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Published: Saturday, 7/13/2013

COMMENTARY

Ohio schools’ coping with fund cuts is a mission impossible

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Ohio's public schools are done, finished, kaput. It gives me no pleasure to diagnose public education in the state this way. My kids are public school students.

But Ohio interprets its constitutional duty to “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state” to mean: It’s up to individual districts to manage. The state’s commitment to fund its public school system adequately is a joke.

Lawmakers fiddle with the school funding model — ruled unconstitutional three times by the Ohio Supreme Court — while school districts across Ohio struggle to survive.

To extricate themselves from tight budget spots, local schools are forced to live with cutbacks, layoffs, larger classes, reduced course offerings, less classroom material, and more pay-to-play activities. The sad story is replayed over and over in districts throughout the state.

Ohio public schools, preparing for the 2013-14 school year, have taken a huge blow to the bottom line. The double punch from state and federal governments has districts on the ropes again.

The federal sequester — the automatic, across-the-board cuts in spending dreamed up by politicians who couldn’t agree on a federal budget — will hit our public schools hard. The cuts will erase almost $66 million in federal aid to Ohio schools that was primarily slated for poor students and those with special needs.

The bulk of Ohio’s 5.2 percent cut in federal dollars targets Title I grants for at-risk and low-income students, and money from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for students with disabilities.

The state will lose federal grant money for 14 education programs that include helping homeless children, funding preschool education, and improving teacher quality.

Poorer districts, which rely more heavily on federal funding, will, as usual, suffer more than their wealthier counterparts. The Ohio Department of Education says it will offset some of the lost revenue for schools with $19 million in unused federal grant money.

State schools superintendent Richard Ross issued a statement that said: “While school districts in Ohio have anticipated and planned for these federal reductions in funding, we felt it was important to do all we could to ease the impact and lessen the effect those cuts will have on schools and the students they serve.”

The news of what sequestration cuts would cost Ohio public schools came a day after Gov. John Kasich signed the state’s new two-year budget. It provides some increases in state aid to schools, but does not restore severe cuts that were made two years ago.

Also missing in the budget are details about how much of the funding bump to districts will be siphoned off by charter schools. What, if anything, was communicated about the pending federal cuts to education to state lawmakers is unclear.

But surely lawmakers who made budget decisions were aware that Ohio schools stood to lose federal funding. Even if they didn’t know the exact amount, they knew — or should have known — that it was coming. They should have considered the impact when they carved out income tax cuts and generous business tax exemptions.

Republicans who run the Statehouse — and who approved $2.7 billion in net tax cuts — understood it’s up to individual districts to meet federal and state education mandates, even if federal and state money dries up. That’s why local schools harangue voters about property tax levies.

It took nine elections for the school district in which I live to pass a five-year emergency operating levy that just gives budget crunchers room to breathe. After the federal cuts in Title I grants and special-education funding kick in, how will districts that are barely getting by cope with the added costs?

School funding cuts made in Mr. Kasich’s first budget haven’t been replaced. Vital revenue that supports public services, such as education, will be lost to politically expedient tax breaks for the affluent.

To pay for a 50 percent tax deduction for the first $250,000 a year in net income for small businesses (read: wealthy investors, partners in law firms, etc.), GOP lawmakers will increase future taxes on homeowners by more than 12 percent. Try passing school levies without benefit of property tax rollbacks.

Ohio public schools manage, but they’ve cut operations to the bone. To cut any more would be a mission impossible.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at:

mjohanek@theblade.com



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