally thought."
During a January forum sponsored by The Associated Press, Kasich said the state has "a long way to go" to prepare the public for the change that's required.
"The solutions lie in more money into instruction, the solutions lie in more parental involvement, so we have to keep working on this," he said. "This is going to take a long time, to get people to where they need to be to understand that there are additional reforms that need to be made."
In the two decades since the Ohio Supreme Court first declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional, many attempts have been made to come up with a workable solution. The high court said Ohio's system relied too heavily on property taxes, which can vary widely between rich and poor districts.
One plan looked to spending by academically successful schools as the benchmark for districts statewide. Another sent a set amount per student to each district, with additional weight given to how many pupils a district had in poverty or in special programs.
Strickland's plan, the so-called "evidence-based model" unveiled in 2009, identified scientifically proven ideas for best teaching students, training teachers, and creating a productive school atmosphere — then mandated that those ideas be phased in over time.
Bill Phillis, who heads the group that brought Ohio's original school funding lawsuit, said Strickland's plan got the state closest to a constitutional approach. It also would eventually have required an extra $5 billion a year once fully phased in — something the state couldn't afford.
"Strickland's evidence-based model was the first real attempt in this state to identify the components of a quality education: What do we have to have in place in school districts?" said Phillis, director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. "It couldn't be funded but the structure was there. If you have a structure, you have a road map to where you need to be."
Asbury said the toughest challenge school districts face is explaining to the public how school funding works and where they get their money. Explaining that there's no formula can be even tougher.
Tensions were high last fall across the state as school boards and teachers defended ballot questions seeking more money. Five of six school bond issues, 11 of 15 bond issues with associated tax hikes, and more than a third of requests to renew or increase existing tax levels were rejected in November.
About 100 more school issues are on the March 6 ballot.
After the latest local tax increase was defeated in the Lake Local School District in northwest Ohio, board member Margene Akenberger expressed frustration: "There's no fat. There's no fluff. What do you have to cut? Meat — that's it. That's all that's left to cut."
Ron Patterson of Millersburg wrote an angry letter to the editor of The Daily Record in Wooster in January, opposing a Triway Local Schools administrator who defended that district's proposed tax hike.
"In my opinion, you should try a job in the real workforce (not your cushy, guaranteed government job) where you don't know today if you'll have a job tomorrow, while someone is begging you to increase your own taxes, yet you can barely pay your own bills," he wrote.
Kelly Weir, who directs budgetary planning at the Ohio Department of Education, said districts today are receiving what they got in 2009, when a formula was last in place, with a few adjustments. Those include a guarantee that no district receive less than in the previous fiscal year, and extra money for those demonstrating excellence. It's called the "bridge formula."
Kasich has signaled his desire for systemic change — and advocated merit-based pay for teachers intended to reduce the $10,571 that Ohio spends per student. During his State of the State speech, he named Cleveland's plan for transforming schools a potential statewide model.
Mayor Frank Jackson, who controls city schools through an appointed board, wants to make performance a key factor in deciding teacher pay and to eliminate seniority in deciding who is laid off in the shrinking district.
Kasich also favors expanded access to charter schools and vouchers, a push teachers' unions who successfully defeated the governor during last year's collective bargaining battle criticize.
Ohio Education Association president Patricia Frost-Brooks criticized Kasich's speech as ignoring the school funding "crisis," brought on by $2.9 billion in education budget cuts last year. Much of that money was made available during the previous budget cycle through federal stimulus dollars.
She said "only the Governor and state legislators can provide the funding and programs for our students to succeed, and they must be held accountable for school cutbacks in so many Ohio communities."
Kasich is considering retaining elements of the evidence-based model in his new formula, most likely to be part of the two-year budget he unveils in 2013.