Ohio House leaders released their makeover of Gov. John Kasich’s school budget plan to sounds of relief last week from school officials. But a pattern is repeating itself. Just as it happened with the governor’s plan, relief is turning into consternation as analysts delve into the funding details. The numbers don’t add up, they say. Appearances (for example, that the House plan would increase overall state funding for K-12 education) are not what they seem.
Granted, the state budget for 2014 and 2015 is a long way from complete, but whether Ohio ends up with a funding system that matches the Statehouse rhetoric about all-around success remains as uncertain as it has been in the past four years.
The continuing numbers game is deeply disappointing in its familiarity. But there is something else only slightly less disappointing in the way the budget-making is shaping up.
Both Kasich and House leaders have played an expectations game, building up anticipation that this time around, things will be different; that they will put schools on firmer footing, providing them adequate means to shine or be hammered for failure.
A newly elected Gov. Kasich in 2011 summarily dumped his predecessor’s funding plan as worthless, suggesting a new model would soon be forthcoming. Meanwhile, a temporary “bridge formula” kept schools in operation. A year passed with no new model in sight. As StateImpact Ohio reported, Rob Nichols, the governor’s spokesman, offered to share some ideas “once we have it right.” Ron Amstutz, chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee and a veteran of a few school-funding battles, interpreted the official-speak at the time: “I think they have discovered that this is not something they can move on as quickly as they had hoped.”
True enough — and a point legislators hope you will keep in mind. As Gerald Stebelton, who heads the House Education Committee, explained last week, it is “really, really difficult” to craft a single formula “when you have 612 school districts and so many different demographics.”
True again, but who said it was going to be easy? We have been at this since 1997.
The Kasich replacement model eventually arrived last month. A good thing is well worth the wait, the saying goes. Fair enough. The trouble is, few people agree the Achievement Everywhere plan got it right, after all.
The House Republican leaders certainly didn’t. They just neutered that long-awaited plan.
For one, the Kasich plan practically wished away a central issue that has driven litigation and Ohio school-budget policies since 1991: How much does it cost to educate a typical student in Ohio and what share of it should be the state’s responsibility?
The response from the Kasich team? “We are not attempting to define, or even propose that we can know, as a state, the correct spending amount that ensures every student in every district will receive just the right amount of teaching and learning for success upon leaving our elementary and secondary schools. …”
But as a state, we do expect every district to achieve a level of success with every student. We do expect from every student the right amount of learning to succeed upon leaving our schools. We are scoring districts for success on performance indicators, achievement gaps and such. We set penalties for lack of success. We demand accountability, threatening schools with closings and educators with firings. Do we do all these without knowing, or attempting to know, and pay for the minimum districts require to achieve the results?
For their part in the expectations game, leaders of the House signaled last year the funding system is fixable. In the spring and summer, with the governor’s plan still a mystery, Amstutz’s committee held a series of meetings and hearings in Columbus and around the state “to promote a shared understanding of the basics of school funding.”
An admirable endeavor, no doubt, that refreshed memories about the many false starts during the past 15 years in funding reform. Still, with all that understanding, the House delivered a plan last week that harks back to a different school-funding basic in Ohio: It is one thing to reach a fair estimate of what schools need to succeed, and quite another to pay for it.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.