What they’re saying: New Ohio school funding budget lauded, criticized by local schools

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Senate Education Committee chair Andrew Brenner calls the budget a win for schools

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

State legislators settled on what is considered a fairer plan, but didn’t commit to fully funding it

Some local school officials are both encouraged and discouraged by the just-completed state budget changes for school funding.

Ohio’s new two-year budget makes K-12 education advocates happy on one hand, because its thorough approach likely solves decades-long constitutionality problems with Ohio school funding.

On the other hand, lawmakers removed the Fair School Funding Plan’s language for a six-year funding phase-in. Legislators could potentially decline the plan’s funding increases in future two-year budget cycles, leaving only the principles in place, without the money.

“There’s always going to be tweaks to any funding formula, but one of the fundamental concerns with this plan going forward is will Ohio have the revenue to continue funding it, and if so, will legislators commit that money to education and not to other priorities,” said Will Schwartz, deputy director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association.

Lakota Schools Treasurer Jenni Logan, who was among a group of school finance officials statewide to be invited to help re-write proposed legislation to fix Ohio’s chronic school funding woes, shares that concern but also sees positives.

“It is disappointing to see that the six-year phase was not included. We need to celebrate this win but continue the effort. There will be necessary tweaks that the new formula will bring us after implementation and our ultimate goal is consistency, predictability and sustainability,” said Logan.

Local money, short term

State funding increases for almost all school districts under the two-year plan, but the increases are not dramatic — just 0.1% to 3% in the first year for most. Among 44 local districts, the median increase in the first year is about $200,000, and in the second year, it’s about $70,000.

But outliers exist — some districts whose enrollment has risen rapidly or whose state funding had been capped by previous models would see a quick surge. Middletown and Monroe schools each will receive back-to-back increases of $1 million-plus in both years of the budget cycle.

Middletown Schools Treasurer Randy Bertram said “this funding model puts us on more equal footing with our surrounding districts to search and keep top teaching talent, financially be able to provide better services and materials for our students and give us better planning tools for the future knowing what our state revenue will be year after year.”

Holly Cahall, treasurer of Monroe Schools, echoed that positive reaction with a qualifier.

“This is a major step in support of equitable school funding,” said Cahall. “While it is a move in the right direction, I was disappointed it was a temporary commitment for two years but understand the compromise. I still think they crossed a huge chasm, and something we have been fighting to make right for many years.”

The extra money will help local school districts, but for some, state funding is a comparatively small factor, with local property taxes more prominent such as in Mason Schools.

“Mason is nearly flat funded in this budget - our schools receive a 0.03% increase,” said Tracey Carson, spokeswoman for Mason. “This just underscores why we are so grateful for our local voters’ support of our schools since Mason School voters are the ones who primarily fund educating our community’s children. We continue to hope that legislators will fully fund our schools in future years.”

How the plan works

The Fair School Funding Plan was a three-year bipartisan effort that calculated the cost of teachers, busing, special education and other school factors to determine a “base cost” to educate students. It also measures both property and income wealth in each community and uses all that data to calculate state and local funding shares for each school district.

The plan drew broad praise for tackling one of the toughest issues in state government. Advocates of the plan say state funding for K-12 schools would rise by $2 billion over six years if the plan is fully phased-in. Some skeptics believe the cost would be higher.

The $675 million in student wellness and success funding that was introduced in the last budget cycle has been increased to $1.1 billion this cycle.

Private, charter schools

The plan directly funds charter schools, open-enrollment students and those on private-school vouchers, rather than having that money pass through home public school districts first. That’s a provision that nearly all education observers supported.

But there are several other school choice provisions that are more controversial. Thousands of local students attend private schools via state-paid EdChoice vouchers. The budget increases the value of those vouchers from the current $4,650 to $5,500 for kindergarten through eighth grade (an 18% increase), and from $6,000 to $7,500 for high schools (a 25% increase).

The budget also allows charter schools to open anywhere in the state. Previously, they’ve only been able to open in “challenged school districts” that score poorly on state report cards.

Schwartz of OSBA said the changes in voucher funding and eligibility represent a $319 million increase over two years. He questioned whether the state can continue to expand school choice while also appropriately funding the public school districts where 90% of Ohio students attend.

Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy at the pro-school choice Fordham Institute, said this budget proves the state can do just that.

“The legislature soundly rejected the false choice that Ohio needs to choose between supporting public education and empowering families with educational options,” Aldis added. “This budget proves that policy makers can properly fund public schools and schools of choice, and it’s Ohio families who will benefit.”

Other factors

All of these school funding changes come just after schools received a one-time infusion of federal relief money — roughly $15 million in Fairfield, close to $40 million in Middletown and Hamilton.

The budget is an enormous thing. The state’s comparison document, labeled as a “brief” synopsis of each provision, is 999 pages long, so some language is still being examined. School districts have long been required to offer unused school buildings for sale to charter schools. New language says any school where “less than 60% of the building was used for direct academic instruction” qualifies. But Schwartz said schools have no idea how to handle that definition.