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Ohio lawmakers to discuss the Fair School Funding Plan, but what is it?
By Sarah Szilagy,
COLUMBUS, Ohio ( WCMH ) – As Ohio’s operating budget works through the many rooms of the Ohio Statehouse, one area of funding is on the minds of lawmakers, teachers and citizens alike: primary and secondary education.
At the center of the discussion is the Fair School Funding Plan, developed by former Ohio House speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) and former Rep. John Patterson (D-Jefferson). Oft-referred to as the Cupp-Patterson plan, it aims to redress the state’s multiply ruled unconstitutional way of allocating funds to school districts.
The largest issue in funding highlighted by both lawmakers and courts is the calculated base cost, which is a per-student calculation of what is needed to provide an “average child” with a high-quality education.
“Ohio’s current base cost amount has no discernible relationship to any objective criteria for determining an appropriate per student funding level,” wrote Cupp and Patterson in their Fair School Funding Plan report in 2019.
The bipartisan plan, which passed the House in 2020 but failed to reach the governor’s desk, was intended to be phased in over six years. With the bill lacking legal enforceability, the state legislature is left to implement the spirit of the plan when passing the budget.
State lawmakers are slated to discuss the Fair School Funding Plan at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Ahead of the meeting, here’s an overview of Ohio’s school funding, what the plan’s authors intended – and how the proposed education budget stacks up.
Crumbling buildings, computer classes: When the courts ruled Ohio’s school funding unconstitutional
“Our state Constitution was drafted with the importance of education in mind. In contrast, education under the legislation being reviewed ranks miserably low in the state’s priorities.”
In a lengthy and at times scathing opinion, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Francis Sweeney Sr. wrote in 1997 that Ohio’s funding formula for school districts violated the state’s constitution. The court ruled that the formula, which based the majority of school district funds on local property taxes, failed to fulfill the requirement that the legislature secures a “thorough and efficient system of common schools” through adequate funding.
Most egregious to the court was the state’s underfunding of facility improvements and its School Foundation Program, which made up the bulk of school funds and, through various funding factors, disenfranchised rural and low-income school districts.
In addition to the per-student base cost, the foundation program included a cost-of-doing-business calculation, a factor calculated by county instead of individual district that assumed it costs less to operate a school in rural areas than urban areas. The legislature also considered special factors, including costs for vocational education, art and other programs, and transportation, but it excluded the relative wealth of each district.
The court found the state’s funding plan left school districts across the state – including in Youngstown, Lima and other suing municipalities – with failing plumbing, coal-dusted classrooms and crumbling ceilings. The only recourse ailing districts had was to plead with taxpayers to pass levies or be forced by the state to borrow money, often creating a cycle of debt that made it “more difficult to maintain even minimal school operations.”
The court deemed the foundation program, underfunding of facility costs and mandated borrowing at odds with the Ohio constitution, leaving local districts on the hook for money the state is obligated to provide.
“By our decision today, we send a clear message to lawmakers: the time has come to fix the system,” Sweeney wrote. “Let there be no misunderstanding. Ohio’s public school financing scheme must undergo a complete systematic overhaul.”
The state’s highest court would go on to rule Ohio’s school funding unconstitutional several more times, but it repeatedly affirmed that state lawmakers were responsible for creating a fair funding model, not the court.
How does the Fair School Funding Plan resolve constitutional concerns?
Developed alongside school district superintendents, treasurers and educators, Cupp and Patterson’s plan focuses on correcting the base cost amount, mitigating poverty, boosting transportation, and providing adequate resources for disabled students, English learners and high-achieving, “gifted” students.
Under the plan, the base cost amount per student considers a wide range of factors, including:
Instructional costs, including teacher salaries and benefits
Safety and security
Basic social and emotional support
Technology and internet connectivity
“This work group really looked at all the districts across the state to come up with a number that really made sense, that was tied to reality and not just simply the political whims of the legislature,” said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association.
The plan explicitly states the base cost does not include the costs of special education, English language learning, transportation, career-technical education and addressing poverty – but emphasizes that the state must give special attention and funds to those areas.
A subgroup on poverty recommended an unspecified increase in funding per student to address poverty’s impact on education, with additional funds to go to high-poverty districts. It also recommended a study be done to determine what academic, emotional and social services are best suited to address child poverty and whether those services can be implemented in schools.
Does Ohio’s proposed education budget meet the fair funding plan’s recommendations?
With broad support from the Ohio Department of Education, the budget proposed by Gov. Mike DeWine incorporates some aspects of the plan while promising to continue its phasing-in.
More than $22 billion in state funds is allocated for education over fiscal years 2024 and 2025 under the budget proposal, with the department getting nearly $666 million more from the state next year than in fiscal year 2023. Still, total investment in the Department of Education is down from a peak in fiscal year 2023 with the end of multiple COVID-19-related federal funding programs.
Budget provisions include $100 million to start new career-technical programs in the state, nearly $175 million to address declining literacy rates, over $26 million in teacher development and almost $400 million to employ a school resource officer in all schools. The budget also increases funds for charter schools (which the state refers to as community schools), transportation, and IT development and support.
At a February committee hearing on the budget, Stephanie Siddens, interim superintendent of the Department of Education, praised the proposed budget, making special note of expanded funds for career-technical education, dyslexia screenings and literacy intervention.
“I believe we must stay laser-focused on four key areas: literacy, learning acceleration, workforce readiness and student wellness,” Siddens said. “Gov. DeWine and Lt. Gov. [Jon] Husted’s budget recognizes these priorities and dedicates significant resources to improve outcomes for all of Ohio’s students.”
DiMauro agreed that the proposed budget prioritizes many educational needs, including boosted career-technical education programs and student wellness resources. He said the OEA also supports funds for student resource officers, especially if it occurs in place of teachers possessing firearms. But he noted multiple areas where the budget falls short of Cupp and Patterson’s funding vision, particularly in the outdated calculations used to determine the base cost amount.
The state uses calculations from 2018 that estimate the per-student base cost of education to be $7,349.22. Those pre-pandemic calculations need to be updated, DiMauro said, especially with regard to educator and school staff salaries and the costs of renovation and repair.
“We know that with inflation, there have been increases in cost that school districts face,” DiMauro said.
The budget also does not meet the plan’s aim to increase state funds for special education, in fact decreasing funding for special education enhancements to $178.85 million next year from this year’s $185.85 million. And although the department will get additional money year-over-year for English language learning programs, that funding is federal, not state.
“This is the single most important investment that our state can make, investing in the future of every single one of our students attending public schools to ensure every child, regardless of zip code, regardless of their family income or background, regardless of their race or gender, has what they need in order to be successful,” DiMauro said.
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