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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Reduce burden on local schools

BY RANDY GARDNER

State lawmakers must reduce the burden of unfunded mandates on local schools.

As sponsor of the School Mandates Relief Act that is on Gov. John Kasich's desk, I want to explain why so many of us in the General Assembly voted for this bill and why we believe it is the right action to take to support our schools.

The current two-year state budget reduced aid to local schools by $500 million. Over the next two years, schools throughout Ohio will lose more than $1.9 billion in federal funds. How can we expect school districts to pay for new mandates from Columbus?

My legislation does not reduce state aid to schools by one dime. It maintains the model for distributing school funds established by former Gov. Ted Strickland, and keeps other reforms that gained bipartisan support in the last state budget bill.

But that bill went too far, adding actual and prospective mandates on local schools that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out. It required all schools in Ohio to pay for all-day, every-day kindergarten, and to reduce class sizes eventually in first through third grades.

The law also allowed the state superintendent of public instruction to impose financial penalties against school districts that failed to spend money according to the rules the superintendent created.

A study by the Ohio Department of Education concluded that the kindergarten mandate alone would cost Ohio school districts $205 million. The class-size mandate would cost even more.

Without my bill, three options were available to lawmakers and school boards to pay for the mandates: State taxes could increase, provided the state actually reimbursed districts for the new spending. Local property taxes could rise. Or schools could lay off teachers or close down other classes and programs to free up money.

There is no support in the Statehouse for tax increases in this still-difficult economy. Why, then, should lawmakers force local tax hikes or teacher layoffs to impose a Columbus-knows-best philosophy on school districts?

Why not instead allow local schools to decide whether they can pay for these mandates, as they pursue the best education strategy for the children they serve?

Some critics contend my bill will end Ohio's commitment to education reforms such as all-day kindergarten and smaller classes.

What commitment?

The so-called evidence-based model is an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion out of balance. Commitment without the cash is no commitment.

As our state faces an $8 billion budget shortfall, it only makes sense to give local schools more freedom to make decisions. This is not about kindergarten; I believe there is measurable value in all-day kindergarten programs.

Yet I also believe it is unfair to impose a new mandate that could cost other teachers their jobs or require higher local taxes.

Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) represents the 6th District in the Ohio House of Representatives.



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