COLUMBUS — Gov. John Kasich’s school funding proposal rolled out today targets more aid for poorer school districts, expands funding for charter schools and access to vouchers to attend private schools, and dangles $300 million in one-time carrots before schools to innovatively break the public education mold.
Basic aid to schools would increase 6 percent in the first year of the two-year budget and 3.2 percent in the second, but the Kasich administration warned that guaranteeing that none of Ohio’s 613 school districts will get less money from one year to the next in the long term is unsustainable .
“We chose to keep the guarantee in, because we know we’re really challenging districts for improvement…” said Barbara Matteri-Smith, assistant policy director for education. “To work with all the challenges we have, fiscal flexibility was also necessary.”
But while the plan does not cut basic subsidies to schools, neither does it provide the restorative funding sought by Democrats to undo the severe cuts schools suffered in the current two-year budget. Mr. Kasich has technically boasted that his administration increased state basic aid in 2012 and 2013, but schools still suffered major pain from the simultaneous loss of one-time federal stimulus dollars during the recession and by the state’s continued weaning of schools off revenue from a pair of now defunct taxes.
In his second budget proposal, Mr. Kasich offers additional funding for schools to help implement a new law prohibiting the promotion of a third-grader who still hasn’t mastered reading and targets additional aid to districts with large numbers of special needs and disabled students and those learning English as a second language.
It also targets support toward programs for gifted students and for students taking college-level courses while still in high school.
In all, the amount of state funds funneled through the new basic aid for schools would be $6.2 billion in fiscal year 2014 beginning July 1 and $6.4 billion the following year. Total general revenue spending after factoring in extras like the $300 million Straight A fund would $7.4 billion and $7.7 billion, respectively.
Befitting a plan rolled out during National School Choice Week, Mr. Kasich’s proposal would expand the number of students who could apply for state-funded scholarships, or vouchers, to attend the public, private, or religious schools of their parents’ choice.
Currently, Ohio’s Ed Choice program offers up to 60,000 such scholarships to kids who attend schools that consistently score poorly in state assessments, but the program has so far been dramatically underutilized. Mr. Kasich’s budget proposal would include any student entering kindergarten at any school whose family income is double the federal poverty level. It would add first-graders the second year.
Community or charter schools, public schools freed from many of the regulations on their more traditional brethren, would receive state aid, $100 per pupil, for the first time for their own building needs. Ms. Matteri-Smith noted that charter schools cannot pass their own property tax millage to support bonds for their facilities.
She stressed that the new pools of funding for the voucher and charter school would not come at the expense of local school districts.
The Ohio Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the state’s heavy reliance on local real estate taxes to fund schools unconstitutionally places students in property-poor districts at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in wealthier schools.
The plan unveiled today would take into consideration the amount of money a school district can generate from a single mill of property taxation as well as the income levels of those living in the district. It assumes that all school districts have $250,000 of property value for each pupil in their district, a level only 24 districts currently exceed, and then provide state aid to compensate.
Currently, schools are required to levy at least 20 mills of property taxes, which can raise anywhere from $900 to $14,000 per pupil, depending on the wealth of the district.
“That’s a huge disparity,” Ms. Matteri-Smith said. “A lot of our effort reduces that disparity to ensure all students have equal opportunities for success.”
The second half of the poverty factor provides additional aid to schools where average family income in a district is below the 80 percentile compared to all districts in the state.
Appearing to take a page from President Obama’s Race to the Top program, which dangled cash in front of schools that adopted certain reforms, Mr. Kasich is proposing a $300 million “Straight A” fund for which districts would compete for one-time grants for efforts that would improve education, increase efficiency, and ultimately save money. Local districts, however, would be financially responsible for supporting those new programs going forward.
“We would hope those investment savings would be put back into the classroom for our boys and girls,” said Richard Ross, Mr. Kasich’s director of Century Education. “We don’t want to be dictating to local schools.”
By not dictating what reforms schools must adopt, Mr. Ross said Straight A differs from the Race to the Top program that sent $400 million in federal aid to Ohio for participating schools.
The grant program would be administered by a panel similar to the Third Frontier process that funds research, development, and commercialization efforts in the state.
“The major difference between Straight A and Race to the Top is that we expect it to be sustainable,” Mr. Ross said. “It’s not just an add-on type of grant proposal.”