When Statehouse leaders are done with the back-patting over making the “largest investment in public education in a decade,” they may want to consider that Ohio’s school districts remain in a financial bind for which the legislature has yet to provide a long-term remedy.
Under the new spending plan, state aid for public education will increase from $6.3 billion to $6.6 billion this fiscal year and to $7 billion in 2015. A funding increase is welcome, especially following the hit to local property tax revenues stemming from the recent recession. Yet welcome as it is, the increase barely begins to make up for deep cuts, roughly $1.6 billion, schools sustained in the previous budget. As the Columbus Dispatch has noted, the new funding level represents an increase of 1 percent in 2014 and 7 percent in 2015 over the level in 2009. Consider, too, federal “sequester” cuts of nearly $66 million announced this week, and the picture grows grim for school districts struggling to balance their budgets. State officials pledge to make up $19 million, less than one-third of the loss.
More disturbing still, a review of the budget provisions shows that lawmakers essentially have given with one hand and taken away with the other. Yes, state aid is up marginally in this budget, but the state no longer is reimbursing schools for business taxes that have been phased out, shorting schools roughly $620 million a year.
Further, for new levies, the state has canceled the 12.5 percent subsidy in property tax relief that makes school levies a little less burdensome for homeowners. Given that the state funding formula still relies heavily on local property taxes for operating funds, it is exceptionally galling for Keith Faber, the Senate president, to counsel against passing local property tax levies because they are not a “good thing.” The increase in state aid in the budget he touts does not make it unnecessary for school districts to seek local tax revenues.
The budget legislation is a mixed bag in other aspects, particularly for traditional public schools. For instance, the budget imposes a cap on funding increases and applies it to traditional school districts and not charter schools, resulting in $1.3 billion less to public schools than a fully funded formula would require. Funding decisions like that generally favor charter schools — and often some of the worst performers, at that. As Doug Livingston, the Beacon Journal education writer, revealed Sunday in an analysis of state data, the new budget directs the highest increase per pupil to Cleveland’s Invictus High School, which has the lowest academic rating, Academic Emergency.
With this budget, lawmakers begin, commendably, to repair the damage to school finances. They have yet to meet the order for fair and adequate funding set by the Ohio Supreme Court.