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Published: Sunday, 2/5/2012

COMMENTARY

Schools feel state budget cuts

BY WENDY PATTON

Ohio's constitution requires "a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state." It's time for state government leaders to acknowledge that mandate, and for taxpayers and employers to insist that they comply with it.

Over the last century, the Ohio Supreme Court repeatedly has addressed the need for enough funding to underwrite such a system, most recently in the 1997 DeRolph case. Although that case was ultimately unresolved, it focused much-needed attention on school funding. State contributions to public schools increased.

As that investment rose, the high school graduation rate in Toledo Public Schools soared -- from 58 percent in 1997 to 80 percent in 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Graduation rates also increased, if not so dramatically, in other northwest Ohio school districts.

But this year and next, the state will provide $1.8 billion less to schools than in the previous two-year budget. Lawmakers decided not to replace federal stimulus funds that supported school budgets during the recession, and withdrew aid that had been promised when earlier state tax changes diminished local revenues.

To understand the impact of these changes, Policy Matters Ohio surveyed school treasurers and finance officers about district finances. Of Ohio's 613 districts, 28 percent responded, including 26 percent of the 133 districts in northwest Ohio.

In this region and statewide, two of every three school districts face a budget shortfall this year, up from around half last year. The number of districts that expect a revenue gap of more than 5 percent has tripled statewide, and quadrupled in northwest Ohio.

School districts that anticipate deep fiscal distress have expanded beyond the low-income rural communities of past years. They now include most types of districts -- urban, rural, and suburban; low, median, and high-income.

Survey respondents said they planned to freeze and cut employee pay, reduce benefits, and downsize staff. The impact on students is clear: With fewer teachers in the classroom, administrators must consolidate and class size grows. This can make it harder to provide strong classroom management, high-quality teaching, and individual attention.

Students will feel the effects in other ways. Statewide, 44 percent of school districts that responded said they will reduce spending on materials, supplies, and equipment (51 percent in northwest Ohio), 38 percent will allow class size to grow (41 percent in the northwest), and 15 percent will reduce course offerings (17 percent in the northwest).

Almost 19 percent of districts expect to institute pay-to-play plans for extracurricular activities such as athletics (17 percent in the northwest). Students from families that can't pay won't play.

School districts are not flocking to the ballot for relief. Almost three-quarters of respondents had no plans to float a levy this year (71 percent in northwest Ohio), and 62 percent had not gone to the ballot since 2008 (65 percent in the northwest). Going to the polls is risky; if a levy doesn't pass on the first try, the odds get worse with subsequent attempts.

Voters generally rejected requests for new money last November. This may discourage attempts this year, leaving many districts with insufficient revenue.

Statewide, almost 27 percent of responding districts expect to be at some level of official fiscal distress this year -- fiscal caution, fiscal watch, or fiscal emergency -- compared with 6 percent today. Among northwest Ohio districts, 24 percent said they will be in official fiscal distress.

The Ohio constitution and related court rulings confirm that our state well understands the importance of investing in education. We have a choice: Ohio can become a state where pay-to-play is common and class size grows, or we can restore needed funding.

If we do the right and smart thing by reinvesting in schools, we can pay for that by reducing tax expenditures, restoring top income-tax levels, and reinstating the recently eliminated state corporate profits tax.

Business leaders and wealthy Ohioans should be demanding good schools that build a high-quality work force and strengthen the economy for all, instead of lobbying for more tax favors.

Wendy Patton is senior project director of Policy Matters Ohio, a not-for-profit research organization that examines the effect of economic issues on working families.



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