COLUMBUS — It’s been a decade since the Ohio Supreme Court issued its fourth and final ruling declaring the state’s funding of schools unconstitutional because it placed students in poorer districts at a competitive disadvantage with their wealthier counterparts.
With that, the high court ended its participation in what had been an 11-year fight.
Each modern-era governor has attempted to put his brand on an ever-changing funding formula. This week, Gov. John Kasich will try to deliver on his promise two years ago to craft his own plan as fellow Republicans dismantled the attempts of his Democratic predecessor.
Mr. Kasich has kept the details close to the vest.
“I’m not sure what all to anticipate, but there will be significant changes, and those will be for the purpose of trying to assist some of the poor districts,” House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina) said last week. He said to expect “a big ball of wax.”
Mr. Kasich has promised his plan will target more funding to classrooms rather than district bureaucracies. He’s promised that state aid will follow students if they forsake traditional public schools for charter schools or voucher-assisted private and religious schools.
He’s expected to continue to move more toward tying teacher pay to performance, a process begun in the current two-year budget and continued with a law reforming Cleveland’s public schools last year. The plan will also likely direct new state dollars toward programs for both gifted and learning-challenged students.
And, as his predecessors before him, he has promised to address the age-old criticism framed in those 1997-2002 DeRolph school funding court decisions: local school districts’ disparate abilities to raise revenue from property taxes.
“I want the child — no matter where they live, no matter what the wealth is in their district — to be able to compete effectively with a child in every other district…,” Mr. Kasich said last month. “Everybody deserves a chance.”
Much of Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland’s second two-year budget passed in 2009 was spent building the “evidence-based” model: the number of teachers needed per subject, classroom sizes, all-day kindergarten, and other things that it purportedly takes to maintain a “thorough and efficient system of common schools” as required by the Ohio Constitution.
It took legislative Republicans just a couple of votes to repeal that model after they retook power in Columbus; the plan was never fully funded anyway.
“The evidence-based model was not real. It’s hard to dismantle something that’s not real,” said state Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), a former teacher who was in the House at the time.
State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee and another former teacher, said the fact that it took two years for Mr. Kasich to develop his plan shows it wasn’t a priority.
“It should have been,” she said. “It seems like the priority has been to take away local funds and control and set up different systems that actually do take away the local voices of the community.”
Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko has ridden the waves of state policy over the years.
“It’s excruciating,” he said. “There is a lot of frustration for us, as administrators, in dealings with the ups and downs with the changes in regulations regarding schools and the mandates coming down from Columbus.”
Mr. Kasich will follow his school-funding announcement with his second general budget proposal for the next two years on Feb. 4.
His first, a $55.8 billion, two-year spending blueprint, was tough on schools. Faced with a budget hole estimated by multiple sources at nearing $8 billion, the budget knife carved about $1.6 billion from primary and secondary education over the biennium.
Mr. Pecko said schools have been operating under a “bridge formula” ever since, making long-term financing projections difficult.
If state funding is reduced again, TPS may face a double whammy: its operating levy is up for renewal, and if that fails at the same time state aid is cut, the effect on the administration would be “very devastating,” Mr. Pecko said.
To a large extent, the 2012-2013 cuts resulted from Ohio’s decision not to replace expiring federal “stimulus” dollars designed to keep schools afloat and teachers at work during the recent economic recession’s depths. But state officials also opted to simultaneously forge ahead with, and accelerate the pace of, weaning districts off revenue from a pair of business taxes that were phased out in Ohio’s last major tax overhaul of 2005.
“We’ve seen a lot of cutting back and eliminating of programs,’’ said Barbara Shaner, associate executive director of the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, representing district treasurers and business managers.
“If you talk to employee organizations, they’ll say how many fewer teachers we have,” she said. “Some of those might have been the right decision in terms of paring down … but, generally speaking, we have to all agree that we’ve tightened our belts and we’ve really started cutting into the bone.”
This time, the school-funding situation is not expected to be nearly as dire. In a video interview with the Wall Street Journal last week while he spoke at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Mr. Kasich predicted that Ohio could end its current fiscal year with a $1 billion surplus.
But Mr. Kasich is also planning to tackle tax reform in this budget, including an attempt to address personal income tax rates that he has often said are too high, particularly for small businesses.
Another unknown is what role the new casino gambling revenue targeted to schools will play. The Ohio Department of Taxation recently distributed $38 million in wagering tax revenues from the first months of casino operations in Toledo, Cleveland, and Columbus. A fourth is scheduled to open March 4 in Cincinnati.
“This should not be looked at to take away state aid and supplant it with casino money. I don’t think that’s fair,” said Mr. Gardner, new chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee’s education subcommittee.
Local school officials have been given little inkling of what Mr. Kasich will propose, although they’ve heard plenty of rumors.
“That’s the in-the-dark part,” Sylvania Superintendent of Schools Brad Rieger said. “Because we haven’t been involved, everyone is trying to pick up what’s coming out of the governor’s office. But none of us know.”
He said he hopes the Kasich administration will be open to considering changes once the formula is revealed.
Washington Local Schools administrators declined to comment, saying to do so would be premature.
Perrysburg Superintendent Tom Hosler said that while he believes Mr. Kasich “wants schools to succeed,” there has been a guarded approach to developing the funding system with few outside voices at the table.
“No one knows what’s coming,” he said, comparing it to the uncertainty of the recent “fiscal cliff” debates in Washington.
Every governor, he said, wants to be the “education governor,” but the constant change in leadership provides instability, such as with a sports team that frequently replaces its head coach. “When you have that kind of constant turnover, it doesn’t provide a lot of leadership,” he said. “We need that more than ever.”
He said he hopes Governor Kasich will “seize the moment.”
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.
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